October 13, 2008

Situation Update: Myanmar

It has been three months since Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar on May 2 and 3, 2008. Almost immediately, JDC began collecting funds to assist victims on a non-sectarian basis and JDC personnel were granted entry visas to carry out humanitarian aid efforts. This report is from Amos Avgar, JDC’s Executive Director of the International Development Program, JDC’s department for non-sectarian humanitarian aid, following his most recent trip to the area.

I just returned to Yangon from a three-day field trip to Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta. I traveled with our local YMCA partner to review our current programs and to plan our next intervention. Joining us was a medical doctor who had been involved in the relief efforts and who was hired as a JDC staff member to represent us locally after the Cyclone.

According to UNICEF, approximately 2.5 million people were affected by the May storm, 140,000 are dead, and 700,000 children still need long-term assistance. Hundreds of thousands of people still require housing assistance. But according to the United Nations, housing assistance continues to be a serious challenge since it is difficult to track people throughout the vast area of the Delta.

Devastation is everywhere. The population is extremely dispersed along the riverways, along the dilapidated roads, and in the middle of vast rice fields. Accessibility is only possible for many people via small boats. But rehabilitation is slow: the government is slow to respond and has concentrated its efforts only where its repairs are visible. The majority, therefore, are still neglected and left to the good will and the perseverance of NGOs.

After traveling ten hours by car and six hours by boat, we reached a village whose name means "the fruit at the top of the stream." Totally isolated between small streams and creeks, the village cannot be reached by car. Seventy-six families, or about 300 people, live in the village, which was swept away and destroyed by the Cyclone and the rising waters that followed. The water wave was over 18 feet high, killing 32 adults and 43 children and damaging or destroying virtually all wooden-bamboo homes. The orphans remained in the village with relatives. The residents buried their dead and attended to the wounded as best they could, but the death toll rose higher. The families in this village had virtually nothing before the disaster struck and they have even less now.

In May 2008, JDC sent humanitarian assistance to the village. Now, almost three months after the Cyclone, 41 families are still homeless and the school is totally damaged. We spoke to the village committee and agreed to the following: (1) JDC will continue to provide humanitarian assistance and will provide the materials needed to build the school; (2) the villagers will construct the school themselves; (3) JDC will provide the materials for 41 houses ($120 each) and the villagers will build the homes themselves. They will create a village revolving loan fund, each family giving 5 percent of the donation from JDC each year. And our YMCA partners will be responsible for building a new clinic in the village and providing the equipment needed to operate it.

While we were there, a monk was leading a memorial service for the dead in a small hut that was crowded with over 30 women. On the side stood a little jar where money was collected for the widows. It was very moving to see the villagers themselves be part of the healing process. They were contributing in their own way while JDC, in its traditional role, was there to support them in saving lives and helping transform the village.

We then traveled by boat to another village bordering the sea. Here the people are farmers and fishermen, and their means of making a livelihood were totally destroyed. The farmers lost their crops and could not replant because all embankments were totally destroyed and the fields covered with salt water. The fisherman lost their boats and their nets. JDC is working with a local NGO to help reconstruct the embankments. We are also implementing a micro-financing program, which will allow the fishermen to buy equipment to repair their damaged boats, purchase new ones, and buy fishing nets.

As a brief overview of the trip, I share with you the following:

When I first arrived in Yangon, I met with General Ming, the Deputy Minister for Social Affairs. I reported to him about our work and future plans. This was my second visit with him, my first taking place only a few days after the Cyclone struck. The Minister was very cordial and he commented that, unlike other NGOs, he is happy to see that JDC is still working in the area.

I met with Pact, which was founded in 1971 as a membership organization of US private and voluntary organizations (PVOs) to facilitate distributing small USAID grants to PVOs working in relief and development assistance. We are partnering with them to implement preventive health and livelihood programs. The program coordinator told me that JDC funding enabled them to assist 32,000 people. It has proven to be a very productive partnership.

I also met with International Red Cross (IRC) staff. They are new on the scene, arriving after the Cyclone. I asked their new country representative to send us a proposal in the area of livelihood, and that we will be glad to cooperate.

I had long discussions with the President and Executive Director of the Myanmar Red Cross as well as the country representative of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. We are planning a joint program with Magen David Adom—the first-ever operations in Myanmar.

We have begun a joint livelihood program with the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute (AIDMI), with whom we partnered following the South Asian Tsunami. The representative of AIDMI and I met in Yangon and together with JDC's local representative here, we planned the program and the method of monitoring.

Similarly, with Sarvodaya—our partner in Sri Lanka since the Tsunami—JDC is implementing a feeding program through a local monastery. While I was here, we distributed tons of rice that were given to the victims of the Cyclone. We are using our intervention in Myanmar to both strengthen existing partnerships and increase the capacity of disaster programs of our existing Asian partners.

I had a long discussion with Moses, the head of the Jewish community in Myanmar. With the JDC funds, they finished repairing the damages to the synagogue. The situation of five families, he told me, remains difficult and the cemetery needs additional repair. I left him money for these two purposes.

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