Downtown Yangon
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Go-Myanmar
Downtown Yangon Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Go-Myanmar

Waiting for disaster

Burma has failed to learn lessons from Cyclone Nargis.

Cyclone Nargis was unique. It hit Burma's main population corridor with an intensity that few had prepared for. Since it blew across southern Burma in May 2008, killing nearly 139,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands, efforts to improve disaster preparedness in the country have largely been top-down. The material situation and attitude on the ground has barely changed. A complex confluence of economic, political and environmental reasons has prevented the efficient formulation of disaster-preparedness policy and its implementation.

In Yangon, for example, unrestrained growth has set back safety standards. Although in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone the city had showed tremendous resilience in bouncing back, it has since repeated many of the same mistakes, such as the lack of long-term planning and under-funded enforcement.

A commercial port city in a largely agrarian country, Yangon is home to over a tenth of Burma's population, its large industries and popular culture. More liberal, cosmopolitan and less representative of the country than Mandalay, it continues to hold onto many of the trappings of its 120-year-long colonial past. In 2011, after the military government gave way to a nominally civilian leadership, Yangon's economy kicked off, as foreign loans, workers and construction materials began to flow in. The hermit state suddenly became the latest darling of speculative investors. A country where Coke used to be smuggled in, Burma saw a deluge of foreign cars and consumer goods, Singaporean-run skyscrapers and gated communities.

Once the capital, Yangon still dominates the country. It is the largest city by far, and its population of over 5.2 million is expected to  increase in the next 15 years, as job opportunities in the industrial base,  held back for so many decades,  begins to grow. More than the cyclone, it is this influx of investment, and the developments that have followed, which is changing the city's layout and ability to respond to a disaster.

Winds of change
The city of Yangon is organised around a small downtown core, composed of a tightly-packed street grid with little open spaces. Trees growing out of sidewalk are the only vestige of greenery. Barely six kilometres wide and extending only two kilometres north of the Yangon River, the city boasts historical neighbourhoods and a range of businesses hard to find in the rest of the country. The streets were laid out in the 1800s and haven't changed much since then, even while buildings in the city have grown taller from the previous average of three stories. These building have been built very close to each other, sometimes with less than a third of a metre between windows and with 'alleyways' that only pigeons can slip through.

Beyond this tight urban core, the buildings quickly spread out. Vegetable gardens and parking lots spring up between buildings; pedestrians become less frequent, and finally we see an area with an airport, a wide-open farmland and exclusive golf courses. But these places are hard to get to, locked by two lakes, an airport and congested roads, on which traffic has increased exponentially since the country's economic and political opening.

In an attempt to expand the city, a number of subsidised housing projects are being built by the government, mainly on the edges of towns near industrial parks. More upscale developments projects are being executed uptown in the hope that the centre of the city will move away from its downtown core. It will be several years before these are finished. For now, the small, crowded downtown is the centre of employment and housing. This is partly because in Yangon, 66 percent of households own their own homes. Even as demographics of the city shifts and expands, the businesses and homes already established in the downtown will continue to keep it as the centre of the city for the rich and middle class.

Yangon and the surrounding region are extremely flat and low-lying, and it should not be difficult to manage transport in and out of the city. Instead, the city's transport remains uncoordinated. Around 8000 buses – operated by 5000 different companies – plough the narrow roads, urban train lines are infrequent and almost half of the city makes its daily commute on foot. One urban planner and advisor to the city government, Masahiko Suzuki, said Yangon would be extremely difficult to evacuate in the event of a disaster. "In case of an emergency, I think that most of transportation networks would be devastated and not functioning well. We cannot rely on urban transport to evacuate smoothly."

This was the case during Nargis, where constricted streets and fallen trees kept most people in their neighbourhoods for days. Basic necessities were difficult to find in Yangon, as many government institutions remained shut because roads could not be cleared of the strewn debris. Yet, there are few buildings restrictions in the place, and all but the most expensive apartments are constructed to minimum standards. A national building code was passed into law in 2014, but the wholly underfunded government has so far had no choice but to let infractions occur. Once in a while, the city government will halt a project or demolish violating structures, like with 37 buildings in late 2014, as a warning to the others. Even where safety standards are met in Yangon, they are often compromised later on. Fire escape stairs, for example, are often covered with wood to make improvised balconies to be used as kitchens. Electrical systems, designed decades ago, are retrofitted for air conditioning, taxing an already exhausted system.

Another development since Nargis is the loss of public open spaces. Some city townships of over 100,000 people lack even a single park or large open area. This would create massive chaos when buildings need to be evacuated. There are some designated public parks across the city, but many of these have been converted for other uses in the past decade. In 2014, Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Student Generation Group, organised a protest against the city's decision to sell and develop one public park into a condo complex. But construction has gone ahead. Even where parks exist they are not typically near the densest parts of the city where they would be most needed in a disaster. Other areas of Yangon's increasingly precious real estate are held by the military, and some of this remains vacant and open. However, since 2011, as foreign investment began to flow into the country, military families have leased much of this land, mostly to large projects, notably a condo developer called Dagon City 1. Recently, this local venture of the multinational Marga Group attempted to use its location on military land to evade lawsuits, which claimed that the projects drainage could damage the foundations of the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda. The project has since been cancelled under protest from several influential groups of monks.

During Nargis, Yangon wasn't evacuated, and the last major earthquake to hit the city was in 1930, when its population was less than one tenth of what it is today. The city, despite its history of earthquakes, and a proven risk of cyclones, has so far been lucky to not face a major disaster. Its ability to respond, since its population growth out-paced its infrastructure, is untested. 

Fault lines
Outside Yangon, most parts of the country remain largely agrarian, with wide plains of rice paddies, broken only by scattered huts and spray-painted pagodas. Burma, especially in the south, faces harsh monsoons, where concrete is scarred and stained in just a few seasons, and little is built to last.

Since 2008, cyclone shelters have been built across the delta, but progress has been slow. Mizzima reported that only one of the 45 shelters set to be built by the government in 2012 has actually been constructed. NGOs and community groups have built dozens more, but the majority of the 6.2 million people in the Irrawaddy region have very little access to them. After Nargis, 54 cyclone shelters were built with international support, in townships that were most impacted. Of these, some have been converted into hospitals and schools. Smaller community-based organisations have been working to educate people and prevent disasters. Dr Tun Lwin, a former government meteorologist and climate-change activist, says these efforts have helped improve awareness. These promotions have come through educational songs and local awareness campaigns.

Weather forecasting is still a problem in rural Burma that needs to be addressed. During Nargis, data from India was shared with Burma two days before it made landfall, but according to the Indian Meteorological Department in New Delhi, there was no acknowledgement or response. The Irrawaddy delta was hit hardest by Nargis, and has since seen some improvements in forecasting and issuing of storm warnings. After Nargis, loudspeaker systems were set up, allowing for early warnings to those without radios. However, weather forecasting has improved in recent years, with the construction of several radar stations along the coast. The biggest improvement came with the change in media laws in 2012, which ended pre-censorship, a major hurdle for disseminating news and broadcasting early warnings.

However, warnings and education only go so far. During Nargis, 95 percent of houses in the region were destroyed. Much reconstruction after Nargis ended up merely returning the regions to their state before the storm. In the Irrawaddy region, 46 percent of rural inhabitants continue to live in vulnerable bamboo houses and another 43 percent in wooden homes, according to the 2014 government census. When Cyclone Giri made landfall in 2010, many of the same issues cropped up in the countryside, where poorly secured buildings were destroyed en masse – as many as 70 percent of the houses in the city of Kayaukpyu, Rakhine State, where the storm was centred. The economic changes in recent years also help alter the environmental contexts under which disasters occur. Burma was once a major global rice exporter, but the economic isolation of the past half century led to lower yields and cultivation. Now, rice is a profitable business again, leading to a carving out of new rice paddies from the mangrove swamps of the region. The trouble is these mangroves help hold back storm surges and flooding, leaving locals at greater risk.

Healthcare and other infrastructure, before and after the earthquake, remain wholly undeveloped. Burma spends the world's second lowest percentage of GDP on healthcare – USD 14 per person per year, according to World Bank statistics. Much of this is concentrated in cities, with those in rural areas still suffering from easily-cured diseases, even without the effects of a disaster. Complications from pregnancy, diarrhoea and viruses remain the main causes of morbidity. There remains very little public transparency regarding disaster plans. Yangon's economic rise has given an illusion of improving conditions across the country, but through uneven and haphazard development, the wakeup call of Nargis has made Burma simply hit the snooze button. 

After Nargis, Burma next big trial of disaster preparedness came from the mountainous, remote Shan State, where a shallow magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck in 2011. According to the most conservative estimates, the earthquake killed 151 and injured a several hundred more. The earthquake hit hardest in the eastern part of the state, the region most removed, physically and politically, from the centre of power.

"When the earthquake struck, many people died because they didn't know how to react because it was the first experience for them," says Sai Gor, a 23-year-old farmer from a small town in eastern Shan State. The problem in this state, and the rest of rural Burma, is the converse of that in Yangon. Spreading information can be exceedingly difficult, and people's ability to respond is even weaker. Only 39 percent of rural households own a radio in rural Burma, the number is even lower at 22 percent in rural Shan State. A linguistic divide is especially prominent between locals of Shan State, the majority of whom speak Dai – a language closely related to Thai and Lao – and government-approved radio, which broadcasts in Burmese, from an entirely different language family.

Across the country, there are very few roads to drive on, and only 2.7 percent of rural households own a car or truck, which means little mobility in time of need. Shan State, like many other zone of conflict across Burma, is politically divided. Much of the state is under government control, but other portions are a patchwork controlled by armed groups, who have built much of their own infrastructure. Some, like the Border Guard Forces, are superficially loyal to the government, and others, such as the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army and United Wa State Army, continue to oppose Burma's domination. These gaps in control have left spaces with depleted infrastructure and scant information, making residents especially vulnerable to disaster.

One reason for this lack of infrastructure and access in these vulnerable pockets is the period of greater civil strife in the mid-1990s. Since then, many residents of the area, almost universally farmers, fled their homes to escape the fighting. Some escaped to Thailand, to live in refugee camps or work as labourers on farms, but a greater number moved up the hills to rebuild a life on remote mountainsides. Many of these farmers, unable to grow their typical cash crops, turned to opium production. The illegal nature of their trade has led them to be even more fearful of the government. Likewise, it is difficult to communicate and educate the 632,000 people displaced throughout the country due to its long history of ethnic conflict. Much of the fighting and displacement has occurred along Burma's borders, which are not easily accessible. For example, the areas in the northern Rakhine state are all but closed to journalists and aid workers. Even when access is sought, there is an additional barrier of language, which further restricts efforts at communication.

Nay Pyi Taw's slow thaw
Nay Pyi Taw, 380 kilometres to the north of Yangon, is Burma's official capital since 2006. It is a ghost town, an artificially-constructed city built specifically to rule the country from a safer, more inland location. It is a maze of empty highways, imposing government offices and avenues full of hotels with vacant, unlit rooms. From here, far from the chaos and political contention of Yangon, the government holds on its power and prepares for disaster.

When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in 2008, the administration was widely criticised for being slow and restrictive in accepting foreign aid and granting visas to aid workers. Since it became clear that this could be a point of political tension, the government has been keen to show the public that it takes disaster safety seriously. Plans have since been set up for when a disaster hits, with the military being assigned the lead role in organising relief, as it was during Nargis. The continued deference to the military is unsurprising, given their wide ranging powers, including controlling 25 percent of the seats in parliament and taking up 11 percent of the national budget.

The nominally civilian government, however, has proven more open to cooperating with foreign powers, and this could bring faster relief than in the past. In 2013, the government passed the Myanmar Disaster Management Law, which seeks to address some of the weaknesses in the government's disaster plans. It also set up a committee to coordinate disaster relief. But little information on the working of the committee has been made publicly available. Representatives from the government have declined requests for comment.

The disaster law has been criticised by several INGOs. One report by Oxfam said the law puts "too much focus on emergency planning and response and not enough on prevention and risk reduction." Myanmar Disaster Risk Reduction Working Group, an umbrella forum for various agencies involved in the relief and reconstruction effort, says the "gap between policies and implementation is enormous" and there was "insufficient budget allocation and capacities for local level implementation." The US military-backed Center for Excellence in Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance went so far to say that "no appropriate disaster management legislation currently exists", even after the law was passed.

According to Angeliki Parasyraki, who manages the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC), an NGO doing work in disaster assessment in the country, "Many rural areas [in Burma] currently have no roads, are only accessible by helicopter or boat right now. After a disaster, it would be even harder to reach them. Infrastructure is still poor, even though there is a remarkable development process at the moment." This development process is most evident in the popularity of cell phone use in the past year. Until September 2014, the Burmese government had a monopoly over telecommunications and SIM cards cost over USD 100. Licenses have since been awarded to companies from Qatar and Norway. The cost of SIM cards have sharply dipped and mobile phone use has risen to 35 percent, from five percent in 2012.

For Nay Pyi Taw, an even bigger challenge will be the disasters that are less 'dynamic', such as drought or flooding. Burma's climate is getting drier, putting the 70 percent of the population who make their living by farming at risk. Fish stocks have been dropping for several years and several important ecosystems are at risk. These all have the potential to disrupt Burma's ongoing crawl out of the instability and poverty.

However, the situation isn't entirely grim. Burma's population is manageable and increasingly becoming well-educated and literate. The country has access to plenty of fresh water, with drastically less pollution than in neighbouring countries, and enough land to increase the food crop and maintain an environment that is already better preserved than most of the region. These advantages can be deciding factors in helping the country overcome natural disasters, gradual or sudden.

~ Morley J Weston is a journalist based in Yangon and writes about business, infrastructure and culture.

~This article is a part of our print quarterly issue 'Disaster Politics'.

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