Preparing for the next disaster

Photo A family sits in the wreckage of their home in Bogale, Ayeyarwady Region, after Cyclone Nargis stuck the delta and Yangon Region in May 2008. Photo - EPA

02 July 19 - Source: Myanmar Times - Struggling to survive in a storm, U Win Aung and his family climbed a tree and clung on for their lives in Pyinsalu, a town on the Ayeyarwady River in Labutta township, Ayeyarwady Region. His relatives fell, one after another, into the water and never surfaced again, but he couldn't do anything except feel desperately sorry for them.

Pyinsalu was among the areas severely hit by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Although it happened more than a decade ago, the storm is stuck in U Win Aung's memory and he remembers every detail of that sad story.

"One worker dived into the place where his son sank but he also never came back up. I saw my younger brother and his wife on an upside-down boat. As my sister-in-law couldn't swim, he pushed her up to a big branch but when a strong wind blew, she was taken away into the water. My brother jumped into the water where his wife fell in and both disappeared. When I recovered from the shock, I found that one of my nephews was still alive," he said.

U Win Aung shared his tragic story at the Yaw Min Gyi Zayat talk show on climate change, "Climate Action: More Urgent Than Ever," put on by the Institute for Strategy and Policy - Myanmar at a Yangon hotel on June 22.

Hundreds of thousands of people died in Nargis, and the storm caused US$13 billion (K19.67 trillion) in damage – one of the worst disasters Myanmar has ever faced.

Yet the country continues to experience natural disasters every year. In fact it is the second most disaster-prone country in the world, and experts urge the government to adopt measures to make Myanmar more resilient to climate change.

"Of all the things that hinder Myanmar's development, the most dangerous are natural disasters brought about by climate change. Some have said that Myanmar can't achieve development if it is unable to cope with these challenges," U Tun Lwin, a meteorologist, said.

Volatile rainy season

U Tun Lwin said Myanmar's weather started changing about 50 years ago. Myanmar's monsoon season is getting shorter, he said. "It now starts later and ends earlier." Typically, the monsoon begins in mid-May and ends in mid-October, but now it begins at the end of May and ends in September.

Due to the changes, the rainy season is about 40 days shorter. Also, there are fewer storms during the monsoon. In the past, at least 10 storms formed in the Bay of Bengal each year, but now there are 40 percent fewer storms, he said.

The longer periods before and after the monsoon may result in extreme weather such as thunder, lightning, tornados, thundershowers and hailstorms in Myanmar, he said.

"Fatalities caused by lightning are increasing," he added.

Climate change is responsible for a wide array of extreme weather, such as drought, cyclones, strong winds, unstable precipitation, record-breaking rainfall, flooding and heavy seas, extreme temperatures, and rising sea-levels, according to the Myanmar Climate Change Alliance.

Floods, the second largest natural disaster after Cyclone Nargis, occurred in 12 regions and states in 2015, with Sagaing, Magwe, Chin and Rakhine suffering the most. Roads, bridges and houses were damaged and thousands of people died. More than 1.4 million acres of farmland were flooded throughout the country, causing up to K160 billion in damages, according to the government. Hundreds of thousands of people were also affected by floods in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

"Natural disaster occurred only once a year on average in the 1980s. From 2008, when Nargis occurred, to 2018, there were 42 natural disasters, or about four a year on average," Daw Myat Moe Thwe, director of negotiation and research at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement's Department of Disaster Management.

The 2016 El Nino set new high-temperature records throughout the country, but this year, more than 20 weather stations recorded new heat records, among them Yangon and other cities.

Health risks

Weather changes affect health as well, medical experts said. Due to extreme heat, 1482 people had heat-related illnesses and 260 people died in the summer of 2010.

Dr Thurain Hlaing Win, who participated in the talk show, said that environmental damage is increasing health risks.

"Hospitals are seeing more patients, which is a negative sign. According to studies, most health problems in developing countries are caused by weather," he said, adding that this year many people suffered heatstroke.

"Heat-related problems may get worse. Floods occur in the rainy season and cause shortages of clean water. There are problems with food hygiene, which can cause contagious diseases. We haven't solved any of these yet," he said.

Daw Myat Moe Thwe said a 2018 survey found that natural disasters cause $190 million in damage per year.

On June 5, the National Environmental Policy and National Climate Change Policy and Strategy were published. The Natural Disaster Management Law has been enacted as well, aimed at training people to live with and adapt to weather changes.

The National Disaster Management Committee, led by the vice president with a K20 billion annual budget, is preparing for natural disasters, emergency support and rehabilitation work, she said.

"But awareness-raising alone isn't enough. Shelters are being prepared in cooperation with civil administration groups," said Daw Myat Moe Thwe, adding that 220 disaster emergency shelters have been built in states and regions, and the number will be increased if needed.

While the movement to prepare for natural disasters has become increasingly important, help is still needed for local residents like cyclone survivor U Win Aung, who said that he would particularly like to have access to weather news in a timely manner.

"If we local people are offered 100 phones each, only ten people will know how to use them, and those who know how to use them will only get fake news. I would like the experts present here (at the talk show) to help us to receive true news," U Win Aung said. – Translated

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