Flooding. High winds and cyclones. Fire. Drought.
Communities in rural Myanmar, or Burma, need to be prepared to face many emergency situations, both small and large. And, in remote villages, disaster response is almost always up to communities themselves. Emergency aid, including fire brigades and medical services, are essentially nonexistent. Hospitals and clinics are in distant larger towns.
Kyauk Tan village is on the Pathein River outside the town of Ngapudaw in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River region. Our team visited the village to learn more about how its residents are preparing themselves to better respond to future emergencies.
When you arrive in Kyauk Tan, you disembark onto a concrete jetty, which CWS helped the community build. This jetty is much sturdier than the wood versions that came before it, and it ensures that people can safely get in and out of boats. This is especially important when elderly or sick people, or children, need to be helped into a boat for travel or for emergency or routine health care.
After we disembarked onto the jetty and headed into the village, we met with community members who had recently taken part in what is called a Training of Trainers workshop. With donor support, CWS joined with our partner YMCA of Myanmar to host the workshop, which included a variety of education sessions for community volunteers chosen by their neighbors to help them when they need to respond to an emergency. During the sessions, volunteers join those from nearby villages to learn and practice how to take the lead in sharing information before or during an emergency and also how to put together a team to help them in the village.
Ma Gay is the Outreach Worker in Kyauk Tan, who recently joined a seven-day Training of Trainers workshop in Ngapudaw where she learned how to help her village prepare a disaster prevention plan, how to put together committees of others to help and how to respond to small scale disasters, including health-related ones like diarrhea outbreaks.
Kyauk Tan village now has a main Disaster Risk Reduction committee and three sub-committees. “Disaster Risk Reduction” is a common way to describe what we may think of as emergency preparedness. Often, people just say “DRR” and know that it refers to all of the work that goes into understanding disasters, trying to lessen the damage that they can cause and responding when they do cause damage.
One of the first tasks of the DRR committee we visited had been to survey their village. The result is a map of Kyauk Tan that shows where the hazards – such as low-lying or fragile buildings – are and where there are resources. For example, the church and town hall are on high ground in the middle of town, which makes them resources, so the community keeps dry food and some supplies there for emergencies.
Another part of the assessment was to create a calendar. This is a month-by-month list of well-known risks and disasters so the community can plan accordingly. For example, Kyauk Tan has faced a variety of disasters in the past, from frequent flooding to Cyclone Nargis in 2008 to annual fire and drought risks in the dry season. So, these types of risks and when they are likely to occur are noted on the calendar.
We were surprised to learn that, despite the fact that Kyauk Tan is on the banks of the Pathein River, drought is a major concern here. In the rainy season, families collect as much rainwater for drinking as they can. And, when individual family supplies run out, the rain-fed community pond becomes the only source for drinking water in the dry season. But sometimes the pond water isn’t enough to last through the dry season and families face water shortages. When we asked about ways to change the situation, we learned that they can’t expand the pond because there is a rock slab under it that they can’t dig around. And even if the families wanted to boil and filter the river water to drink it in the dry season, it is too salty because of the village’s location near the river delta.
In talking further about this situation, Ma Gay told us that during droughts, since safe water is harder to find, people go ahead and use unclean water, so diarrhea is more common.
She told us that some families used to eat less during water shortages because they were afraid of diarrhea from food prepared with what they know is dirty water. This leads, she explained, to people becoming malnourished and ending up in the hospital in Ngapudaw. To start to confront this problem, Ma Gay decided to use information she received in a CWS-supported education session. She had learned how to prepare certain types of liquids, referred to as oral rehydration solutions, that can help treat diarrhea, and she learned that patients can have soft food. This means that patients can keep eating and drinking and not make themselves even more sick from hunger and dehydration. She has shared this knowledge with her neighbors, and she tells us that residents are now less scared to eat during water shortages.
As for larger natural disasters, community members told us that they are now better prepared to handle them because DRR committee and subcommittee members have specific jobs they are prepared to do when needed. One member is responsible for making sure that there are basic supplies and dry food at the shelter locations. Another is responsible for making announcements on the community loudspeaker to keep the public informed. Members of the Search and Rescue subcommittee make sure they know who may need extra help in an emergency, such as elderly people living alone or neighbors with disabilities. In the event of a disaster, these subcommittee members are responsible for helping the identified residents.
In her role as Outreach Worker, Ma Gay works hard to ensure that everyone in the community is better prepared for all kinds of emergencies. She often makes announcements in church and works with youth groups.
Kyauk Tan, and many villages like it around the world, faces a variety of natural disaster risks. With support from CWS donors, staff and partners, though, they now have the training, resources and organization needed to weather the storm in whatever form it comes.