With the thatched-roof houses built on stilts over often-flooded land, small shops lining the river embankment and pigs lying around in household gardens, the villages in Ayerwaddy River delta seemed unreal – like a fairy tale, but not an always lovely one – to me. Though I have lived and worked in many rural villages around the world through the years, my first impression when I visited some of the villages where CWS supports a nutrition education project in November last year, surprised me. Mostly, I was surprised to see the fragility of the houses made of bamboo and with thatched roofs. But then I remembered that houses in my country, Japan, are made of wood and paper. So, just different natural materials!
Housing materials and construction aside, there is at least one thing that is definitely different between Japan and Myanmar today. While the people of Japan face many natural disasters related to weather, the people of Myanmar, in the villages where CWS supports community development, experience perennial flooding and unrelenting riverbank erosion that has gone on, unchecked, for a decade. In interviews with affected villagers, the potential loss of their houses is now their biggest difficulty. Since they have already lost their farmland in past flooding, their houses are now their only remaining property. The leader of one village, Ma Yan Su, shocked me completely when he told me his story of relocating his home nine times in the last 20 years. From the time he told me his story, until now, I have been motivated to go back to the area where we work in Maubin Township to start working on a new project to mitigate the damage from flooding.
When I finally had the chance to return, I found out that the Ma Yan Su village leader had been forced to move again in the mere half-year since we last visited.
Unlike Japan where, despite all our well-developed technology for managing natural disaster, people do die in floods, no villagers have drowned in flooding in Maubin Township or nearby in many years (since Cyclone Nargis in 2008, perhaps) and I think this is because of people’s acclimation, wisdom and mutual assistance. Because flooding is perennial, families know how to adapt to rising river water, and they know exactly when to evacuate.
The example of being acclimated, and wise, that surprised me most was that families raise their floors – or, actually, they make a whole second floor with bamboo – to avoid having their house inundated. Alternatively, they move their whole house to another spot piece by piece just before it is washed away by strong water. And, when families decide to relocate, all their neighbors help then reassemble their houses such as they are. So, to look and see that these families don’t have much cash or any materials valuables to speak of in their homes; but the thing that is easy to miss, but which I see in hindsight – is the strong social capital which is their community. They are their own strongest asset in the face of never-ending challenges.
Also, in hindsight, or afterthought, I have realized that a Myanmar house in the Ayerwaddy River delta is the most ecological, flexible and innovative I have ever seen.