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Myanmar cyclone survivors proved tough, experts say

Associated Press, June 25, 2008

BANGKOK, Thailand—Dire warnings that cyclone survivors in Myanmar might fall prey to disease and starvation failed to take into account the survival instincts of those affected, aid agencies and disaster experts say.

<< A Myanmar Buddhist monk, a survivor of Cyclone Nargis, gathers wood near his temple Thursday, May 29, 2008, outside of Yangon. The resilience of survivors along with the capabilities of Myanmar's own citizens working for both local and international humanitarian agencies has proven more important than the much decried lack of access for foreign disaster experts. Relief agencies now acknowledge that many of the fears of wide spread death from disease did not happen because the Myanmar people found a way to take care of themselves. (AP Photo)

The resilience of the people -- along with the skills of Myanmar citizens working for local and international humanitarian agencies -- proved to be the most critical survival weapons and helped mitigate the limited access allowed to foreign disaster experts, they said.

U.N. agencies and private humanitarian groups agree a feared second wave of post-cyclone casualties did not take place. And barriers the junta put in the way of foreign aid appears not to have caused a measurable increase in deaths from illness and lack of food.

"These parts of Myanmar are visited by cyclones almost every year, although not of the same scale," said Ramesh Shrestha, the UNICEF representative in Myanmar. "Hence people were quite able to adapt to this sudden impact."

Myanmar's government said this week that a survey undertaken jointly with the U.N. and the regional Association of Southeast Asia Nations found no post-cyclone deaths related to lack of assistance, though the findings are preliminary.

No one is saying Cyclone Nargis was not a tragedy of epic proportions or that Myanmar's military government was justified in turning aside offers of outside aid.

The images of swollen bodies lying unattended weeks after the May 2-3 storm and lines of desperate refugees camped along roadsides waiting for food handouts testify to the failures of the initial relief effort.

The government's official death toll now stands at 84,537 dead, with 53,836 missing.

But almost all the casualties appear to have been caused directly by the cyclone -- surprising in view of warnings circulated immediately after the storm, when most foreign assistance and foreign aid workers were kept out of the disaster zone.

"The stories that were coming out after the disaster were very focused on what wasn't getting in," said Melanie Brooks, a spokeswoman in Bangkok for the humanitarian agency CARE.

Journalists could not get permission to enter the country, and those who sneaked in faced tight restrictions in reporting. Consequently, much of the news came from Thailand, where the main story was how the junta was rejecting outside aid.

The media were able to quote some important people to make the case that a second disaster was in the making in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "We have an intolerable situation, created by a natural disaster. It is being made into a man-made catastrophe by the negligence, the neglect and the inhuman treatment of the Burmese people by a regime that is failing to act."

And U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: "Unless more aid gets into the country -- quickly -- we face the risk of an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dramatically worsen today's crisis."

But relief experts now acknowledge the risks were probably overstated.

"Predictions by some agencies of epidemics were not borne out by the facts," said two London-based disaster researchers, Ben Ramalingam and John Mitchell. "Some agencies may well have overreacted."

There is a reason why "aid agencies jump up and down and warn of a secondary wave of deaths or an outbreak of disease," said CARE's Brooks. "We do need to get in there and make sure that people have access to clean water and proper sanitation."

But she and others in the relief community acknowledge that the worst-case scenario didn't come to pass.

"There are no signs of second wave of death as a result of Nargis," said UNICEF's Shrestha. "The incidences of diseases seen are not different from the usual disease burdens seen in the country."

Aid organizations, wary of jeopardizing relations with Myanmar's military regime, point out that any government would have had trouble coping alone with a disaster of such scale.

But independent observers speak more frankly.

"The local populations were probably not expecting much and they probably did not receive much," said Ramalingam and Mitchell, who work for the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action but were commenting in a personal capacity.

"In terms of accepted humanitarian standards and principles, assistance was clearly not proportional to need," they said in an e-mail. International aid couldn't have saved those who died in the storm, "but aid could have helped speed up recovery if properly managed."

The issue of foreign aid workers being denied visas overshadowed the work of the many Myanmar nationals working for U.N. and private agencies, the aid agencies said.

When the storm struck, the U.N. Development Program in Myanmar already employed more than 1,000 staff, mainly Myanmar nationals. World Vision, the largest private foreign humanitarian group, had 580 local staff, and like most groups, quickly hired more.

"It was the national staff that really led the response," said CARE's Brooks. "They speak the local language, they know the area, they know how to get things done."

Filling the gaps were the survivors themselves.

"They weren't just waiting around for help to come and bemoaning their fate, they were going out and picking up the pieces of their thatch houses, and they were starting to rebuild," said Brooks. "This idea of disaster survivors being helpless victims is just simply not true. These are some of the most resilient people that you'll ever meet."

When outside assistance came, said Ashley Clements, a spokesman in Yangon for World Vision, "it gave them an extra leg up and helped them avoid the worst of the crisis."

Past experience, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, shows that "virtually all the life saving work in the first 48 hours or so after a sudden impact emergency like this one is undertaken by the survivors," according to the researchers in London.

The concept of "helpless victims" is a myth the disaster relief community has been trying to dispel since at least the 1990s, said Alistair Henley, regional head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies based in Malaysia.

"We talk a lot about lessons learned, but I think there's also lessons forgotten or lessons rediscovered," he said.

Although the immediate threat may have passed, relief workers warn against complacency.

"The destruction in terms of loss of public and private infrastructure, including continued flooding of cultivable land, contamination of thousands of drinking water wells and destruction of thousands of schools causing more than a million children to stay out of schools, are all very serious concerns," warned UNICEF's Shrestha.


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Myanmar Cyclone Disaster Fast Facts

Toll as at May 9, 2008

Dead (official)
Missing (official) 41,054
Dead (US estimate) 100,000 plus
Homeless (UN estimate) 1 million- plus

International contributors

$10 million
$3 million
UNITED STATES $3 million
AUSTRALIA $2.8 million
$2 million in aid.
CANADA $2 million
INDONESIA $1 million
SPAIN $775,000
GERMANY $775,000
CHINA $500,000
FRANCE $320,000
GREECE $300,000
JAPAN $267,570
THAILAND $100,000
$2.1 million
SRI LANKA $25,000

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