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Preparing for the cyclone—this time round

 Displaced people in Khaung Doke Khar were moved out of tents and into nearby government shelters outside Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, ahead of Cyclone Mahasen. Photo: UNHCR/M. Murphy
Cyclone Mahasen was a reminder of the need for heightened disaster preparedness in Myanmar.  In the end, the cyclone that roared into the country’s northwest coast and neighbouring Bangladesh failed to do the massive damage that was feared. What started out as a major storm with winds of over 60 miles an hour in the Bay of Bengal, dissipated after it hit land last Thursday, with a total death toll of 14.

The organised response to the cyclone was a far cry from the lack of action by the Myanmar authorities that preceded Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. We don’t need to be reminded of the devastation that this storm wrought, with 138,000 or more deaths, and even Yangon battered. The damage was put at over US$10 billion and those that suffered the most were largely poor farmers and fishermen in the coastal and delta areas who lost everything, including loved ones. The mopping up efforts proved slow and the relief efforts inadequate and poorly coordinated.

This time round, as Cyclone Mahasen approached, the authorities swung into action to warn residents in low-lying coastal areas and to evacuate people in danger. In a sign of the times, and ahead of President Thein Sein’s official state visit to Washington, the U.S. Embassy in Yangon went as far as issuing a statement commending the Union and Rakhine State governments for their proactive efforts and their engagement with the United Nation Agencies, relief organizations, and local communities and internally displaced persons in Rakhine State. As the embassy said, “The government acted quickly in coordination with humanitarian agencies to identify vulnerable communities, prepare relocation sites, and assist in evacuations. We welcome the government’s commitment to provide humanitarian assistance without discrimination based on race or religion.”

But every major storm or cyclone that threatens Myanmar is a reminder that the annual rainy season harbours a threat. Rakhine State in particular is vulnerable. A raft of measures is needed to shore up disaster preparedness. These include enhanced early warning systems, adequate evacuation plans, more local cyclone shelters, and a drive to build cooperation between the authorities and local communities. Union and state governments can help, and it is clear there is an offer of help from the international community, including the U.S government. After all, foreign governments are aware of the dangers, their countries not immune to the threat of natural disasters, and many have developed ways to try to minimise the damage to property and lives.

It is inevitable that more devastating cyclones will hit Myanmar in the coming years and it appears as much down to luck – or the lack of it - whether a storm as damaging as Cyclone Nargis will hit shore. This poses a challenge for a country that is working to build up its infrastructure, including everything from road upgrades, to electricity grids, and government services. But when the planners work on the blueprints in coastal areas, they need keep in mind the threats that could roar in from the ocean and prepare accordingly.

For more background:
  1. 8 million at risk from Cyclone Mahasen: UN
  2. Evacuate Rohingya immediately: rights group
Last Updated ( Monday, 20 May 2013 16:21 )  
The Kachin’s last stand
Since October this year, Burma has been in a state of civil war, with fighting between Burmese military and armed ethnic rebels. The ruling junta started a crackdown on these armed groups.

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