Image: Myanmar fisherman
A fisherman uses a net on two poles to catch fish along an irrigation canal in the rice field Friday, July 18, 2008 in a village near Yangon City, Myanmar.
updated 7/24/2008 6:17:49 PM ET 2008-07-24T22:17:49

No matter how much she loved the river and sea that once provided her family's daily food, Tin Tin Latt now just wants to stay away from the water that widowed her, killed two of her children and destroyed the family's livelihood.

Tin Tin Latt is among thousands of widows of fishermen in Myanmar's cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy delta who have been forced to become breadwinners without land to farm or the means to earn money from the sea.

Cyclone Nargis, which struck in early May, killed 84,500 people and left 54,000 missing, according to the ruling junta, in the worst natural disaster in Myanmar's modern history and the world's fifth deadliest in the past 40 years. Of the dead, 27,000 were fishermen, the regime says, although aid workers believe the actual number is far higher.

The U.N. food agency says more than 100,000 fishermen have been affected and some 50,000 acres of fish ponds destroyed.

Fishing industry destroyed
The storm also destroyed boats, nets, jetties and processing plants, crippling a top export revenue earner in one of the world's poorest nations. Last year, Myanmar exported some 350,000 tons of seafood to European and Asian countries, much of it from the vast delta with its long coastline and spider web of rivers.

The Myanmar government says it plans to build more than 9,000 boats and provide fishing nets to speed revival of the industry.

"We have started distribution to help those fishermen to regain their livelihoods," said Saw Lah Paw Wah, assistant director of Myanmar's Fisheries Department.

But even if those tools eventually make their way to fishing families, many no longer have the hands to do the job.

"In fishing families, there is a tendency for the men to be the providers. In the event that fishermen are killed, their families are in a far more difficult position than farming families," said Steve Marshall, the U.N. International Labor Organization representative in Myanmar.

Burdened, uncertain
This leaves families like Tin Tin Latt's with a great burden and an uncertain future. Some will have to wait until their surviving children grow up before they can take up their traditional occupation.

"I am afraid my only son will become a fisherman his whole life, following my husband," said the 33-year-old widow. "I don't want him to be killed by a storm like his father."

The destruction wrought by Nargis also destroyed many jobs in the fishing industry.

Slideshow: Myanmar’s misery Marshall's organization and other agencies plan a 12-month project to offer 25,000 delta people jobs building a transport system linking jetties, markets and farms.

But agencies say they lack the funds to cover everyone affected. Two of Tin Tin Latt's three surviving children are under the age of 3, and it's hard to find work for women that generates money while leaving time to care for children, aid workers say.

More than 2 1/2 months after the cyclone struck, Tin Tin Latt's family depends on meager rice handouts from a local aid organization, and her husband's fishing nets lie empty. Rice and fish form the bulk of diets in Myanmar.

The situation for her and thousands of others in the delta still hangs in the balance, although villagers are quickly rebuilding their simple shacks and international aid workers, once barred from the region, offer additional assistance.

In the first full assessment of the disaster, the U.N., Myanmar government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, this week warned of a second emergency unless $1 billion is forthcoming over the next three years from international donors.

It said 450,000 homes were destroyed, while 4,000 schools and 75 percent of health facilities were damaged.

"The worst of the crisis is over but we are still in a state of emergency. People live in a very precarious condition now. If we fail to sustain the recovery efforts, they may face a second emergency," said Puji Pujiono, a member of the ASEAN assessment team, citing shelter, water, sanitation and food as key priorities.

The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization has appealed for $33.5 million, saying 75 percent of farmers in the country's main food-producing region lack sufficient seed, with little time left before the end of the planting season in August.

The Rome-based agency says more than 50,000 small-scale farming households and 99,000 landless rural households need immediate help.

When interviewed, Tin Tin Latt said she had only enough rice for six days and didn't know if her children would have anything to eat after that. Although afraid, she said she had no choice but to send her 15-year-old son to learn how to handle a boat at sea.

"I wish I could move deeper inland, and find a new way to raise my kids rather than let my son become a fisherman," she said as she dissolved into tears. "Every morning, when he goes aboard the boat, I pray for him not to be taken away as happened to my beloved husband."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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