Each year, throughout the May to October monsoon season, Myanmar experiences increased rainfall and flooding. This is a part of life. However, in late July and early August 2015 record-level rainfall, worsened by tropical Cyclone Komen, led to unprecedented levels of flooding and subsequent landslides, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency.
Worst affected were the country’s poorest regions, including Rakhine State, which has also been wrought for decades by inter-communal violence. In September, I traveled with a colleague from Refugees International to Rakhine where we met with communities that had lost everything - their houses, possessions, land, and livelihoods.
We spoke with elderly villagers, some aged 75 and above, who said that they had never seen such flooding.
In Mrauk-Oo Township, we met with U Maung who lives with his wife and two children in a village along the river. Before the floods, he and his wife ran a store from the lower level of their house. He described to us how in late July, the flood waters started to rise far faster and higher than their normal rates. U Maung sent his wife and children to a nearby monastery situated on higher ground while he stayed with the house, hopeful that he could somehow protect it from the rapidly rising water and with it, his family’s only source of income. However, when the current became too strong, he was forced to climb onto his neighbor’s roof. From there U Maung watched as his house, along with 22 others in his village, were washed away in less than an hour.
After the waters receded, U Maung returned to find that his house — and the land adjacent to the river on which it stood — had been washed away.
Homeless, and without even land on which to rebuild, U Maung and his family took shelter in their neighbor’s small bamboo hut. Others made homeless by the floods built makeshift shelters in their neighbor’s backyards or moved in with relatives. Without their shop, U Maung’s family remains entirely reliant on humanitarian assistance and whatever food stocks neighbors are able to share.
U Maung hopes to build a new home in his village, but he is unsure how he will be able to raise the funds to purchase new land. There has been no word from the government as to whether he is entitled to new land as compensation for his family’s losses in the disaster. U Maung’s only wish is to recover. “We want to rebuild our lives,” he told us.
Community goodwill and support throughout the emergency stage of the disaster has been tremendous. But such expressions of goodwill and support do not translate into long-term recovery, particularly when many villagers have lost not only their homes and possessions but their means of earning an income as well. In the short-term, donations and cash transfers by national and international aid agencies and private entities have afforded some relief. But when that runs out, flood-affected villagers will have no means of earning a living. Many will resort to taking on more debt — potentially at unconscionable interest rates — in order to survive.
Moreover, it’s not clear whether near- or long-term assistance will be provided by the government, which has yet to release its post-disaster recovery plan. There is a fear that if the government’s recovery plan is too focused only short-term fixes, poor families like U Maung’s will slip deeper into poverty.
Now, more than ever, government and international assistance is needed to help families recover their homes and livelihoods. Rather than restoring only what was lost, humanitarian and development agencies should use the recovery as an opportunity to address the root causes of vulnerability to disasters. Without such assistance, there is a real risk that families like U Maung’s will be forced into negative coping strategies like migration and further indebtedness. There is also a real risk of secondary disasters linked to poor nutrition, sanitation, and food security if assistance is not targeted at building resilience.
The Rakhine community is strong. It can rebuild, and it wants to. But given the extent of the damage from this disaster, it can not do so on its own.
Davina Wadley is a consultant and a former Fellow with Refugees International who accompanied Alice Thomas on her mission to Myanmar.