I am no stranger to disasters. Less than four years ago, as the National Director for World Vision Indonesia, I witnessed the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami ravage much of the province of Aceh and beyond. Six months ago those memories once again became a reality as Cyclone Nargis thrashed the low-lying areas of south western Myanmar. Governments and donors publicly voiced their scepticism at the possibility of launching a meaningful humanitarian aid response in Myanmar after more than 800,000 homes were destroyed and 140,000 people were declared dead or missing. Grave concern was expressed that not enough aid was reaching an estimated 2.4 million people whose lives were turned upside down by a disaster that decimated livestock, destroyed rice stocks, and flooded or contaminated hundreds of drinking ponds and tens of thousands of acres of rice paddy.
If there is a silver lining to the events of last May it is that the people of Myanmar were once again placed on the world’s agenda. A policy of isolation towards Myanmar seemed to have been traded in for a promise of investment in the country and the wellbeing of its people.
Hundreds of thousands of people were helped through hard times with emergency food aid, water and shelter materials. Hundreds of thousands more were supported with income generation initiatives. World Vision alone has reached 350,000 affected people in areas as diverse as food security, livelihoods, child protection, and water and sanitation, demonstrating that aid can be delivered in an effective and accountable fashion within Myanmar.
Six months on it is clear that this country needs a renewed commitment by the international community to support the survivors of Cyclone Nargis. On this anniversary, the effectiveness of aid is teetering in the balance, and the progress that was made is in jeopardy if long-term support and engagement from private donors, the United Nations, non-governmental organisations, and governments does not continue.
It is imperative that the initial attention and support given to the relief response to Cyclone Nargis not be confined to the few months that immediately followed the disaster. The UN has seen a severe shortfall in its flash appeal for US$ 486 million, where barely more than half that amount has thus far been raised (as of October 23, 2008). Is donor interest coming to an end for those affected by the cyclone?
The ability of the people of the Delta to support themselves hinges on long-term humanitarian assistance. Late and inadequate harvests continue to undermine the livelihoods of millions of residents who lived in what was once considered to be the ‘rice bowl of Asia.’ The resilience of the people of Myanmar has been consistently praised, and the first line of defence for communities is having the know-how to help themselves. A commitment from the international community to fund disaster preparedness and mitigation efforts will only serve to bolster community resilience in the face of future disasters.
I have celebrated the success of building back stronger communities in Ache after the 2004 Asian Tsunami struck, but only after years of significant financial commitment to rebuilding livelihoods, community infrastructure, and investment in disaster preparedness measures. Let us not forget the long-term nature of recovery and preparedness. And let us not turn our backs on the children of the Delta, whose hopes for a brighter future have been rekindled over the last six months. Our commitment to the people of Myanmar today will give us something meaningful to celebrate tomorrow.
James Tumbuan has been the National Director for World Vision Myanmar since early 2007 and was the National Director for Indonesia from 1997 to 2006.