Step up response to Cyclone Nargis

Noeleen Heyzer and Surin Pitsuwan

It is time to scale up effective programmes to support the health, education and livelihoods of the people of Myanmar.

Now, more than two months after Cyclone Nargis left a trail of death and destruction in Myanmar, events and developments elsewhere around the globe have captured many of the region’s news headlines. But not being the centre of the media’s attention does not mean that the plight of Myanmar is over. Unfortunately, that is far from being the case.

The world’s attention will surely re-focus on Myanmar in the coming days, with the launch of the Revised Flash Appeal on July 10. The initial appeal sought $187 million to enable international partners to support the Government of Myanmar in addressing the needs of more than 1,500,000 people affected by the cyclone. The Revised Flash Appeal is based on the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment Report (PONJA) undertaken by the Tripartite Core Group, consisting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Government of Myanmar and the United Nations.

The PONJA report will be launched in Singapore, on July 21, at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. Yet, in our separate capacities as the chairperson of the ASEAN Humanitarian Task Force and a member of the Humanitarian Task Force Advisory Group, we were recently provided with the report’s preliminary findings — and they give a sobering overview of the extensive damage and loss incurred as a result of Cyclone Nargis.

It was an overview reinforced by what we witnessed first-hand during a recent visit to some of the worst-affected areas in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Delta, including the townships of Bogale, Satsan and Kyein Chaung Gyi.

Challenge of reconstruction

Even before landing in affected areas, we were provided with a continual reminder of the obstacles faced in overcoming the cyclone’s effects. The 45-minute helicopter flight to Bogale highlighted the vast open space of the delta, while the absence of almost any roads emphasised its remoteness and the scale of the remaining recovery and reconstruction challenge.

On the ground, we saw that while the relief phase is far from over and unmet humanitarian needs remain significant — particularly in the food, water/sanitation and shelter sectors — much has been accomplished to bring assistance to most villages in the delta and that some level of normalcy was starting to take shape. We witnessed a district hospital in full operation, children attending recently repaired schools and the construction, in hard-wood, of family homes to replace the tents and temporary shelters erected in the first weeks following the destructive passage of Cyclone Nargis.

The resilience of the people could be seen in the faces of the children and adults we spoke with. But the pain and trauma was also palpable. In one school alone in Satsan, we saw 200 empty seats for children — truly a stark reminder of the long-term impact that Cyclone Nargis had and will have on communities here. And yet, the determination of the local community to bounce back and carry on with their lives, amidst so much damage and suffering, was encouraging and a testament to the will of the Myanmar people to rebuild their lives. But this progress cannot go far on its own. It needs, today and in the days to come, to be further encouraged and aided by the international community.

It is time to scale up effective programmes to support the health, education and livelihoods of the people in the Ayeyarwaddi Delta. It is time to think of using the tripartite partnership to develop a more comprehensive and coordinated strategy for recovery. In particular, it is time to ensure that rice is planted before the planting season finishes at the end of July. Failing that, not only will it have disastrous consequences for food security in Myanmar and the region, but it will also increase Myanmar’s already high levels of unemployment. As part of early recovery efforts, seeds, fertilizer and more diesel for the newly provided tillers are urgently needed. Small steps like these will have a knock-on effect for the overall situation – productive employment is a central part of the recovery phase and a step forward in the return to normalcy.

In addition, support needs to be township-focused and village-based. The capacity of existing institutions that can bring relief to where it is most needed — at the community level — needs to be strengthened. This was driven home when we visited a township and village administration that was managing relief operations with the support of the Myanmar Red Cross and Red Crescent society, civil society organisations and the United Nations system.

For any of this to happen, there needs to be a solid response to the impending Revised Flash Appeal and we call upon the international community to take heed of the appeal. We make this call not only in our respective capacities as the heads of ASEAN and the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, but also as concerned citizens of Asia. Not all of us will be able to witness firsthand the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis with flights to the Ayeyarwady Delta, nor do we need to. It is enough to know that the Myanmar people need the world’s help. And the world should respond and respond quickly.

As our field visit to the delta drew to a close and the blades of the World Food Programme’s MI-8 helicopter began to roar, the drizzle which had been falling for some time changed. Gone was the gentle pitter-patter of rain drops, and in its place came the monsoon rains — yet another reminder of the need to act quickly. — Courtesy: U.N. Information Centre, New Delhi

(Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, U.N. Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), is a member of the ASEAN Humanitarian Task Force Advisory Group. Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of the Secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is the chairperson of the ASEAN Humanitarian Task Force.)

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