Focus: Cyclone Nargis
Revisiting the Irrawaddy delta
Al Jazeera speaks to Save The Children on the effects of the cyclone one year on.
Last Modified: 02 May 2009 17:20 GMT

Save the Children CEO Jasmine Whitbread meets villagers in the Irrawaddy delta [Piers Benatar]

Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar's southern Irrawaddy delta in May 2008, leaving at least 138,000 people dead and destroying homes and farmland.

A year on, Myanmar's military rulers have ignored the anniversary of the event, but aid agencies continue to highlight the suffering of the people whose lives were devastated by it.

Aid workers say that the most pressing problem people face is the return of the monsoon rains. Thousands are still living in emergency tents and flimsy shacks that could easily be washed away.

Vulnerable children

Forty per cent of the homeless are children and they are particularly vulnerable to the malaria and pneumonia that the wet and windy weather conditions can cause.

"We are most worried about accommodation - people are living in structures made of weeds and re-salvaged wood," Jasmine Whitbread, CEO of charity Save the Children, told Al Jazeera on her return from Myanmar.

"There aren't four walls on these shelters, just one or two. Most of these wouldn't stand a chance in a storm, even in a heavy rain people would struggle not to get wet."

The onset of the monsoon has evoked troubling memories of last year's tragedy, when 200km per hour winds struck the Irrawaddy delta, driving a 12ft wall of water through tightly packed villages.

"You can see the pain etched on their [the children's] faces, the fear and trauma running through them a year on," Dan Collinson, Save the Children's director of emergencies, said.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Collinson, who has been living in Myanmar and working in the Irrawaddy delta for the past year, said: "I visited one school which had 82 children before the cyclone. The school was swept away and there are now only 25 children left. They have lessons in a tent - a small one because a third of their class has died. You just don't know what's going on in their minds."

Families torn apart

Families were torn apart by the storm and many children saw their parents die.

One young girl, Aye Hwate, held tightly to her mother's leg as they fought against the flood waters, but she let go when she saw her mother was dead. Then she watched the body of her brother float past her.

Save the Children is now helping Aye Hwate and others come to terms with what they saw.

Families are slowly coming to terms
with the
tragedy [Piers Benatar]
"When I visited just after the cyclone children had stopped talking. This time when we were walking around villages children were talking and in some places playing," said Jasmine.

"When we go into disaster areas we create child friendly play areas and encourage children to draw pictures.

"Soon after the cyclone these pictures were very disturbing – of the storm or 'my friend's dead body', Now they are drawing their house and palm trees - much like children all over the world. But there is no doubt that these children are still recovering."

Aid agencies like Save the Children have pushed for children to return to school, believing that can help them recover.

"Most schools were destroyed and a big part of our work is helping repair schools – it's really important to get kids to school right away," said Jasime.

"Every day a child is out of school in a disaster they are more likely to drop out altogether. Families come to rely on children at home.

"Many children in Myanmar are being used for water carrying as this has become a very time consuming activity since the cyclone. Villages collect their freshwater from ponds and many of these have filled with sea water and are unusable," said Jasmine.

Back to school

Save the Children have begun building schools in the delta and helping filter water for drinking.

The charity is also holding workshops to teach children how to survive any future storms - to spots signs of an upcoming storm and find a safe place to shelter.

"Helping people understand what to do can help them get over their fear," Jasmine said.

She says she is confident that Myanmar's children will recover.

"I am much more optimistic then I was a year ago. Children are incredibly resilient - they do recover," Jasmine said.

"I met one boy who lost both his parents and told me he thinks about them every day. But now he is talking about becoming a schoolteacher. So there is hope, as long as the world does not forget about Myanmar.

"Despite initial concerns about access for aid agencies, donations have been widely used and the relief effort was a success. Now the real task begins - reconstruction - which needs funding. Now is not the time to look or walk away from Myanmar."

Al Jazeera
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