Image: Children in front of shack
Khin Maung Win  /  AP
These children in Twantay, Myanmar, are among the hundreds of thousands still living on the edge after Cyclone Nargis.
updated 5/1/2009 5:08:50 PM ET 2009-05-01T21:08:50

The boat's owner points to a palm-covered bend in the river where dozens of bamboo huts perched on spindly stilts — until Cyclone Nargis devastated this remote region a year ago.

"There were many, many bodies," Tin Maung Thein, 57, says through an interpreter, gesturing toward a lush expanse of green where bloated corpses once gently nudged the high tide mark.

Nature has concealed the scars in this tangle of narrow waterways in the Irrawaddy Delta, where most of the more than 138,000 victims drowned when the storm roared through during the night last May 2. But behind the lush growth, tens of thousands of survivors still struggle to eke out a life.

Many lack clean drinking water. Rice fields remain bare, even as food handouts wind down. More than 2,000 schools have reopened, but some are short of teachers. A half million people live in rudimentary shelters.

International relief agencies have embarked on a three-year recovery plan, but response to a global appeal for $691 million in funding has been slow, the groups say.

"Finding that money to help get people back on their feet is the biggest challenge that we face at the moment," says Andrew Kirkwood, the country director of Save the Children Fund.

Worst off are those in remote areas, such as Tin Maung Thein's village of Oak-kyiut.

Sea water inundated drinking water wells throughout the delta and turned almost 2 million acres of Myanmar's most fertile rice paddies into salt-contaminated wastelands.

Drinking water shipped in
Aid coordinators say 240,000 people in remote villages still rely on drinking water delivered in large rubber bladders by boat. In some places, diesel-powered filtration plants work around the clock turning brackish estuary water into drinkable water.

People in Oak-kyiut, a village of 2,000 two hours up the Toe River from the regional hub of Bogalay, augment the local supply by buying water from vendors. A single muddy pond is its main source of drinking water, its two former reservoirs now holding only puddles of brackish rain water.

"Drinking water is our largest problem," Tin Maung Thein says through lips red from chewing betel nut and leaf, a locally grown mild stimulant.

With the rainy season approaching, Save the Children's Kirkwood expects the most pressing crisis will shift from water to a shortfall of 130,000 waterproof houses. About 450,000 homes were destroyed by the cyclone and 350,000 others sustained damage.

"We've got about 500,000 people currently living in makeshift shelters like tarpaulins that have been deteriorating in the sun for the past year," says Kirkwood, a Canadian native who also holds British citizenship.

The xenophobic military regime that rules Myanmar, also known as Burma, was widely condemned for denying foreign aid agencies access for the first weeks after the disaster, almost certainly adding to the death toll.

The government is now working with the international community through the Tripartite Core Group, made up of the military junta, the United Nations and the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

A U.N. report in December said a survey of a few thousand people spread among 100 delta communities found chronic food shortages and malnourishment, with many people still living in temporary shelters with plastic sheeting.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who toured the area several weeks after the storm to demand better access for aid workers, says he is open to returning. But first the international community wants to see progress toward "full democratization," including the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political detainees.

Thousands of registered aid workers now have access, though aid groups worry the government may arbitrarily evict them at any moment, says aid worker Matt MacCalla of the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based medical aid charity Direct Relief International.

"It would be a political decision on when there was no longer a need for humanitarian aid and a response to Cyclone Nargis," says MacCalla, who visited the disaster area in April.

The pace of reconstruction is frenetic in Bogalay, a bustling community of more than 60,000 people. The cyclone destroyed 95 percent of the houses and killed 10,000 residents.

Awba Ta, a Buddhist monk in the town, is familiar with the hardships in outlying villages. "The people need 10 times more rice" than aid groups are providing, Awba Ta says.

Oak-kyiut's paddy fields are bare, but village chief Aye Maung Gyi says aid workers told him the April delivery of donated rice was the village's last monthly shipment.

The World Food Program initially provided food for more than 1 million cyclone survivors. While phasing out food donations proved impossible in the original six-month timeframe, the number of recipients has been falling, to 250,000.

Chris Kaye, the U.N. World Food Program's representative in Myanmar, concedes that remote villages such as Oak-kyiut struggled to receive their share of aid because of difficulties in reaching them. But he insists aid is getting to those who need it.

He says the current poor rice harvest is mostly the result of farmers' inability to borrow money to buy seeds. "The problem is much more to do with the availability of credit than it is a problem with salt-affected land," says Kaye, a Briton.

100,000 boats were lost
The fishing industry, the delta's second most important source of income and food after rice, also still struggles.

More than 40 percent of fishing boats and 70 percent of fishing gear were destroyed. The most recent review available, done in November, found that less than 10 percent of the more than 100,000 boats lost had been replaced.

The top U.N. representative in Myanmar, Bishow Parajuli, says more than 2,000 schools have reopened, though many are in temporary structures and teachers are needed.

The only teacher in the village of Gadonkani, who gave her name only as Yaung Ngo, says she struggles to cope with 200 students.

Ma Myo, a woman in the neighboring village of Koenginta who lost her husband and two daughters in the cyclone, says she cannot afford the fees to send her 8-year-old son to school.

Kirkwood says foreign governments have been reluctant to fund education, because it is regarded as the government's responsibility.

"By not doing so, the international community is basically saying to hundreds of thousands of children that they're not going to get an education any time soon," he says.

Despite the shortage of clean water, feared outbreaks of dengue and cholera never happened. One reason may be that Myanmar's people have endured harsh conditions for generations.

"They're tough, their immune systems are relatively strong, having been drinking not the best water, eating not the best food and not having the best health care. So after the last couple of generations, it's the strong that make it," MacCalla says after visiting villages beyond Bogalay.

Though many died in Oak-kyiut, Aye Maung says the population has actually grown from 1,500 before the cyclone to 2,000 today, as survivors drifted in from abandoned nearby settlements.

"People came here because they are scared to live alone," Aye Maung says. Overhead, clouds gather, heralding perhaps the approaching cyclone season.

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