Nine-year-old Chit Lin Nwe owes her life to a tree. As Cyclone Nargis swept away her home, family and friends in Aung Chan Thar village in Myanmar's Ayeyarwady River Delta, she clung to its sturdy trunk.
"As the water came up, I had to climb higher," she said. The storm surge that accompanied Nargis was more than three metres high.
Not everyone was lucky enough to find a tree or shelter in the flat, mostly exposed terrain of the southern delta. Village headmen IRIN spoke to recited the death toll in their small communities: "500 died", or "1,000 died". Often it was almost everyone they had known, and more than a year later many people still seem traumatised.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said about 14,000 hectares of the delta's 275,000 hectares of mangrove forests had been destroyed, but Chit Lin Nwe's tree is still standing. "Should another cyclone come around, I know what to do," she grinned.
Nargis killed more than 140,000 people and ruined countless lives and livelihoods; cyclones, tropical storms and storm surges are likely to become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change in the region, yet the survivors and returnees still living in the delta seem unprepared.
"The people in those flimsy huts with hardly any tree cover, working in flat paddy fields, remain exposed and vulnerable," said an aid worker. A villager remarked, "We listen to the storm warning on the radio more closely [since Nargis], but we don't know what to do."
Preparing the 3.5 million people of the delta, where population density reaches 100 per sq km - the highest in the country - for future disasters will not be easy. It will also be difficult to evacuate those living on the banks of a complex river system comprising many streams and estuaries.
"As many villages are island villages, evacuation is quite tough," said a local disaster expert. "Moreover, the delta is flat, so storm surge due to cyclone compounds the problem."
Photo: IRIN Photo
|Chit Lin Nwe in her favourite tree|
Building cyclone shelters and scaling up early warning systems are among the most feasible solutions, and the government has announced plans to build 20 shelters in coastal areas. In the village of Oak Pho, IRIN saw a cyclone shelter under construction. The shelter will accommodate 500 people and is being constructed by the Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association (FREDA), a semi-official NGO formed by retired personnel from the Ministry of Forestry, but at least 3,000 live in the village.
It is all in the communication
A local disaster expert said the bottleneck in early warning dissemination was between urban townships and villages. "What does 130 miles per hour [about 210km per hour] of wind speed mean to a villager? Also, not many people have a radio, which is the only source of warning."
Warnings should be clear, with directions on what needs to be done: that could involve enlisting one or two persons in each village with a mobile phone as part of the early warning team; monasteries often have loudspeakers, which could be used to disseminate warnings; monasteries are usually built of brick and cement or stone, and could also be used as cyclone shelters.
It would also be a good idea to restore the mangroves destroyed by Nargis. Coastal trees and forests cannot prevent storm surge flooding but a dense mangrove cover can act as a windbreak, take the brunt of the surge waves, and slow them down. Mangroves also trap soil, counteracting shoreline erosion.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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