In Flood-Hit Magwe, Prioritizing Lives With Livestock in Mind

By Lawi Weng 7 August 2015

YENANGYAUNG TOWNSHIP, Magwe Division — Media reports of the widespread floods affecting 12 of Burma’s 14 states and divisions have generally relied on two metrics to gauge the growing severity of the crisis: people affected (more than 300,000 as of Thursday) and land area inundated (nearly 1.2 million acres of paddy field). Often overlooked has been the toll that rising waters has taken on animals—and for an agrarian nation such as Burma, livestock in particular.

As displaced populations have gathered at monasteries, schoolhouses and other temporary shelters, many have brought with them cows, oxen, goats, pigs, buffalo and other farm animals. All of these animals, like their caretakers, require food and clean water to survive, posing challenges and difficult choices for farmers and relief workers who are already struggling to feed the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the floods.

In Yenangyaung Township, thousands of animals have been corralled at relief camps, many of them ferried to safety by local authorities as waters in the area rose.

According to data released by the local General Administration Department on Wednesday, Yenangyaung has taken in more than twice as many farm animals displaced by flooding as it has people. That includes more than 11,000 cattle, over 1,000 buffalo, about 400 pigs and 738 goats, compared with 6,502 people who are staying at temporary shelters in Yenangyaung Township.

Aid groups have arrived to Pwintbyu and Yenangyaung townships in Magwe Division to provide food and water to people displaced by the flooding. They have not been able to extend their generosity, however, to the livestock here.

On Thursday morning, The Irrawaddy visited the No. 3 camp in Yenangyaung, where authorities were doing their best to provide food and potable water to the displaced population. The livestock displaced, many for almost a week, were not afforded similar sustenance, supplies being spread too thinly among the human flood victims as it is.

“For people, we can get food, but for cows, they do not get enough food like us,” said 70-year-old Kyaw Maung from Pauk Kong village in Yenangyaung, who brought five cows to camp No. 3 with help from the township’s Forestry Department, which has attempted to rescue livestock along the Irrawaddy River and Mone creek with boats.

Amid rising waters, Kyaw Maung had the presence of mind to grab a few bushels of dry hay for his oxen, but pointing his finger toward the provisions, he worried that it would not be enough to see his animals through the current crisis.

“One bag of dry hay could only feed two oxen for two days,” he said.

With potable water in short supply, many cattle in the camp must drink from a dirty stream nearby. Authorities, understandably, have made clear that the needs of livestock are secondary to those of the displaced men, women and children of the camp.

“We got some water from them [township authorities], so I saved it for my ox. It is not safe to let them drink water from the stream,” said Kyaw Maung.

But for Ngwe Lin, a man from Bee Zat Khoung village in Yenangyaung who brought four cows from his village, there simply is not enough potable water available, and tough choices have to be made.

“I just let my cows drink water from the stream,” he told The Irrawaddy. “I know that water is dirty, but we do not have enough water to let them have what we are using.”

As one might expect in a country with an agricultural sector encompassing 70 percent of the workforce, most of the people displaced by recent flooding are farmers, and many rely on ox other cattle to plow their fields. For many, the value of their cattle is incalculable, essential as the animals are for tilling fields and other manual labor.

Fortunately, most of the township’s cattle have safely made it to higher ground, according to displaced locals, who expressed gratitude for the township Forestry Department’s efforts to rescue many of the animals by boat.

Displaced farmers here say the survival of their cows and oxen is important so that when the floodwaters recede, they will be able to get back to work in the fields.

Protection from the elements—scorching sun, torrential downpours—is another thing most of the displaced people here have that their bovine counterparts do not.

Ngwe Lin recalled how he was forced to fight against rising floodwaters to guide his four cows to safety. “Firstly, we noticed [water] coming inside our house. We got a little worry, but we kept watching it. But we realized eventually that we needed to leave with our property, the things most important to us,” he said.

“It took two days to bring my four cows. The water in the stream was very strong and I could manage to swim for myself sometimes, but sometimes I just rode on my cows or I held their tails and followed them when trying to cross stream waters.”

Nyi Nyi Hlaing, a 40-year-old man from Magwe Township, has begun an effort to provide for the increasingly hungry animals at Yenangyaung.

Nyi Nyi Hliang and his local aide group have hired about a dozen locals in Yenangyaung Township, paying them a 1,500 kyats (US$1.20) daily wage to collect fresh grass, cut and pile it on a truck, to be driven back to the town to feed the animals, at no cost to their owners.

“Many of us have paid attention only to displaced persons. But, we found later that many of the animals have similar problems to us human beings,” he told The Irrawaddy. “They can only eat when their owner offers them food.”