Much of the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis – the merciless storm that struck Myanmar just over two months ago – is still visible. Large portions of the country’s cultivable land and vital crops have been flooded and rendered useless by the catastrophic tidal surge that drove inland from the Indian Ocean.
Furthermore, infrastructure damage has been significant, numerable drinking water sources contaminated and the destruction of thousands of schools will have serious implications for the country’s youth.
Yet the people of Myanmar have proven resilient, picking up the pieces of their lives with a quiet determination; the most basic survival instincts manifesting themselves amid unfathomable circumstances, the very evidence of their lives having been washed away into a dark abyss of seawater.
The unforgiving storm
Cyclone Nargis swept across southern Myanmar on the evening of 2 May, leaving a trail of death and destruction before tapering off the next day. Winds from the cyclone reached as high as 200 kph at landfall and damaged much of the rural, coastal areas, the fertile Ayeyarwady delta, and Yangon, the nation's main city and former capital.
Hundreds of villages were washed away and more than 130,000 people perished. It is estimated that 2.4 million people have been severely affected by the cyclone and almost one million lost their livelihoods and have been left without adequate quantities of food.
It’s from the air that the extent of the cyclone’s damage truly reveals itself. Some villages are literally no more. Eerily, debris is all that is left. Others are still standing, but just barely.
Edith Champagne, Public Information Officer
The Ayeyarwady delta, which bore the brunt of the storm, is known as the country’s granary and has an extensive fishery industry along its coast. The loss of crops, shrimp farms, fishing ponds, nursery hatcheries, fishing boats and other productive assets has led to increased unemployment and exacerbated the conditions of Myanmar’s extreme poor who are dependent on wage labour for their survival.
WFP on the ground
Immediately following the cyclone, WFP responded to meet the enormous challenge of providing assistance to the populated areas badly hit by the cyclone, many of which were isolated and flooded, and only accessible by boat.
The issue of delays in granting visas to foreign workers was overshadowed by the work of Myanmar national staff who immediately stepped up to the challenge.
During her two-day visit to the country, WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran saw first hand-the extensive suffering caused by the cylone’s damage in and around Yangon, and called for “a seamless global lifeline of relief supplies.”
Over the last two months, WFP has used a combination of helicopters, trucks and barges to deliver more than 18,000 tons of food commodities, including rice, beans, vegetable oil, salt, ready-to-eat meals, and high-energy biscuits (HEBs) to 684,000 people in the Ayeyarwady delta.
However, WFP’s ongoing US$69.5-million emergency operation to deliver food assistance to a total of 750,000 beneficiaries currently faces a 55 percent shortfall (US$38.2 million).
WFP has been operating a fleet of 10 helicopters, which have been ferrying relief supplies on behalf of the Logistics Cluster to isolated areas in the delta. Eighty eight remote locations, including villages that had yet to receive any assistance since Cyclone Nargis struck, have now been reached.
The helicopters are a welcomed sight by locals. They allow much needed supplies to be brought into most remote areas.
When a MI 8 touches down in a village, hoards of grateful people surround the helicopter, braving the intense wind action of the blades and hastily carrying the rice bags out of the hold.
A total of 463 rotations have been made to these areas, delivering 506 tons of life-saving supplies, including mixed food commodities and essential non-food items such as shelter supplies and kitchen sets. Following a decline in demand after the most urgent needs had been serviced, five helicopters have now been redeployed.
However, the terrain of the delta necessitates an emphasis on transport by inland waterway. WFP has contracted three barges and push tugs, and four river boats for inter-agency use, capable of moving a total of 3,500 tons of humanitarian supplies. Furthermore, WFP currently has 15 trucks of varying capacities for inter-agency use to deliver humanitarian supplies in the delta region.
WFP has also extended logistical support to personnel conducting crucial assessment and survey activities in the most hard-to-reach areas, including members of the recently-concluded Post-Nargis Joint Assessment by the Tripartite Core Group.
The road ahead
Despite being a food-surplus country, adequate access to food remains a concern in Myanmar -one-third of children remain malnourished.
Insufficient nutritious food, poor access to health facilities, inadequate water and sanitation facilities, and limited livelihood opportunities exacerbate the food security situation.
WFP continues to provide food assistance to the cyclone victims as they put back together the pieces of their lives, which have no doubt been profoundly affected by the powerful impact of this natural disaster.