Global perspective Human stories

One year after Myanmar cyclone, international support still critical, UN says

One year after Myanmar cyclone, international support still critical, UN says

One year after Cyclone Nargis, more than 500,000 people, including 200,000 children, are still living in makeshift shelters
Marking the one year anniversary since Cyclone Nargis devastated much of Myanmar, the United Nations is reviewing an impressive life-saving effort but also pointing to the equally daunting work, and requisite support, needed to rebuild.

On 2 and 3 May 2008, winds reaching 240 kilometres per hour and an up to 4 metre high storm surge swept over large swathes of the South-East Asian country, killing some 140,000 people and shattering the lives of 2.4 million more.

One year later, humanitarian workers can look back and say that a second wave of deaths from illness and starvation were averted, with one million people receiving food aid, nearly as many getting medical attention and 50,000 latrines constructed.

More than half a million children were assisted to continue their education and 4,000 metric tons of rice seeds were distributed.

However, the next phase of restoring devastated lives and livelihoods could be just as difficult, according to UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Bishow Parajuli, who has been leading the UN''s assistance efforts for the past year.

“If we move at the speed that we did in the relief cycle, I would have great hope,” said Mr. Parajuli, who spoke with the UN News Centre from the country''s capital Yangon today. “There are two elements there, however: continued support and cooperation of the Government and continued support financially from the international community.”

Recovery so far has been uneven, with urban centres able to rebound, but much of the Ayeyarwady Delta, where whole villages were swept away, still in a dire situation, both physically and psychologically, Mr. Parajuli said.

“You go to a school and ask kids to raise their hands and some 40 per cent have lost family members – they are coming to terms with their wounds,” he said, pointing out that many children have lost fathers and many women were widows, so restoring livelihoods has become even more complex.

In addition, he said, many of the dwellings in which people are now living were made of materials salvaged from wrecked buildings, with tarpaulins spread over them to deflect the rain.

There are urgent needs for sustainable shelter for half a million vulnerable people, and for support to agriculture and fishing. “We aim at building an additional 600 schools within the next year, constructing more new ponds and drilling of wells, and enhancing health and welfare services to all vulnerable groups, to mention some of the activities needed,” he said.

To meet those needs in the next three years, the Post-Nargis Recovery and Preparedness Plan (PONREPP) was launched on 9 February by the UN, the Government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), requiring $691 million.

Securing those funds will not be easy, Mr. Parajuli said. Even during the emergency phase, only 66 per cent, or some $315 million of the UN appeal was raised, out of a total requirement of $477 million.

Particularly important right now is the $16.6 million requested for seeds, fertilizer, draught animals and agricultural tools, to allow farmers to plant in time for the upcoming rainy season, he said.

So far, he said, roughly $100 million has been pledged for all the needs of the coming year, which is around half of what is needed annually under the recovery plan.

Donors have been responsive in the most recent conferences he has attended, but are only interested in funding relief and recovery work that can be categorized as humanitarian. “Development, as such – that word is still a challenge,” he said, explaining that it is a sensitive area because of the sanctions on the Government.

Humanitarian cooperation with the Government is still smooth, he said, although some mechanisms, such as a fast-track visa process that had been created for the cyclone emergency, had been recently withdrawn.

As Resident Coordinator for the UN system, he said he is also involved in the Organization''s efforts to improve the human rights situation in the country, through extensive consultation with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon''s good offices initiatives and meetings with the extant human rights body in the Government.

He warns against narrowing human rights concerns to political participation and freedoms, however. “Human rights is everything,” he commented, “It is access to food, access to water, access to education.”

“So we''re constantly working on the human rights issue as we''re doing everything else,” he said, adding that the cooperation and trust that has been developed during the Nargis recovery period is a model that should be expanded to deal with other national and regional issues.