Myanmar’s floods have flooded newspapers worldwide, and the coverage has caught the attention of all international aid agencies, private donors and governments interested in participating in Myanmar’s development. So much has been written and said, and as flood waters recede, so does public interest. Life resumes normalcy for all of us, and sitting in Yangon, floods seem a thing of the past.
But it remains the glaring present for the thousands of vic- tims rendered homeless, jobless and with nowhere to turn to pick up the threads of life. Their life’s meager belongings have been swept away or badly silted, home broken if not inundated, and their future as blank as the vast expanse of land with drying waters. As destitute, they are desperate to move to cities like Yangon and Mandalay and look for menial jobs which will at least help them earn and eat, since their farms hold no attraction for them anymore.
There is no end to the common man’s woes in the badly affected areas, which include the states of Rakhine and Chin and the Sagaing and Magwe regions. Nature has brought in catastrophe like a pendulum swing, from rain and flood rid- den land, to dry, parched soil unfit for paddy plantation be- fore the dry season sets in. The maximum damage has been in the rice growing areas of the Ayeyarwady delta, Bago, and Sagaing, besides the Rakhine State. Seeing around 1.45 mil- lion acres of fertile land damaged and 841,000 acres completely destroyed, the government is anxious to ensure that the rest of the cultivable land is sown on time so as to ensure no drop in rice production. While all support is being pro- vided with seeds to sow, apprehension about the quality of the crop remains, due to the silt deposits in the fields. Where rice paddy is unlikely to thrive, beans, the green mung bean in particular, is being sown due to the ease with which it grows, without specific soil and water requirements. Domestic needs have to be met before rice is exported and this led to a halt in rice exports for over 6 weeks, having re- sumed only after 15th September, 2015. Prices have shot up, and this makes the domestic rice market attractive enough. Rice is the second largest agricultural export item after beans and pulses, and the government had set a 2 million ton export target for the current year, over 1.8 million tons the previous year. This is unlikely to be met due to the extent of damage caused and over 800,000 acres of land completely destroyed.
Myanmar’s biggest asset has become a liabilityits ample water resources. Rivers and the surrounding seas are rich breeding grounds for various varieties of marine life. Fish farms and prawn ponds have been big revenue earners. But floods have ravaged over 12,000 acres of fish ponds and 40,000 acres of prawn ponds. Over 20,000 heads of cattle have also perished. Fresh produce of fruit and vegetables has also declined.
The common man in a small town and village in Myanmar is subsistence based, with limited availability of goods and services, and a small earning capability. Lifelong earnings, savings and belongings are all confined to their small homes, nearly 400,000 of which have been destroyed. A peep into the plight of some of these people reveals a numbed state of loss and nothingness, with nothing to look forward to, and no way of understanding where to resume. Seeking shelter in monasteries, they have nowhere to go. Relief has come in the form of food which is not always palatable. An offi- cer from a civil society organization in Yangon revealed that when she accompanied a group of international aid workers carrying supplies of noodles, cookies and bread, she was ap- proached by the older people for rice and fish paste, since they did not noodles filling enough. There was plenty of bot- tled water but none in the toilets. In fact, the workers from Yangon could not get themselves to use the toilets there. Help is pouring in from all parts of the world, from various UN agencies in their specific fields, from governments wish- ing to provide aid, relief supplies and medical assistance, from NGOs and civil societies and philanthropists wishing to alleviate the woes of the affected populace. While towns and villages close to cities have benefitted and things are looking up, it’s the remote areas that are badly off. Never having had good roads and infrastructure, they are virtually cut off with bridges broken, roads disappearing and access by foot often the only way to reach them. Vehicles cannot possibly cross the vast expanse of mud and slush. Meanwhile stories abound about help reaching such areas, while the truth is an entirely different story. This enrages those who have been affected and still not receiving any help, and brings in a feeling of hopelessness.
Long term economic impact
The UN released its report on the floods on September 3, and this highlights the woes of those who are completely dependent on land and agriculture. With no savings to fall back on, their food reserves washed away, their immediate survival depends on doles from aid agencies and the government. Food supply is badly affected, and prices have soared, making it difficult for the poor to be able to afford even their basic subsistence needs.
The first priority is the reconstruction of homes destroyed, so that the most basic needs of food and shelter are taken care of. What is equally important is to assist them in re- suming their earning ability and help in the resumption of their agricultural activities, to ensure that both farmers and laborers both benefit. This is all the more important in remote, badly connected regions where aid is not easy to reach also.
On the macro level, farm output and exports are going to be affected and Myanmar’s dreams of competing with leading rice exporters to be in a leading position will take more time to be achieved. The floods have put back the economy in more ways than one.
The decline of exports will impact the inflow of foreign ex- change, and rising domestic prices due to shortfall in supply which cannot meet the demand levels, lead to higher rates of inflation. At this stage of Myanmar’s development, inflationary pressures can adversely impact the business sentiment that has been building up in the last couple of years. Government machinery has been diverted from other sectors to provide flood relief and in efforts to help the rehabilitation process of the affected people.
The local currency, the kyat, has been weakening for some time now, and this is making imports of essential goods even more expensive.
Safeguards for the future
Myanmar has been badly affected by natural disasters time and again, and this has put the development clock back by many months, if not years. The long term damage has yet to be gauged, but it is imperative to find solutions to prevent such a drastic impact on the lives of the most vulnerable section of the population.
Knowing the vulnerability of certain areas which makes them more susceptible to floods, an assessment of risk can be some advance measures that can be taken.
Weather forecasts predicting rains and cyclones, stronger infrastructure, construction of dykes and dams to channelize overflowing rivers, preventing deforestation and timely evacuation are some of the safeguards that can be put in place. Even the uneducated villagers feel that raising the height of river banks and building barriers can be very useful in taming the rapidly overflowing rivers. Overdependence on agriculture by such a large section of the population can be reduced only if new avenues of employment open up. Industrial development and education hold the key, both of which can be facilitated by international involvement and participation. But, this is a long term goal and requires meticulous planning with the end objective clearly formulated. For the present, providing food and shelter, and ensuring the resumption of normal life is taking all the time and effort of the powers that be.