Bad weather threatens flooded Myanmar delta

Some relief is getting through but not enough

May 12, 2008|By Los Angeles Times

KYAIKTAW, Myanmar -- U Maung Saw and his family are in a race against the rain.

Cyclone Nargis pounded their house as flat as the mud where the broken pieces now lie. A 5-foot wave, driven by a storm surge that rolled 20 miles upriver from the Andaman Sea, crashed onto his doorstep. It washed away almost everything the family of seven owned - even the fish they were farming in a nearby pond.

The flooding and torrential rain May 4 also ruined a fifth of the unmilled rice they had stockpiled since harvesting the paddy from the rich soil of the Irrawaddy River delta, Myanmar's rice bowl, in late March. A week after the storm, the rest of the rice is so damp that it has to be spread on the mucky ground to dry slowly in the sun before it rots, too.

And therein lies the problem: A nasty tropical depression is bearing down on southern Myanmar. And in countless villages like this, where no one has received outside aid, the clock is ticking down to what threatens to be the next disaster.

Despite intense foreign pressure on Myanmar's military regime to open the reclusive Southeast Asian nation to relief operations, the generals continued yesterday to block most international aid. Adding to the problems, a Red Cross boat laden with relief supplies - one of the first international shipments - sank on its way to the disaster zone yesterday. The four aid workers on board survived.

Other aid was increasingly getting through, the relief agency said, but on "nowhere near the scale required."

Myanmar's state television said yesterday that the death toll had gone up by about 5,000 to 28,458 - with 33,416 missing - though some experts said it could be 15 times that if people do not get clean water and sanitation soon.

Weak from the lack of adequate food and avoiding using a bad leg, Maung Saw, 58, isn't waiting for help to arrive. With a hand from his sons, Maung Saw works from dawn until dusk, rebuilding their house from scratch, getting what strength he can from meals of boiled rice and white melon.

Even without a house, the family is better off than most neighbors. So Maung Saw and his sons are helping those less fortunate as they seek to hold out against the coming rain long enough for relief operations to begin.

"The government never gives us anything," he says, laughing. "We're not angry. We're not surprised. We don't expect anything else."

Kyaiktaw lies about 20 miles north of the Andaman Sea on the banks of the Bogalay River, one in a web of waterways that make up the Irrawaddy delta. In the center of the town of 1,000, Ma San San Lwin and her husband have taken shelter in the dirt-floored sitting room of their boss, who pays them to weave palm fronds into roof thatch.

With rice prices soaring, they can't afford to buy enough to eat, so they depend on daily donations from villagers like Maung Saw. It's not so much the model of self-reliance and discipline that the junta has hammered into its people for decades, but more a realization that the generals can't be counted on to rescue their country from catastrophe.

"They are very selfish," says one villager, leaning on a thin bamboo pole. "They don't care what happens to others. They only think about themselves."

The only way into or out of the village is by boat, and with shortages driving up the price of fuel, few can afford to go far. Maung Saw uses his boat to travel upriver to a lake for drinking water.

He thinks it's safer than boiling water from a river poisoned by human waste and the hundreds of rotting corpses floating through the delta on their way to toward the sea.

The 12-hour cyclone killed five elderly people in the village when their houses collapsed. Several children are now sick with diarrhea, which villagers say was caused by bad water. Eating rotten rice also could be contributing to illness.

It's anyone's guess, though, because no doctors have visited since the storm. Villagers heard a promise of help from the military regime yesterday. But local officials only recorded the names of the homeless and said they would return to give each a single ration of about four cups of rice, according to Maung Saw.

The unmilled rice that Maung Saw's family has lost is worth $370, roughly half their annual income. Even after losing so much, Maung Saw says he's better off than those who come to him for handouts.

Once the family home is rebuilt, he says, they'll turn to planting their next rice crop. In a matter of days, hundreds of pounds of damp paddy piled up in the mill might start to sprout, and then it will be worthless as food.

They can't stomach the thought of so much rice going to waste. So workers in his son's small mill, which doubles as the family's emergency shelter, are turning the wet paddy into rice. But the moisture makes it vulnerable to fungus and rot that could sicken anyone who eats it.

"It's not good for you," Maung Saw says, looking slightly embarrassed. But something is better than nothing when you're just trying to survive.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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