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How prepared is Myanmar for another natural disaster?


An aerial view of flooded buildings in Kalaymyo, Sagaing Region, Myanmar on August 3, 2015. Photo: Hong Sar/Mizzima

An aerial view of flooded buildings in Kalaymyo, Sagaing Region, Myanmar on August 3, 2015. Photo: Hong Sar/Mizzima

Heavy seasonal rains, augmented by Cyclone Komen, led to serious flooding and landslides that killed dozens of people and affected more than 200,000in the country this year.

The deluge was a wake-up call, a reminder that Myanmar could be better prepared to tackle natural disasters, whether storms and cyclones, or the threat posed by lying on a fault line that makes the threat of earthquakes ever too present.

To find out how the country responded to this disaster and how well prepared it is for any future calamities, Mizzima met and interviewed Assistant Director Win Ohnmar of the Relief and Resettlement Department under the Ministry of Social Welfare.

Q: Please tell us about your department and its functions?

A: We have two departments under the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement. In our department, we only have branch offices in districts. In the expansion of our operations, we opened district branch offices in disaster prone areas as a priority. We do not have offices in all districtsyet, also we do not have offices at the township levelyet. In comparison with other governmental departments, our department is very small. When a natural disaster hits, our department is not involved in search and rescue work. Many people think this comes under our department because of its name.

Q: So your department does not work on search and rescue when a natural disaster hits, which department does?

A: In fact, search and rescue work is primarily done by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The Fire Brigade and Police Force under the MHA do search and rescue operations.Sometimes it cooperates and coordinates with other departments including the Army and General Administration Department (GA). We get assistance from the GA and Home Ministry. When a natural disaster hits the country, our department cannot give relief supplies to victims directly, regardless of who donates them, whether by foreign donors or domestic donors. We can only give relief supplies bought with our own budget.

Q: What kind of prevention work in regards to natural disasters does your department do?

A: In regards to prevention, we run disaster management courses. We find volunteers to educate rural people on natural disasters. We collect trainees through the GA. And also we train our staff in Training of Trainer courses. We do this work in all regions and states. These are the functions of our department. And also we publish and distribute pamphlets and brochures on Do’s and Don’ts on each natural disaster.

Q: How does your Department manage relief supplies?

A: When foreign and domestic donors donate relief supplies, we hand over these supplies to the GA with a detailed list. We compile a list of requirements for supplies in each disaster-hit zone in States and Regions. For instance, in flooding and landslides, say Chin, Sagaing, Magway, Bago, Rakhine etc., which are disaster prone areas, we collected data from the departments concerned. Which State and Region need what supplies and which supplies they have already been given? Which relief supplies are the primary needs, which supplies they have, etc.? After collecting this data, we send the list of needs and requirements in each region and state to GA. The needs and requirements in each disaster in each zone vary.

Q: How do you manage cash donations given by foreign and domestic donors?

A: All cash donations given by foreign and domestic donors are kept in our bank accounts. And then we look into the damage caused by natural disasters and assess them for rehabilitation work. We use both cash donations and the President’s Special Disaster Fund for this work. We ask how many bridges were damaged in the disaster. What shall we repair in the short term and what shall we repair in the long term? What shall we do to reopen schools immediately? For long term work, how can we help hospitals and healthcare providers?

Also local governments from states and regions send damage assessment reports to us and then we use these funds and arrange to send relief supplies and materials for rehabilitation work.

Q: How do you store the relief supplies?

A: We have 33 warehouses in states and regions for storing relief supplies. Some warehouses store relief supplies for up to a 1,000 households while in some big central warehouses like in Yangon and Mandalay, we can store supplies for 10,000 households. Yangon central warehouse is for lower Myanmar and Mandalay central warehouse is for upper Myanmar. These central warehouses are for storing relief supplies. Most of the relief supplies are bought from the Ministry of Industry and some are bought by inviting tenders.

Q: Whatkind of relief supplies are stored in these warehouses?

A: The primary relief supplies are sarongs for males and females, towels, aluminium vessels and pots for cooking, kitchen utensils, T-shirts for males and females, soaps and mosquito nets. The distribution of relief supplies is based on the size and scale of the natural disaster.

Q: How did you respond and what actions are you taking in regards to the recent floods in June and July?

A: We have already done a lot of emergency relief work. A collection of data has been done and the figures and stats have been finalized. Now we are doing rehabilitation work. We divide rehab work into three parts. Firstly, we distributecash and relief supplies to the disaster victims. And then we rebuild houses for the victims in cooperation with the local governments concerned. And then finally we make arrangements and preparations for similar natural disasters in the future. Which relief supplies will be kept and prepared? We have all the detailed plans in our hand. 

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