Counting the cost of Burma’s deadly monsoon floods
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Counting the cost of Burma’s deadly monsoon floods

The monsoon is a God-send for much of Southeast Asia: without its healing waters, much of the region’s agricultural sector would be in despair. This year, however, the rains are turning from dream to nightmare as flooding has hit large parts of Burma (Myanmar), claiming dozens of lives, submerging villages and wreaking havoc on agriculture.

The crisis began at the end of July and came as an abrupt reversal after a dry rainy season: across Southeast Asia, rainfall has been low overall, with the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) writing that “Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to southern Vietnam, and the Philippines have experienced persistent drier than average conditions since the start of the season.”

A map produced by the same organization shows that in large chunks of Burma, and especially in the central portion of the country, total rainfall from February to July 20, 2015 has been lower than the average record over the previous 20 years, with some areas receiving only 40 to 60 percent of the past two decades’ average precipitations.

(READ MORE: Burma’s president visits area worst-hit by flooding)

Thailand felt the brunt of it more than others as the worst drought in decades hit the country and prompted the Thai government to reassess its rice export forecasts down by more than 2 million tons.

Then, one week ago, things changed: as Cyclone Komen struck Bangladesh, Burma began to have too much water all at once. With damage piling up, on July 31 the government declared a state of emergency in the country’s western areas, including in Chin and Rakhine states as well as in Sagaing and Magwe regions.

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A man rows his boat by the entrance signboard of Kalay township submerged in water, in Sagaing, Burma, Sunday. Pic: AP.

On August 4, the State-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported that so far 46 have perished, while over 200,000 are displaced. But it is unlikely that these figures represent the actual damage suffered by people and infrastructure, as some of the regions affected are cut off from the rest of the nation.

The World Food Program estimated Monday that more than 210,000 people have been affected by severe flooding, flash floods and landslides across the country.

“Across the affected areas, transportation, electricity and communication are disrupted. Access to affected areas remains a major challenge. Flooding has spread over a large geographic terrain, from coastal to mountainous areas. Large amounts of debris floating in rivers pose a challenge to boat access. Landslides have blocked some roads and transportation routes,” reads the latest report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), published yesterday.

The emergency response is now beginning, with aid coming from the government, private organizations and international ones. Air KBZ and Myanmar Airways International are reportedly offering free flights to affected areas, while the World Food Program has announced the provision of food rations to 47,800 people, the UN says. The Chinese embassy is also reportedly providing supplies. Authorities have appealed to the international community for assistance, while the parliament’s speaker, former general Shwe Mann, announced that a parliamentary session scheduled for August 10 has been postponed indefinitely in order to allow MPs to work with their constituencies. Aside from the immediate urgency, a major challenge remains the long-term consequences of the crisis. The Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation was quoted today by the Global New Light of Myanmar as saying that the flooding has damaged more than 426,000 acres of farmland and destroyed 56,000 acres, which spells trouble for the agricultural sector as well as the livelihoods of farmers.

“The loss of stored grains and life-stock is expected to disrupt the planting season and impact long-term food security,” OCHA wrote in yesterday’s report.

On Monday, Shalini Bahuguna, from UNICEF, warned that the disaster is proving worse for children and families who are already vulnerable, particularly in Rakhine State, where 140,000 people are currently displaced – mostly Rohingya, the beleaguered Muslim minority which is already suffering from discrimination and some say genocidal policies.

“Beyond the immediate impact, the floods will have a longer term impact on the livelihoods of these families,” said Ms. Bahuguna.