The residents of Nanbaw village are no stranger to floods. Every rainy season, the rivers around them swell, and they are forced to suffer bouts of dampness, but life goes on as normal. This year, however, unusually heavy rain, a broken dam, and the cumulative effect of years of government neglect have left the 84 families in this remote community stranded in a few dry huts and dependent on sporadic public donations for their survival.
Nanbaw village lies among a cluster of farming villages in eastern Bago Region on what locals describe as an “island” – a patch of land surrounded on all sides by various waterways, including the mighty Sittaung River to the east. Though it has been spared the worst of the flooding — around 150,000 people have been displaced and a dozen have died in other parts of the country — life in this area has long been precarious. The island’s existence used to rest on the strength of a nearby dam, and during heavy rainfall at the end of last month, the dam broke.
Village elder Daw Aye Than described watching the water engulf her neighbors’ homes and livelihoods.
“On July 22, the water reached the back end of the village. On the 23rd, it reached our fields. On the 24th, 25th, 26th, and the 27th, it flooded our kitchens…It wasn’t bit by bit; it was a lot every day,” she told Coconuts. “We were scared.”
Daw Aye Than’s two-story home is one of the few in the village that has not been inundated, and she has opened it up as a makeshift warehouse for donations of food and supplies to be distributed throughout the area.
From her home, she can see an endless expanse of murky, brown water covering the village’s walkways and rice fields. A few wooden motorboats buzz across the surface of the water carrying plastic bags full of food and clothes donated by people around the country to various charity organizations. These donations are now the villagers’ main lifeline.
Anthony Quick, an advisor for Myanmar Free Ambulance, which has been collecting and distributing aid in the area, said the donations have been essential in mitigating the floods’ destructive potential.
“The reason the casualty rate has been so low is because donors in Yangon have been tirelessly donating food, water, and other necessary items,” he said.
However, living without the immediate threat of death can still be frightening. Daw Aye Than said: “Right now, there’s nothing we can do but sit in our house. If you don’t have a boat, how are you supposed to do anything? I have K19,000 (US$13) in my hands, but I can’t buy anything because we don’t have a boat.”
This is a concept the government’s feeble response to the crisis has not taken into account. Local officials came to the village when the floods peaked and handed out K30,000 (US$20) to every pregnant woman and every mother of a child under six months old. They also relocated these women and children to drier homes in the village. Everyone else was forced to fend for themselves.
“For victims whose houses are completely flooded, they have moved to houses that are better off,” Daw Aye Than said. “There are no emergency shelters or evacuation shelters set up by the government.”
Daw Khin Mar Win, a friend who came to stay with Daw Aye Than to escape her own flooded home, said the government seems more interested in appearing to care for flood victims than in actually caring for them.
“Today, our president made calls to flood victims whose houses are completely flooded. We don’t know if he will give any support or not, but they were called,” she said.
This is not the only aspect of the government’s response that has let the villagers down. Last month, after the dam broke but before the village was submerged, government officials came and promised to fix the dam. But they never followed through, claiming they could not make such repairs in an area that was not connected to the electrical grid.
As they told this story, Daw Aye Than and Daw Khin Mar Win gestured toward two rows of utility poles linked by power lines poking out of the brown lake that covers the village’s farmland. They recounted a visit three years ago by local officials who collected money from villagers to set up the poles and electrify the village. The construction was never completed because the villagers ran out of money.
“Now, the utility poles are up, but we don’t get any electricity. We couldn’t keep up with the cost of finishing the setup, so now we have the utility poles that are nothing but poles,” Daw Aye Than said.
When asked what could be done to protect their village from future weather disasters, the women said they need levees to protect their crops from the destruction they are currently facing. But that, too, seems an unlikely prospect. Daw Khin Mar Win said government officials came to Nanbaw earlier this year to see if a levee should be built. According to villagers, the officials opted against the levee because their primary aim was to protect their utility poles, and moving the poles would be cheaper than building the infrastructure necessary to keep water out of the area.
With no permanent solutions on the horizon, the people of Nanbaw have resigned themselves to a life waist-deep in water and miles from the nearest main road, subsisting on rice and instant noodles shipped from Yangon and Mandalay and doled out on the second floor of Daw Aye Than’s home.
“We feel neglected,” Daw Aye Than said. “We’ve been left to ourselves, and now we have to live this way.”