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DVB Debate: How would Burma manage another natural disaster?

On 2 May 2008, Cyclone Nargis swept through southern Burma, killing 140,000 people, according to official figures. The UN estimates that as many as 2.4 million people were affected in the region.

With little forewarning for residents, winds of up to 200km per hour swept across Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions, devastating communities up to 40 kilometres inland.

Meteorologists began tracking Cyclone Nargis on 28 April, as the storm born in the Bay of Bengal headed towards India. Monitors had always expected the storm to swing eastwards, leading critics to accuse Burma’s government, and Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisional governments, of not sufficiently warning or preparing communities for the devastation that was to come.

Compounding the tragedy was a fierce resistance on the part of the former military junta to allow access for international first responders and deliverers of aid. The Myanmar Red Cross society was forced to shoulder much the burden alone, as the international community, led by France and the US, considered employing military force to ensure aid supplies got to the already impoverished cyclone victims.

On this week’s episode of DVB Debate, held in Irrawaddy Division, panellists discuss whether Burma will be better prepared for any future environmental or natural disaster.

A resounding “yes” is the response from the Irrawaddy chapter of the Myanmar Red Cross. “We are ready,” insisted representative Myint Ngwe.

Humanitarian organisations may be prepared, but the awareness, and the readiness of communities themselves is questioned by the panel.

“As our people have a very low level of education, we cannot see the danger,” worries Dr. Than Htike of the National Democratic Network.

Myint Aung of NGO the Beautiful Land Environmental Group believes the government is still naïve to the risk of another disaster, despite the devastation wreaked by cyclones Nargis, in 2008, and Giri, which followed in 2010. Southern Tennasserim Division was also deeply affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

“Even those at the governing level are not aware [of the risks],” Myint Aung said.

Myint Ngwe hit back at the conception that Burmese living in the paths of potential future storms are unaware of the dangers they may face.

“We have already given all the necessary training to the public,” the Myanmar Red Cross representative assured.

Cyclone Nargis completely destroyed or severely damaged roughly 800,000 houses across Burma’s south, including in major centres such as Pathein and Burma’s former capital and largest city, Rangoon. The result was over two million people left homeless. By 2011, the Myanmar Red Cross had provided 12,404 families with new homes – meaning thousands of storm refugees are still left without a permanent place to stay, seven years later.

“We are still in a difficult situation,” said audience member Mhay Khi. “It has been seven years. I want everyone to know we are still homeless.”