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Hope dawns in post-Nargis Burma

Six months after Cyclone Nargis devastated parts of southern Burma and left 130,000 people dead, the BBC's Penny Spiller looks at how the recovery effort is taking shape.

Fishermen try to push along a repaired boat in Ohn-Chaung village, Ngapudaw township, Irrawaddy Delta in October 2008

When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma's populous Irrawaddy Delta region in May, the immediate outlook for its 2.5 million survivors was bleak.

As well as seeing their homes and livelihoods swept away, many lost family and friends and some lost their whole communities in the devastating storm.

International aid, ready and waiting to be distributed, was prevented from entering the country by a government ever suspicious of outside help.

Now, six months on, the mood is very different. Those working with the survivors have been impressed by their resilience and determination to rebuild their lives.

"People are incredibly determined to recover," says Ashley Clements of World Vision in Burma. "It has made our job easier."

Avoiding government help

Within two months of Nargis, an astonishing 75% of people in the delta region had rebuilt their homes - albeit with non-resilient materials such as thatch and bamboo.

Farmers returned to their land to begin draining it of salt water and prepare it for sowing, fishermen sought loans to buy new boats, and others have been helping to rebuild their places of work.

One thing they have in common, says Ming Pi, editor of the India-based Burmese Mizzima news website, is a desire to avoid seeking help from the Burmese government.

Life in Burma six months after Nargis

"They don't see the government as helping them. People don't want anything from the government," he said.

A number of survivors have expressed disappointment, too, in the lack of help from aid agencies in the region, he says.

"Particularly in the more remote areas, some villages have said they did not get enough aid from the INGOs (international non-governmental agencies). Places like Bogale and Laputta, where NGOs have based their offices, have had much more attention."

People feel they need to help themselves, he said. "So they are focusing on day-to-day survival, finding jobs and working on things that can help them rebuild their lives."

While many survivors have shunned their own government's help, taking help from Burma's wealthier citizens is a different story.

Ming Pi said he knew of one businessman in Rangoon who gave out loans he did not expect to get back to help people rebuild their homes and livelihoods.

One owner of a salt field - who lost 180 workers in the storm - has re-hired his surviving staff to help rebuild the business.

'Turning-point'

However, international aid is still crucial to the region - which was already very poor even before the cyclone.

Nargis killed animals and destroyed seeds, tools and boats - all vital to the delta's agricultural and fishing industries.

Of the 900,000 people who received food from the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) in the days and weeks following Nargis, about 770,000 are still being supplied with food aid.

I think the storm, as tragic as it was, at least demonstrated to the regime that the international community does care about people in Myanmar (Burma)
Andrew Kirkwood
Save the Children

This is expected to continue into 2009.

Although nearly all the delta's rice fields have been replanted, this year's harvest is not predicted to produce as much as previous years.

With the onset of the dry season, there is a race against time to clean up and de-salinate water ponds to provide vital supplies of drinking water over the coming months.

And of course there is the need to help people overcome the psychological trauma of suffering so much loss.

It is hard to see what could help the remaining residents of one Laputta village. Just seven of the village's 103 children are still alive, along with 12 women and 50 men.

They are still completely traumatised, say staff of Save the Children who visited them recently, but they have been able to take steps to rebuild their community by applying for and receiving a reconstruction grant.

Save the Children, which has worked in many disaster zones, believes getting children back to school is the key to helping the whole community recover.

"It gives children some sense of normality and some routine, which in our experience, is the best way to help them recover," Andrew Kirkwood, the organisation's director in Burma, said.

"It also helps the adults as it gives them a sense of hope - a need to rebuild their homes and their lives for their children's future".

Save the Children has set up 350 temporary schools and re-inhabited 200, but this is nothing compared to the 3,200 schools that were destroyed in the cyclone.

The UK-based charity is pushing for an extra 10% to be spent on rebuilding schools to make them strong enough to act as cyclone shelters if a storm the strength of Nargis hits again.

Villagers reconstruct their homes in Ohn-Chaung, Ngapudaw township, Irrawaddy Delta in October 2008
More stable homes are now being built

And the aid effort as a whole is now refocusing on reconstruction efforts rather than emergency relief. The UN says at least $1bn is needed to fund rebuilding.

Ashley Clements says World Vision is now concentrating its efforts on helping people regain their livelihoods, providing safe havens for children, improving water and sanitation and teaching communities how to reduce the chances of such a disaster happening to them again.

"Our focus now is much longer term - giving people the right tools to help themselves and rebuild their livelihoods," he said.

Change of heart?

And that might be made easier by the noticeable change in the Burmese junta's attitude to having international aid agencies on their territory.

It took nearly three weeks in the aftermath of Nargis before the government finally bowed to international pressure and allowed in foreign aid agencies. Until then, they insisted - against evidence suggesting otherwise - that they could cope alone.

But Andrew Kirkwood, who has worked in Burma for four years, believes one positive from such a tragedy is that the mistrust between the government and foreign agencies has been broken down.

Now, when he visits the delta, he does not need to be accompanied by someone from the regime, unlike in the past.

"I think the storm, as tragic as it was, at least demonstrated to the regime that the international community does care about people in Myanmar (Burma)," he said.



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