Monsoonal Squalor

By Simon Roughneen 10 September 2012

IRRAWADDY DELTA—“The water was to here a few days ago,” says Aung Lwin, pointing to a ledge three feet above the water-covered floor inside his shop.

Nowadays, edging along an ad hoc bridge of newly felled bamboo is how he and his older brother Swe Lwin access the premises, which sits in a vulnerable hollow 10 yards from the road from Rangoon to Pantanaw in the Irrawaddy Delta region.

In the backrooms of the shop where the family lives, the living quarters double-up as a miniature warehouse. It’s looking bare now, however, with just five 25kg-sacks of rice, one opened and half-unraveled, the remains of stock damaged by the waters which rose rapidly, catching the family off-guard.

“Each bag is worth 35,000 kyat [US $40],” says Swe Lwin, teeth reddened by chewing betel nut. “We lost more than 50 bags,” he recounts, part of around 1 million kyat in damages and cumulative losses suffered by the family since the waters rose in July.

Protection against such losses is not yet available in reforming Burma, however. “We have no insurance, only in Rangoon can some rich people get insurance,” says Aung Lwin. “We borrow from a friend to keep going.”

No insurance and no access to a bank loan either, he says, illustrating the bare-bones nature of Burma’s economic and financial infrastructure, three months into what President Thein Sein said will be a “second wave” of reforms targeting the country’s economy, the latest of which is a much-debated foreign investment law passed by parliament last Friday.

The new law should facilitate the entry of foreign banks into Burma, which could in turn see loans more readily available to the millions of Burmese who subsist on agriculture. For now, “a wood house like this is not collateral for a loan, according to the banks in this country,” Aung Lwin laments, pointing around the dampened timber interior of his home.

The other option for Aung Lwin and the estimated 70,000 others affected by the monsoon floods is Burma’s network of moneylenders, who often charge 10 percent interest on loans, rack rates that will drown farmers and business owners in debt long after the delta dries.

Insurance might come at a high premium when it is available, after a dozen companies were granted permits to offer private cover for the first time since 1963. Around two and half miles from the east bank of the 1,348-mile-long Irrawaddy River, Burma’s longest, this part of Pantanaw Township is particularly vulnerable to the rise of the waters in monsoon season.

Either side of the road, timber shacks on stilts attest to the year-in year-out flood-prone reality of life in the low-lying delta region. This year’s rains were the heaviest in eight years, so the waters rose well over the usual. Even the now slowly draining waters ripple gently above the high water mark of the door at some houses, which sit part-submerged a stone’s throw from the roadside.

Small flotillas of canoes and rafts are moored in places, while, here and there, farmers can be seen paddling over drowned paddies, winding slowly between tall grasses and over a crop likely beyond saving by now.

The Irrawaddy region is the rice bowl of a country that was once the world’s biggest rice exporter and that still consumes 210 kg of rice per person each year, making up 75 percent of the country’s diet, according to government figures. According to the Myanmar Rice Federation, 33 million acres of rice paddy were planted in the Irrawaddy region this year, with 260,000 acres of this affected by flooding.

In the main Pantanaw town 4 miles away, afternoon rains smash loud as pelted stones into corrugated iron roofs, the downpour quickly turning dry side streets into muddy bogs.

Kyaw Moe Aung owns an electrical goods shop on the town’s main street, a hundred yards from the bridge spanning a swollen tributary of the Irrawaddy.

The town was not flooded, unlike others in the region, but on Aug. 28, Burma’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology forecast more rain lasting until mid-October for the already submerged delta region, so just as the floodwaters are slow to drain, concerns about more flooding have not subsided either.

Pulling a tarpaulin shelter over the shopfront as the rain pockmarks the muddied street outside, Kyaw Moe Aung says, “It’s been raining every day for more than a month, and some days the river is almost up to the bridge, so we are still worried.”

While parts of the Irrawaddy delta region flood annually, the last time Aung Lwin’s area went under water was in May 2008, when one of the world’s worst natural disasters of the last decade pulverized this region, a 3-hour drive from Burma’s main commercial city Rangoon and hometown of former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant.

“It brought back bad memories,” is all Aung Lwin says about Nargis, as neighbours crowd around the shopfront, some laughing, some resignedly shaking their heads at the memory of the 2008 disaster.

More than 140,000 people died and 3 million of the Irrawaddy region’s estimated 6.5 million inhabitants were left homeless after the cyclone. Notoriously, the Burmese government refused to allow aid and aid-workers to enter the area for weeks after the disaster—even jailing Burmese who liaised with foreign NGOs and press during the disaster’s aftermath.

“It is a bit different now,” acknowledges Aung Lwin. “After Nargis I could not speak to you like this without getting into trouble with the police.”

However despite the more relaxed freedom of speech, people in some parts of the flood-hit delta region are unhappy about the aid response.

Various government ministries have donated rice to be sent to the flooded region, while the rice federation is hoping to make up for a seed shortfall to enable replanting of destroyed rice crop. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi visited the regional capital Bassein [Pathein] on Sept. 1, donating 2 million kyat ($2,300) for flood relief.

Aung Lwin says he didn’t know about that visit, adding that he has not heard of any offers of help for his village.

“Nobody came. No government, no NGO, no NLD, no USDP,” he says, the latter two referring to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the largest party in Burma’s parliament.

Half-heartedly—as if not believing his own words—Aung Lwin concludes: “I’m not angry about the situation. No, no, not angry. We just get on with it.”