Avoiding another Cyclone Nargis: Early warning helps communities prepare for disaster in Myanmar | ActionAid UK

Airlie Taylor

Programme Funding Officer (ECHO)

What do you do when a cyclone comes to town? Six years ago, cyclone Nargis hit Pyapon in Myanmar (Burma), causing devastation. ActionAid has been working with the community since then. A lot has changed, as Airlie Taylor from ActionAid UK discovered.

May Thu Win volunteers with ActionAid to help her community prepare for disasters in Pyapon, Myanmar.
May Thu Win volunteers with ActionAid to help her community prepare for disasters in Pyapon, Myanmar.

I’ve travelled by car, motorbike and boat to the village of KyonKan (Zin Baung) in Pyapon, Myanmar to see how ActionAid is helping people prepare for disasters and develop early warning systems.

In 2008, Cyclone Nargis hit the region. “Our village was destroyed. All but five of the houses collapsed,” explains May Thu Win, an ActionAid volunteer from KyonKan (Zin Baung). “There was no early warning. Afterwards, we didn’t have any food for five days.”

Her village sits just metres above sea-level on the banks of the Ayeyarwady Delta, a huge stretch of land in south-central Myanmar prone to seasonal flooding and tidal surges. High winds and flooding caused by Nargis killed nearly 140,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

A turning point

The devastation brought by the cyclone was a turning point for May Thu Win’s village. Six years on and things have really changed.

ActionAid has been working in Pyapon through its partner, Action for Social Aid (ASA), to lead a project helping communities prepare for disasters, along with four other aid agencies (Plan Germany, Oxfam GB, Malteser International and UN-Habitat). Funding was provided by the European Union through its disaster preparedness programme (DIPECHO).

“Before, we didn’t know anything about disasters,” May Thu Win tells me. “I’m [now] part of the early warning task force.”

The task force is part of the village disaster management committee set up with support from ActionAid. Community members manage activities to reduce the impact of disasters and coordinate responses to emergencies.

May Thu Win took part in a simulation exercise last year to identify gaps in the village’s emergency response plans. When warnings of a new cyclone – Mahasen – came in May 2013, she had an opportunity to put what she’d learnt into practice, helping people evacuate to a safe shelter before receiving news that the storm had changed course.

Women’s leadership is essential

Taking such an active role in the community is a big change for women like May Thu Win. As part of the project, she and other women in her village took part in leadership training.

We learnt why women are vulnerable [to disasters] – it’s a result of social norms and because they lack confidence,” says May.

The training gave women the skills and knowledge to be able to speak up and contribute to the decisions that were being made in their community – decisions made mostly by men.

“Women participate much more in development work now,” she explains further.

More plans to strengthen resilience

It’s clear that KyonKan (Zin Baung) is well on its way to becoming a much better prepared village. But May Thu Win explains there is more to be done.

ActionAid has just launched a new disaster preparedness project again funded by DIPECHO. The project will build on the successes achieved so far and will involve five partners (Action Contre la Faim, HelpAge International, Oxfam GB, Plan Germany and UN-Habitat).

“We need to get more women involved, and we need to revise our [emergency] response plans,” says village leader, Kyaw Lin Oo. He is keen to see more community members practice how to get the most vulnerable people in the village – including people with disabilities and the elderly – to safety.

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This article refers to humanitarian aid activities implemented with the financial assistance of the European Union (EU). The views expressed herein should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of the EU, and the European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.