In Post-Disaster Myanmar, Building Resilient Livelihoods is Key

As Myanmar looks toward a new era of development, building resilient livelihoods for disaster-affected communities must be prioritized.

Davina Wadley is a consultant and former Refugees International fellow who recently traveled to Myanmar with RI to visit flood and cyclone affected villages in Rakhine State, Saigang Region, and Chin State.

During the annual May to October monsoon season, Myanmar experiences low-level flooding, which creates favourable conditions for rice cultivation, Myanmar’s leading crop. However, in July 2015, heavier than normal downpours combined with the arrival of Cyclone Komen created unprecedented flash floods, general flooding, and landslides, a national disaster that affected 12 of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions. An estimated 1.6 million people were displaced and more than 20 percent of Myanmar’s cultivated land was damaged. Refugees International’s December 2015 report on the disaster found that despite the strong outpouring of emergency aid – especially from local organizations and the Myanmar public – the extensive flood damage to agriculture required urgent attention, given that affected communities rely on farming for their food and income.    

In September, Refugees International returned to some of the hardest hit areas in Rakhine State, Sagaing Region, and Chin State to see how communities were recovering a year after the flooding.  

Local and international donors have provided much needed assistance over the last 12 months in terms of meeting some of the basic food, sanitation, and shelter needs of affected households. However, based on interviews with affected villagers, RI remains deeply concerned regarding the minimal support for the restoration of villagers’ livelihoods. The risk is that without targeted investment to allow the most vulnerable communities to recover their livelihoods and assets, they’ll remain dependent on aid or resort to negative coping strategies such as withdrawing children from school, crisis migration, and/or indebtedness.

As the newly elected government gets on its feet and looks toward increased foreign investment and development, the recovery needs of flood-affected communities – and the need to enhance their resilience to future disasters – must not be overlooked.

As the newly elected government gets on its feet and looks toward increased foreign investment and development, the recovery needs of flood-affected communities – and the need to enhance their resilience to future disasters – must not be overlooked. Any investment in livelihood programming, whether focused on restoring agricultural land or creating new livelihood opportunities, should be driven by the needs and concerns of affected communities to ensure that such measures are effective and sustainable in the long term.

Below are a number stories from some of the poor rural communities we visited who a year later, are still struggling to recover from the disaster. 

“We are casual workers, and after the floods, there is less work for us.” In a remote village in the Mimbya Township of Rakhine State, the 2015 floods swept away Zaw’s* family’s small bamboo house, their few belongings, and all of their animals (six chickens and a pig). Since the 2015 floods damaged nearby paddy fields, Zaw and her husband, both casual workers, now face increased competition for whatever work opportunities are available, and their daily wages are half of what they were before the floods. Five months pregnant and the mother of two, Zaw sits with her youngest daughter (pictured) in their reconstructed basic bamboo shelter and explains that, due to the family’s now much-reduced weekly income, Zaw is no longer able to afford the fee to send her youngest child, Yu* (pictured), to school.
“My husband doesn’t live with me and our children because there is no work near our new house.” In the relocated community of Nansawngpoh, in Sagaing Region, Thu* lives with her three children (her youngest is pictured). After the 2015 flash floods swept away her former village, the government has prohibited Thu and her neighbors from returning and, eventually, relocated them here. Now, in search of income for his family, Thu’s husband is forced to live away from the family home, in a tent close to the rice paddies near their old village. Thu explains that following the 2015 floods, it is common for relocated families in her village to live apart in order to try to find work.
“I can’t sleep at night; what will I do if the aid stops?” Zar* and her family have been farmers for generations. Before the 2015 floods and landslides, she and her husband worked on the paddy fields and tended to their eight cows in their isolated village of Tuikhingzang (on the border of Chin State and Sagaing Region). In 2015, the fast flowing flood waters damaged most of the village’s paddy fields and swept five of Zar’s cows away. Now, without the capital to replace the families’ lost cattle or the technical skills to repair the paddy fields, Zar lives in limbo. She is unsure if or how she and her family will recover their livelihoods.
Before the 2015 floods and landslides, villagers living on the river bank in Hla Ta village in Mimbya, Rakhine State, used to grow crops and tend to a scattering of animals around their basic bamboo huts. The 2015 floods and landslides caused a 40-foot strip of land along the river bank to fall into the water, taking with it shelters, animals, and crops. Many villagers have now had to take out loans to feed their families. In the context where poor, rural villagers in Myanmar are often already heavily indebted, this is particularly concerning.

*All of the names of interviewees listed have been changed.