Racing to protect the most vulnerable in Myanmar
By Angela Thaung
“It was frightening. I was worried that my family members would be separated. Our faces went blue from cold, and I thought we were going to die,” said Ma Khine, recalling her fears in the face of the tormenting Cyclone Nargis that destroyed her home.
Huddling with her family in a monastery along with 500 other villagers from Kyauktan township, one of the hardest-hit areas in Yangon division, Ma Khine talked briefly about a tough life made worse by the recent natural disaster. Economic conditions were so strained in the Irrawaddy Delta village where her family’s simple house used to stand, she explained, that she had left school to work in a garment factory near the country’s capital. She barely earned 20,000 kyat (US$20) a month, she said.
Cyclone Nargis blasted the southern coastal area of Myanmar at 190 kph on 2 May, the worst natural disaster the country has experienced. Along with the ensuing tidal wave, measuring up to 12 m high, the unprecedented destruction left more than 22,000 people dead and another 41,000 missing. Relief and assessment activities have had dramatic difficulty to determine the scale of the disaster and the death toll is expected to swell.
As night approached and the flood waters rose on Saturday, many villagers now crowded into the Sasana Beikman monastery with Ma Khine’s family said they ran inland. Others held to vain refuge in their houses, until they collapsed. Some families clung to plastic containers to keep from drowning.
The first reports of fatalities in Kyauktan township where Ma Khine lives put the number of deaths at 16 of the 15,000 affected population and a number of authorities speculate it will grow considerably once they can access more of the 44 affected villages in the township.
Children younger than 5 years sit in their mother’s arms, a shocked expression seemingly frozen on their faces. They don’t want to return to their village. Their parents want to start picking up the pieces of their shattered world.
“Please help us to rebuild our village. We are facing difficulty for our daily survival as our houses are now lying flat in the water; some are crushed by trees. We do not even have cooking utensils or clothes to wear,” said one mother.
According to a UNICEF team assessing the Kyauktan township situation, food is scarce among the 66 shelters there. Many villagers with houses remaining have been cooking and donating what they can.
As UNICEF races to bolster the relief effort for families in Myanmar’s low-lying Irrawaddy, which bore the brunt of the storm, there are grave concerns that the children who survived Cyclone Nargis and now have no safe drinking water are at risk diarrhoeal and water-borne diseases.
UNICEF Myanmar has 130 technical and operations staff working with partners and the Government to procure and distribute additional essential drugs and other relief supplies, such as family kits (containing plastic sheets, mosquito nets, plates and utensils, a cooking pot, towels and longyis), water purification tablets, oral rehydration salts to treat diarrhoeal dehydration and tarpaulins for shelter. It is also working to restore water and sanitation services; provide temporary learning spaces, as many schools have been completely destroyed; establish safe spaces for thousands of children in need of protection and treatment, and assist in the identification and reunification of separated children with their families.
At present, UNICEF’s priority is to provide life-saving essentials to children and their mothers. Clean water and safe hygiene systems are the most critical need and must be put into place as soon as possible.
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