Fatal Landslide Raises Alarms Over Myanmar’s Natural Disaster Preparedness

By San Yamin Aung 20 August 2019

YANGON— In the blink of an eye, a massive landslide washed it all away: homes, vehicles, people—all buried deep beneath the mud at the base of a mountain in the Thae Phyu Kone village tract of Mottama, Paung Township, in southern Myanmar’s Mon State.

The tragic landslide that struck on the morning of Aug. 9—triggered by days of heavy monsoon rains—destroyed nearly 30 homes and buried more than 70 people alive, killing local, traveler and passerby alike. Dozens more were injured.

“It all happened within seconds. I just heard a roar, then saw water and soil coming down fast,” one survivor, hospitalized with severe injuries, told The Irrawaddy last week.

In a series of recent floods and landslides, it was the largest and deadliest.

Rescue teams uncover the bodies of landslide victims in Mottama, Paung Township, Mon State, in southern Myanmar, on August 11, 2019. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

Since late June, torrential rains have brought flooding and landslides to 12 of the country’s 14 states and regions and displaced more than 2 million people, according to the Department of Disaster Management. Mon State has been among the worst hit, alongside Karen State and Bago and Tanintharyi regions.

Cyclones, storms and floods haunt Myanmar’s coasts, landslides its mountains and hills. In the last decade and a half, earthquakes and droughts have also made unwelcome, annual visits. Without better planning and prevention, these will only become deadlier.

While the impacts of global warming are being felt around the world, Myanmar—the second most disaster-prone country in the world, according to the Global Climate Risk Index—is vulnerable to a wider range of natural disasters than most.

In 2008, Cyclone Nargis—the worst disaster in the country’s recorded history—killed more than 1.4 million people and displaced some 3 million more.

Flood water fills a home in Hangan Village, Ye Township, Mon State. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

“Most people still think of natural disasters as occasional incidents that may not affect them, but this is no longer the case,” said Ko Myint Zaw, an environmental activist.

“We’re hit by floods, landslides, droughts, storms every year. There is not a single year that we are free from these,” he said.

And while these disasters are becoming more frequent, the bigger problem is that most people—including the authorities—do not yet take it to be the state of emergency that it is, and so fail to undertake the necessary planning and preparation, he said.

According to data from Myanmar’s Central Statistical Organization, natural disasters have been on the rise in recent years.

Between 2015 and 2016, 218 people died in 658 different incidents, and in the following year, 518 people died in 1,632; by the same period in 2017 and 2018, the number of incidents had risen to 2,511 and the fatalities to 554.

A well-wisher provides food to a flood victim in Hangan Village, Ye Township, Mon State. /  Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

U Tun Lwin, founder of Myanmar Climate Change Watch and the country’s most well-known meteorologist, said resettlement and rehabilitation efforts in disaster-hit areas are good, to an extent—aided by a keenness on the part of the Myanmar people, taught to help those in need by tradition and religion.

But, he said, the government’s disaster preparedness and prevention policy and planning have been totally weak.

“We can’t prevent disasters but we can prevent losses from them,” he said.

The 70 dead in Mottama have highlighted the need for effective disaster preparedness and prevention in Myanmar.

Floods triggered by heavy rains engulf homes in 2018. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, who is also chairman of the National Disaster Management Committee, visited the landslide site and other flood-affected areas in Mon State for three days following the disaster with Minister of Social Welfare Relief and Resettlement U Win Myat Aye. While there, he instructed geologists and experts to examine the area, identify preventive measures that can be taken in future cases and conduct surveys in other landslide-prone areas.

U Tun Lwin said prevention and regular checks and assessments are important in reducing the risk of natural disasters.

He said hazard and risk maps that highlight areas vulnerable to particular natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and landslides can help people prepare and mobilize, thereby preventing or at least limiting catastrophe.

But the country has no such maps yet, he added.

Public Works Department employees fix a flood-damaged road connecting Thanphyu Zayat and Ye township. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

In the wake of the Mottama landslide, locals blamed deforestation and the destruction of nearby hills brought on by mining. The issue was raised in the Union Parliament last week when lawmakers called on the government to step up efforts towards disaster preparedness; forest restoration and conservation; and enforcement against illegal trades and business practices that, unchecked, cause environmental and social harm.

U Ye Myint Swe, deputy minister of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, told lawmakers his ministry initiated a long-term project in 2017 to conserve forest area under which it’s been restoring trees across the country.

But, he admitted, the ministry’s limited staff is insufficient to effectively crack down on illegal logging.

Environmentally pernicious human practices—especially deforestation—have been fingered as a major cause of the country’s increasing vulnerability to natural disasters.

Ko Myint Zaw, the environmental activist, called on the government to prioritize restoring and conserving forest areas as a first step.

“We are witnessing the severe effects of excessive natural resource extraction and its damage to the environment,” he said. “We are no longer protected.”

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