Myanmar: Tropical storm highlights vulnerability

3 Jun 2013

Families take shelter from the monsoon rains under the awning of a long house shelter in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Aid agencies are concerned about the potential impact of a cyclone or tropical storm on vulnerable communities. Credit: OCHA
May’s Tropical Storm Mahasen served as a reminder of the devastation that a cyclone could cause in Myanmar.

In mid-May, as Tropical Storm Mahasen barreled its way up the Bay of Bengal, the humanitarian community and local authorities in Myanmar’s Rakhine State worked around the clock to prepare for what threatened to be a major disaster. Thankfully Mahasen eventually weakened and bypassed Myanmar, but the near miss served to heighten fears for the monsoon season which has just begun.

“Tropical Storm Mahasen proved a timely exercise to see if we are ready to respond to a serious disaster,” said Barbara Manzi, the head of OCHA in Rakhine. “State authorities and aid agencies worked hand-in-hand to alert people and move the most vulnerable out of most at-risk areas.”

Among the most vulnerable were an estimated 140,000 people living in displacement camps following outbreaks of inter-communal violence in 2012.

“If a cyclone hits Rakhine State, we could have a major humanitarian catastrophe on our hands. We are already stretched to capacity assisting the 140,000 people displaced last year, who are living in dire conditions,” said Manzi. “Strong response plans are crucial to prevent a bad situation getting worse when disaster strikes.”

120,000 people evacuated

In the days leading up to Mahasen’s anticipated arrival, the Government evacuated an estimated 120,000 people to safer areas, including over 46,000 people who were living in temporary camps. Aid agencies advised on potential relocation sites, spoke to communities about the need to evacuate to safer locations, and ensured emergency stocks of relief such as hygiene kits, tents and mosquito nets were on hand.

Once the immediate threat of the tropical storm passed, the focus turned to helping people return to the areas where they were located. The majority of people returned voluntarily within 24 hours of the announcement that the storm had passed.

Learning lessons

The humanitarian community is now reviewing the response to see what worked well and to identify aspects that need to be improved. Historical trends show that there is a high likelihood of a tropical storm or cyclone impacting Rakhine State.

Already there are identifiable steps that can be taken to prepare communities. These include authorities strengthening storm alerts for communities in their own languages, strengthening contingency plans that identify key buildings and safe havens, and prepositioning stocks.

69,000 people urgently need relocating

In some areas, the threats posed by the monsoon season are already very real. Daily storms have started flooding some villages. Farmland that was dry only a few weeks ago is now submerged. One health organization has already seen its clinic structures destroyed by relatively light rains.

Aid agencies are particularly concerned about 69,000 people living in locations situated in open, low lying areas and rice fields. In addition to flooding, the rains bring a higher risk of illnesses such as acute diarrhea, dengue fever and malaria.

“The top priority now is for the Government to allocate suitable land in which to build camps for these at-risk communities,” said OCHA’s Manzi.

Peace and reconciliation

Many communities have been living in substandard temporary accommodation for almost a year. Relocating these communities is urgent, but it is a stop-gap measure and longer-term solutions must be found, said Manzi.

“Reconciliation and unity between communities must be forged so that people can return to their homes and villages,” she said.

“A lack of trust is fueling tensions between communities living in Rakhine State. The authorities, community and religious leaders, and humanitarian agencies must work together to rebuild trust so that people can live without fear.”