Myanmar cyclone survivors stuck in makeshift huts

KUNGYANGONE, Myanmar Thu Apr 30, 2009 12:45pm IST

A boy looks past a tarpaulin cover, used by his family for shelter, in Labutta Township April 29, 2009. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

A boy looks past a tarpaulin cover, used by his family for shelter, in Labutta Township April 29, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

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KUNGYANGONE, Myanmar (Reuters) - A year after Cyclone Nargis blasted his home in Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta, Pyae Aye sees little hope of replacing the threadbare tarpaulin over his head with a new roof.

The 10 ft by 12 ft (3.0 by 3.7 metre) hut where the rice farmer lives with his two young sons is unbearably hot and began leaking when the first monsoon rains arrived in early April.

"We lost everything and we just can't afford to repair the house yet," said Pyae Aye, who like thousands of survivors of the cyclone that killed nearly 140,000 people, has struggled to rebuild his modest home.

Aid groups estimate at least 500,000 survivors, including 200,000 children, are living in makeshift shelters cobbled together with bamboo poles and fraying tarpaulin, primarily due to a lack of money.

Normally, natural materials such as thatch from palm trees and shrubs provide cheap, relatively cool and rainproof roofing.

But the May 2-3 cyclone destroyed most of the trees and 375,000 homes, according to government estimates.

A year on, only 17,000 new homes have been built, according to U.N. estimates, while another 200,000 have been repaired by their owners.

With the full might of the monsoon season only weeks away, tens of thousands face the prospect of spending another year living in "extremely vulnerable shelter", said David Evans, acting head of the U.N. housing agency UN-HABITAT.

"If they haven't been able to help themselves in the last 11 months, it's not likely they're going to be able to help themselves now, and so far we haven't managed to reach them," Evans said.


Nearly all Nargis survivors received some form of emergency shelter after the storm, including those few allowed into the junta's "model villages" after the generals were criticised for their slow response to the disaster.

But a year on, donor funding for housing has met only 4 percent of the U.N. target.

Donors are giving money for education, health care and food, but they consider housing and infrastructure the government's responsibility, said Andrew Kirkwood, country director of aid agency Save The Children.

"While we would like to see the government spending more on public services, it's completely unjust that the international community does not pick up their part of the responsibility," he said.

Aid groups are trying to fill the gap before the monsoon rains drench the delta, the rice bowl of the former Burma.

The Red Cross plans to hand out tarpaulins in May and June to 30,000 families in the delta, and CARE Myanmar says it will spend close to $2 million on aid for shelter until next June.

UN-HABITAT has appealed for $10 million to provide temporary roofing materials "we needed yesterday", Evans said.

"If it isn't agreed in the next couple of weeks, then we totally miss this last window of opportunity before the severe wind and rain arrives," he said.

Evans also defended his agency's advocacy of $500-$700 homes, which some critics consider too expensive. They are made with traditionals materials but use modern techniques for flooring and foundations to make them more resistant to disasters.

Even with unlimited funds, he said similar rebuilding efforts after the 2004 Asian Tsunami took four years to complete.

But that did not seem to impress Myint Thein, a farmer in the devastated Labutta area, who rebuilt his home on stilts "with whatever we could find".

"If it gets blown away, it gets blown away," he said. "Besides, if there is another storm like Nargis, we won't survive again anyway."

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