World News

Myanmar cyclone survivors rely on handouts, struggle on

PAY KUNHNASAY, Myanmar (Reuters) - Six months after Cyclone Nargis slammed into army-ruled Myanmar, killing more than 130,000 people, many in the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta continue to rely on handouts to stay alive.

People look out from their hut, built of tarpaulin and bamboo, located on the swamp of Pay Kunhasay village, Kawhmu Township, October 28, 2008. REUTERS/Aung Hla Tun

“We get rice and beans from a charity called Care Myanmar, drinking water from the sky and fish from this creek,” said Maung Oo, a swarthy 51-year-old, as he stared at monsoon floodwaters lapping against his makeshift bamboo and tarpaulin hut.

Around the village, 40 km (25 miles) south of Yangon, the paddy fields are under water and unplanted, casting doubt on assertions from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization that 97 percent of storm-hit parts of the delta -- once the “rice bowl of Asia” -- is under cultivation again.

“We can’t wait to grow our own paddy. We really hate living on charity -- although that is not to say we are not grateful,” Maung Oo said.

“We don’t want to depend on others but to be honest that’s just wishful thinking at the moment because the situation does not allow us to be independent as yet,” he said.

It may be another four weeks before he can start planting, he added.

The rough monsoon season weather in the delta in the last four months has also kept the villagers on edge, every storm stirring up fears of a repeat of the May 2 cyclone that crashed ashore with a 12 foot (4 meter) wall of water.

“We get scared to death when it’s windy so we now keep a radio handy all the time so that we can know the size of the danger by listening to the weather report,” his wife, Ma Nu, said, holding up a basic battery-powered wireless set.

Another farmer, 70-year-old Bo Sein, complained that rice seed handed out for replanting was a mixture of varieties that ripen at different times, making it a nightmare to harvest.

Related Coverage

“Maybe it’s because they came from different sources, but as a result while some plants are ready to harvest others are still not ripe,” he said.


Since Nargis struck, affecting 2.4 million people, nearly 1 million people have received food aid, schools have re-opened, farm animals replaced, and emergency shelter provided to more than 1.7 million people, the main aid coordinating group said.

The Tripartite Core Group, which comprises the United Nations, Myanmar and its regional neighbors, said there was a continued need for relief and longterm support. But only 53 percent of its $484 million aid appeal had been raised so far.

“There are isolated areas which have not been fully reached. Many survivors remain vulnerable, especially in terms of continued access to clean water, adequate shelter and restoring livelihoods,” the group said in a statement.

In the cyclone-hit region, a few new homes built by private donors under the aegis of the ruling military junta have sprung up from the devastation.

In some cases, however, they have gone to those with the best connections, rather than the most pressing needs.

“Not all the needy got houses and not all those who got houses were needy,” said one resident of Latkhitegon, a village south of Yangon that has received ten new wooden homes.

“Five of them had their homes really badly damaged by Nargis. The other five did not suffer that much damage, but they got the houses because they are the VIPs,” the man, who did not wish to be name for fear of reprisals, said.

Thayet Thonebin, a village south of Yangon where half the 340 residents were killed, has fared better in the rehabilitation lottery, receiving 32 new homes courtesy of the Energy Ministry and Malaysian petroleum company Petronas.

However, survivors are still haunted by a sense of shame at relying on handouts and hopelessness at a lack of jobs or prospects.

“We are really ashamed by having to live on the charity all the time. We now have to depend on them for rice,” said laborer Maung Tun.

“People like me have been worst hit. The cyclone has crippled the economy in the entire region and there is very little work for us,” he said.

Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Valerie Lee