My first visit to the Ayeyarwady River delta and the Myanmar villages where CWS Japan supported a nutrition education project was in 2017. This work was done in partnership with the Japanese food products company, AJINOMOTO; and, it was a success despite the challenges families face every year from of flooding and riverbank erosion. I am proud that learning and practicing better nutrition has been worthwhile for families with young children. But I must say that our progress was often affected by floods and land loss.
Across Asia, natural disasters of many kinds do impact CWS, partner and community investments. And, in coming to know the river delta area where we work in Myanmar, I felt that if something wasn’t done ASAP to mitigate the impact of this recurrent disaster, many of our community development projects would be disturbed forever.
In Japan, people regard disaster risk reduction and mitigation measures as the government’s responsibility. In Myanmar, people do not necessarily know this. And, while the government does have some disaster control projects like river embankment improvements in Ayeyarwady Region, these are not enough. They do not reach the remote poor villages where CWS works because the government priority is more densely populated places or economically important large-scale farmland.
When leaders in the communities where nutrition education was done, and will continue, talked about new ways to lessen the impact of disasters and to improve their lives, riverbank erosion mitigation and village road rebuilding were their priorities for them. They knew that CWS would be interested to help address these issues because they align well with other disaster risk reduction and mitigation work we already support in Maubin.
Initially, to respond to communities’ clearly stated priorities, I first looked for a specialist in civil engineering to advise about appropriate mitigation measures. Fortunately, I found a Japanese non-government organization, Community Road Empowerment (CORE) whose team has experience building roads with locally available materials and with community participation. They also had another project ongoing in the Ayeyarwady Region. In talking with the CORE team, I was pleased to meet Yoshinori Fukubayashi, a civil engineer who teaches at Miyazaki University in Miyazaki, Japan and is now supporting a project to help community members address their multiple reasons for wanting better local roads: to support economic development with better travel routes to markets; to give safe routes to school for their children, and to facilitate their safe evacuation before and during natural disasters.
To start, Yoshi took time with the Myanmar team and me to agree on a road improvement plan that would not have negative environmental impacts on villages on the other side of the river or downstream. We also spoke about what construction materials and methods were most appropriate for Maubin. Finally, we agreed on community investment and participation with contributed labor as appropriate in Maubin villages. And so, with financial support from the Japan International Cooperation Foundation and from CWS in addition to community labor and contributions, this is how we started our community road renovation project.
In addition to all I have learned about road building, I have learned more about the virtue of community ownership during this effort. In working with so many earnest and engaged people, I was drawn to see a distinct contrast to the situation in Japan, where there is a history of community engagement like I see in Myanmar now, but which is long gone and not needed, really, since our country is so developed. Now, with the introduction of modern technology for disaster control measures in Japan, local communities stay out of what the regard as public works. Further, while people do trust the strong infrastructure built by the government, people still die from floods by failing to evacuate, so this is something my own very developed country must continue to address and improve.
So, while looking at my own country compared to Myanmar, the recognition that poor people from a far less developed country are working together – with help from others, like CWS and CORE team members – for collective good in the face of disasters is rewarding for me to see. To me, they are surely the poor who are blessed (Luke 6:20).
Yukiko Maki is the Program Manager of CWS Japan.