THA KHIN MA GYI, Myanmar — Without warning, it began at mid-afternoon with a howling wind. Five hours later, U Hla Kyi remembers, a tidal wave the height of a three-story building thundered in from the nearby sea, bursting into his home as its bricks, iron framing and cement blocks were blown skyward like feathers by the cyclone’s force.
Plunging into the surrounding water, U Hla Kyi tried to swim to safety, grasping for any anchor that could stop him from being swept away, when he heard a voice shouting, “Daddy, daddy, daddy!”
Near a riverbank, he saw his son clinging to a lone tree. Both almost naked, the two hung on together until the swirling waves and wind around them subsided in the early morning.
Within 12 hours Cyclone Nargis, Myanmar’s greatest natural disaster of modern times, had killed his wife and two daughters and robbed him of most of his livelihood. It destroyed every house in the village of Tha Khin Ma Gyi and caused the deaths of two-thirds of its inhabitants.
Like thousands of farmers and fishermen in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River Delta, through which the 2008 cyclone cut a swath of utter devastation and took an estimated 140,000 lives, U Hla Kyi hoped the government and foreign agencies would come to his aid in the tragedy’s aftermath, and then again following the more recent economic and political reforms of a civilian government. But these hopes have been often been dashed.
Some gains have been made in the Delta since Nargis, and President Thein Sein, who assumed power in 2010 after half a century of military rule, has vowed to invigorate the sorely neglected agricultural sector. Official reports show that quality roofing, drinking water and sanitation has improved and the presence of foreign and local aid agencies has upped the skills of villagers and emboldened them to voice their demands.
But according to the most recent statistics compiled by the government and international organizations, those living below the poverty line — defined as earning under $1.25 a day — doubled between 2005 and 2010 to 32 percent while landlessness and unemployment increased slightly in the same period.
With more farmers than cultivatable land and without jobs in manufacturing and other industries, wages have fallen, the average rural worker making about 2,100 kyat ($2.10) a day. The health and education sectors remain underdeveloped.
“The government talks repeatedly about ‘poverty eradication’ and international companies are eyeing investment in Myanmar, but nobody cares about agricultural sector even though 70 percent of country’s population lives in rural areas,” says U Khin Maw, who is teaching farmers about the proper use of fertilizer in the village of Khan Su West. “In the Delta farmers remain poor. We feel that we have been neglected by the government.”
Like many villages in the Delta, where the mighty Irrawaddy splits into half a dozen arms before emptying into the sea, Kan Su West can only be reached by boat, a 1 ½-hour trip from the nearest major town through tangled mangrove swamps and along the innumerable waterways that crisscross the region.
Home to 480 people dependent on farming, it’s a small cluster of thatch-roofed buildings along a riverbank with few trees to screen the parching summer sun or the monsoon rains, which turn its streets into mud.
With the rains now showering the community daily, its farmers are behind bullock-driven plows, preparing their vital rice paddies for planting, hoping for bountiful harvests but knowing they won’t prove sufficient to improve their livelihoods to any extent.
The village suffered no deaths during Nargis, but most of its houses were destroyed and its fields saturated by the surging salt water, and the expensive, time-consuming desalination of the soil, a major problem across the Delta, has yet to be seriously tackled by the government or foreign agencies.
Thus, salt-damaged fields lie fallow and others yield less than before the cyclone, while prices for essential inputs — seeds, fertilizer, gasoline, labor — have risen sharply. Two-thirds of Kan Su’s farmers are now landless, forced to seek a declining number of jobs as seasonal laborers. Average per family incomes have dropped from 3,000 to 3,500 kyat ($3-5) a day before the tragedy to some 2,000 to 2,500 ($2-2.50) at present.
U Than Htwe, the 44-year-old village chief and father of three young children, said the bitter experience after Nargis has brought sorrow rather than anger to his family and neighbors — who focus more on their own precarious lives than on what has not been done for them.
The 47 acres of farmland he owned before the cyclone have now shrunk to 11 after selling off salinated land to repay debts.
Growing an acre of rice, he said, costs 150,000 to 200,000 kyat ($150-200), but last year, even with a slight increase in rice prices, his per acre profit of 100,000 kyat ($100) was not enough to meet debt repayments.
“The number of farmers are declining gradually since the capital investment is out of balance with rice yields,” he says, speaking in a meeting room before taking reporters on a tour of his native village.
After Nargis, the government’s Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank provided loans — 40,000 kyat ($400) an acre — at a low interest rate, but it wasn’t enough to meet costs, forcing farmers to turn to usurious money lenders who have demanded an interest rate of as much as a 20 percent from U Than Htwe and others.
This post-Nargis erosion of agriculture — the village’s traditional way of life — is increasingly transforming Kan Su and many other Delta villages into habitations for children and older men and women.
“All our young people want to go to cities to find jobs because fewer and fewer farms can operate,” said 56-year-old farmer U Tin Shein, whose four young sons are still at home, helping out on his 11-acre farm.
Education in Kan Su ends with the seventh grade, and 60 percent of the students don’t go beyond that. What learning is available in the school, rebuilt in brick after Nargis by a non-governmental organization, is of low standard, says teacher Daw Yin Nwet, stressing the lack of teachers — just four to teach 50 students in seven grades.
Medical care is also rudimentary: a single, two-room government clinic with no doctors and only one nurse — 56-year-old Daw Tin Myaing — for 4,600 people in the village and surrounding communities to treat everything from dengue fever to goiters to snake bites. Those suffering from serious illnesses or who need emergency care during pregnancies must, like the children who seek higher education, undertake the long, expensive journey to the town of Bogalay from their isolated world.
Bogalay is hardly a godsend. It was and remains a ramshackle town with basic infrastructure — no hotels, reliable electricity or local public transport and almost no internet connection — suggesting the economy has remained generally stagnant. The finest buildings are religious — Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu. The town is located in the southern part of the Delta, the country’s rice bowl and before the disastrous half-century of military rule, one of the greatest rice exporting regions in the world.
Encompassing nearly 600 villages, Bogalay Township suffered heavily during Nargis: more than 36,000 dead or missing. And in its aftermath the township seat became a key hub for relief operations, remaining so today although some two-thirds of the NGOs have now withdrawn from the Delta.
Nargis, some say, has become “a forgotten crisis” as foreign agencies focus on more recent humanitarian disasters around the world and the post-military government becomes embroiled in a host of leftover problems and new challenges.
In one of the cruelest acts of the former regime, foreign aid and workers were hindered, sometimes blocked, from reaching the desperate cyclone victims. By contrast, the new government is welcoming NGOs, both Burmese and foreign, and local officials are normally cooperative. Foreign journalists, once barred from the Delta, have generally easy access.
"Now, they [local government officers] ask us 'Can I help you?' It was different two years ago,” says Ko Nay Tun, Delta program director of Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund, or LIFT, under which local and international NGOs establish demonstration farms and rice banks, help boost agricultural output and provide microfinancing.
This and similar help, although limited and not covering many areas, has offered some hope that the Delta may one day rise to its former economic prominence.
Ko Min Min Zaw, manager of a microfinance project, says the loans of up to 1,500,000 kyat ($15,000) are increasing with more than half going to solve perhaps the Delta’s most crucial problem: landlessness.
"This year, I can pay back all my loans. No need to borrow,” says Ma Tin Sandar, who received 450,000 kyat ($4,500) at a low, 2.5 percent interest rate, to recover five acres of devastated farmland. She now owns 13 acres, having also followed NGO advice on how to systematically improve her farming methods.
The 28-year-old woman is one of the Delta’s luckier survivors, standing barefoot in her own rice fields, smiling as she cradles her baby in one arm, and holds an umbrella in the other.
Thirteen years ago, U Myint Thein moved to Tha Khin Ma Gyi hoping to expand his fishing business. Acquiring 10 boats and hiring six employees, he prospered until the cyclone destroyed his entire little fleet and killed all but one of his workers.
“I went into a massive depression. A brotherly friend encouraged me to start my life again. Then he handed me a two-million-kyat loan to rehabilitate my previous business,” recounts the rugged, sun-darkened 47-year-old man. With the money, he has purchased three boats and invested in nets and other shrimping equipment.
“Look over there,” he says, as loads of squirming shrimp from the morning’s catch cascade into buckets heading for market.
But the storm clouds of Nargis have hardly cleared for him, his fellow fishermen or the village, located on a riverbank five miles from the Andaman Sea, near enough to catch the water’s unmistakable briny scent.
After Nargis, international and local NGOs provided some fishing boats and nets, hoping the industry would revive. But the village fleet has dropped to 25 boats, down from more than 200 before the storm, and so have the number of residents who go out to sea.
Some simply could not recover, while others, U Myint Thein says, were forced to stop two years after Nargis, unable to compete with commercial-scale outfits who were muscling in and could afford the high license fees that the government’s Fisheries Department imposed on the industry. Those who won the contracts, he says, are also squeezing small-scale fishermen like himself, demanding exorbitant payments to fish in their licensed zones and that the catch be sold exclusively to them.
"We don't want to ask to do our business for free. We only ask the government to give us a chance by imposing a low fee. Then, by selling our catch on the free market, our incomes will increase,” he says. With such obstacles and general rising prices for what he needs to operate, his profits have sunk from up to 5,000 kyat ($5) a day before Nargis to as low as 2,000 kyat ($2) today.
U Myint Thein, who supports a wife and two children, lists other problems now facing men who have sustained their livelihood from the sea for generations, the bottom line being a scarcity of fish due to population increase, the use of poisons and electricity rather than traditional fishing methods, changing weather patterns and sediments caused by deforestation, which destroy fishing grounds.
Its major source of income much depleted, Tha Khin Ma Gyi remains an impoverished village. The flattened houses have been rebuilt, again with wood and thatch, with plastic sheeting donated by the US government for walls.
But these are home to only 170 people, far below the 679 before the tragedy. There is no clinic and the school that once existed has never reopened.
U Hla Kyi, the 51-year-old village chief who lost three members of his family, could not restart his fishing business and now only farms 14 acres of his original 40.
“I can never forget the scenes from Nargis,” he says, sitting on a bench in his house as rain tumbled down and a strong wind blew from the sea. “But I try very hard to regain my peace of mind.”
Immaculata May Endira, Michael Sullivan and Bruce Wallace contributed to this report.
For more about the Special Report from GlobalPost co-founder and editor-at-large Charles M. Sennott, as well as a three-minute video about the project filmed in Myanmar, please visit GroundTruth in Burma.