Myanmar's Disaster-Displaced Communities Face an Uncertain Future

“We finally feel safe,” Ma San San Aye, a mother of three living in Myanmar’s Saigang Region, tells me as we sit fanning ourselves in the heat outside her new home. In July 2015, unprecedented monsoon rains, fueled by a tropical cyclone, caused flash floods that washed away San San Aye’s former home, along with 83 others in her village. More than one and half million people across the country were displaced in the disaster.

When I visited this northern area of the Saigang Region last September, approximately two months after flash floods swept away Ma San San Aye’s village and numerous others in Kale Township, San San Aye and her neighbors were living in temporary shelters, awaiting mandatory relocation by the government. In Refugees International’s November 2015 field report on the disaster, we urged the government and international agencies to ensure that these displaced communities were sufficiently protected and their rights respected during the relocation process.

Now, one year later, they’ve been relocated away from the river to government-owned land across the main road from their original village and are living in new homes built with support from international donors. San San Aye says her new home is similar in size to the one that washed away, as is the plot of land on which it sits. And they have new latrines as well.

But not everyone is happy with the move. About a mile down the road, we reach another relocation site for displaced villagers from Kale Township. My colleague and I make our way up a steep mountainside along a newly-cleared, rugged dirt road that swells with water and gravel every time it rains. There we visit with two families living at the very top of the relocation site, halfway up the mountain. Aye Ma is 30 years old with two children, ages 7 and 9. Before the family was moved here, they were displaced eight times to different temporary shelters. “It was very bad there!” her seven-year-old daughter piped in. Her neighbor Tin Po Pu, who is 38 years old with three children ages 7, 11, and 13, explained the relocation process. “We drew lots in the village to determine who would get which plots. My husband got a house further down the mountainside, but there were issues between my children and the ones next door.” Tin Po Pu’s son, who is seven years old, has a birth defect which has left him with deformed hands, and because they are unable to afford the necessary operation, he doesn’t attend school. So they moved up to this house. But now they are far from the main road.

For poor rural households like these that rely on whatever odd jobs are available, proximity to a town or main road has a direct impact on their earnings. The destruction to paddy fields, livestock, and other sources of income caused by the floods has deeply impacted employment opportunities, resulting in greater competition for work. Aye Ma complains that when people come to the village seeking day laborers, the people living further down the mountain side near to the main road get work.

In addition, because their new plot is smaller than their original land, they can’t grow as many vegetables in their garden as before, an important source of food and income. It has affected their children as well who now have to walk an hour each way to get to their school, no longer returning home for lunch, as is the tradition here. Tin Po Pu is afraid for her teenage daughter who comes home in the dark following her after school activities.

Despite these challenges, Aye Ma and Tin Po Pu are lucky in many respects compared to others among the hundreds of displaced families that were relocated following the 2015 cyclone, floods, and landslides.  My RI colleague and I visited several displaced communities in Chin State and Saigang Region where no government-owned land was available nearby, forcing the villagers themselves – who are extremely poor to begin with –to buy the land from private landowners, driving them further into poverty and debt.

The quality of the new houses ranges widely, having been built to various standards by the government and local and international donors and agencies. While some have improved latrines, the house sizes and plots of land are smaller in most instances, and access to water is often an issue. In addition, many were moved to new plots of land miles away from their former homes, jobs, schools, and social networks. According to interviews, in neighboring Chin State, lack of available government-owned land for relocation resulted in some communities being relocated long distances from their original homes and livelihoods – in one case, 60 miles from their original village.

During this past monsoon season, Myanmar again experienced severe flooding in many areas (although not as devastating as in 2015). For families in Saigang and Chin that have been relocated to higher ground, the risk of losing their homes, belongings, and lives to floods or landslides is a fear they no longer face – critical in a country that is among the world’s most vulnerable to natural disasters and climate change.

Yet how well relocated communities fare over the long-term is unclear. No doubt there will be winners and losers. With government and donor support for flood-affected communities having already ended or coming to an end later this year, and with no signs of long-term recovery programs that would help displaced communities to restore their livelihoods, there is a very real risk that the relocation itself will end up further impoverishing these displaced families. Without sufficient monitoring and sustained, multi-year support to ensure relocated communities are able to access jobs, schools, water, and other services, relocation threatens to undermine, not enhance, disaster resilience.