Life Inside the Delta


Chris Northey was deployed to Yangon on May 23 to begin her rotation as CARE's Myanmar Emergency Team Leader. She was one of the first international aid workers permitted into the Irrawaddy Delta, following the government's announcement that it would allow foreign emergency teams access to all cyclone-affected areas. Below, Chris shares her observations upon arriving on the scene.

The people here refer to it as “The Storm.’ It”s amazing; Cyclone Nargis was one of the most devastating cyclones in years, but the people here just call it a storm. I guess it”s a way of making a terrifying situation more manageable, somehow, especially for the children.

I was the first international staff from CARE allowed into the delta after the cyclone. The distance between Yangon and Pyapon is about 87 miles (140 km), but it took almost four hours to get there because of the damage.

The further down you go into the delta, it looks like someone razed the area to the ground, just shredding everything in sight – trees, vegetation, houses. The houses here have tin roofs, and it looks like the roofs had been peeled back like a tin can being opened. The thatch houses were just blown away completely, lifted up and smashed into the ground. The whole place smelled like dead fish and mud and wet.

We just made it into the office when it started pouring with rain. The office has a tin roof, and the rain was so loud it drowned out everything. I had to yell at my colleague who was sitting only a meter away just so he could hear me. It”s been raining like this every day.

I thought of the people we had passed, huddled under plastic sheeting and thatch roofs. There was mud everywhere. Nothing was dry, anywhere.

To get to the village where we were going, we had to go by boat. There are no roads. We took one of the traditional wooden boats, long and narrow with a canopy and an outboard motor, with water sloshing around in the bottom. These are the kind of boats CARE uses to distribute food and emergency supplies to the survivors of the cyclone.

This is when the impact of the cyclone really struck me. There were these big fishing boats that had been lifted up out of the river and plunked down on land. I counted 26 on one side of the riverbank; then I stopped counting. It was the storm, the wind and the surge of water. It looked like what we saw after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

There were also sunken boats and downed trees, which made the river quite treacherous. I saw three, with just the bow sticking out of the water. One aid boat has already sunk because it hit debris, and others have run aground.

We arrived at a village whose population was 1,030 prior to the storm; 138 people were killed during the storm. Along the side of the road, people had laid out blue tarps and they were drying their rice seed that had gotten wet during the storm. If they don”t dry it in time, they will miss the planting season. And if they miss the planting season, they will have no food to eat this year.

I found the destruction quite shocking, as well as the stories they were telling about the water and how frightening it was. The other villages where CARE is working are even further out, so I can”t even imagine what they had been through. People need shelter, they need blankets. They need to be dry and warm.

This is a frustrating situation, because the survivors are spread across such a large area, and these narrow waterways make delivery of aid slow and incredibly complex. We have to use a kind of relay team system of small trucks, motorcycles and boats to access the areas. We really need local people who know the rivers and the small waterways.

There”s a hell of a lot of work to be done, but it”s not correct to say that just because there are no international staff in the delta that no help is getting there. Help has been getting there, and it will continue. We have hundreds of national staff that have been working on the emergency since the beginning ─ distributing food and water and emergency supplies.

And the people here, the survivors themselves, are part of the relief effort. There was a lot of activity ─ people getting on with life, people getting on with their business. It shows people”s resilience that they do find a way of coming back from this.

We arrived at lunchtime, and I saw some women preparing the rice that they had received. Another woman was washing clothes – the usual things you see in a village. The kids were talking about wanting to go back to school. The schools open again next month, and CARE is working to make sure that these children have shelter, and clothes, and food in their stomachs when they go back to the classroom – and so their mothers no longer have to worry about where their family will sleep for the night.