Burma's resolve

The Burmese people have shown astonishing resilience in the wake of cyclone Nargis, but the internat

It is a given that for every force there is an equal and an opposite reaction. So when the destructive force of cyclone Nargis devastated the Ayeyarwady Delta on the night of the 2 May this year, the question arising was: "how would the country respond?"

Although the cyclone left 140,000 people dead or missing, and seriously affected 2.4 million more, the answer was quick and definitive.

Within two days, monasteries, individuals, self help groups, staff of national charities, international non–governmental organisations and United Nations agencies (many of whom had families and homes affected by this disaster) had dusted themselves off and launched an incredible aid effort. They took food and essential relief items to absolutely isolated villages, by any means possible.

Although there was a tragic lack of readiness for this cyclone – an all too frequent event in this region – and although the government request for international assistance was delayed, there was, and remains a massive humanitarian response.

This disaster has shown that when the extraordinary resilience of a local population is backed up by international support, a powerful and constructive force for good can be unleashed.

The Delta is full of stories of courage; how people climbed trees and hung on for hours despite the lashing and stinging saline rain and howling winds; how friends pulled loved ones from the swollen rivers; how people sat out the cyclone on rooftops; how people went to extraordinary lengths to find missing members of their families to reunite in the rubble.

I heard from three brothers who survived a capsized ship by treading water and floating on logs for hours. They survived for three days by eating coconuts and drinking rain water and were finally reunited at a temporary camp 14 days later.

The international community, local government and national staff of non-governmental organisations have undoubtedly played largely successful roles in the aid effort through the provision of essential humanitarian aid in the days following the cyclone – distributing much needed tarpaulins for shelter, soap and cooking utensils, mosquito nets and jerry cans for fetching water to hundreds of thousands of people. This was all carried out across a vast geographical area typified by swamps and huge interconnecting rivers.

The job of the aid workers has been made easier by the incredible spirit of the local population. It was observed as early as July that in many areas, over 75% of people affected by the cyclone had rebuilt their homes.

Despite the chaos following the immediate days after the cyclone, rice was planted and in some areas a reasonable harvest is expected. Even in some of the most heavily affected and remote locations, such as Middle Island in the Western Delta which bore the full brunt of the storm, markets are springing back up again.

Tea rooms and restaurants are full of the bustle of daily life. I even stumbled upon a landowner who had managed to rig up a satelitte TV system and was showing English Premier League football – for a price of course - to a willing and animated crowd.

There is much more to be done in Burma and the reconstruction effort will be a long, painful and difficult road not helped by the fact that the United Nations appeal stands pitifully half-empty. This means that essential recovery and reconstruction work such as re-building roads, health services and schools will not take place on the scale necessary. Access to fresh clean water in the Delta is also going to be an issue as the dry season progresses, as is the availability of food in some areas.

Humanitarians will point to the fact that in neighbouring Bangladesh a similar cyclone this year killed far fewer people because of simple preparedness initiatives supported by the government. Basic lessons from Bangladesh can be used to improve future preparation in Burma and elsewhere.

But concentrating on the terrible loss of life in Burma does a disservice to the incredible acts of heroism and tenacity of the people who actually survived that night.

The people of Burma have shown that through resolve, enterprise and bravery in the face of adversity, a constructive force for good can be achieved that runs as powerful as the force of nature that caused this devastation in the first place. It is time for the international community to recognise this and to go that next step with further support.

David Hockaday is Emergencies Adviser Burma (Myanmar) for Save the Children UK