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Navigating Change in the Delta

Myanmar, December 8, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jeremy Barnicle for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Jeremy Barnicle for Mercy Corps

In early May, Cyclone Nargis tore through Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta, its merciless rains and 120-mile-an-hour winds destroying hundreds of low-lying villages and killing more than 140,000 people.

A little more than seven months after the storm, Mercy Corps is transitioning from humanitarian relief to a longer term recovery effort. I recently spent a week in the region to monitor progress and report back successes and challenges to Mercy Corps' donors and leadership.

Our agency, which is working in partnership with the UK-based humanitarian organization Merlin, has focused its programming on Laputta Township — an area that lost almost a quarter of its residents to the cyclone.

"I have seen firsthand how communities have evolved from chaos in the immediate aftermath of the storm to relative stability now," says Michael Gabriel, Mercy Corps' country representative in Myanmar. "When I arrived in May, it was all about humanitarian response — now we are looking at how to build back better."

That means restoring economic livelihoods, expanding and stabilizing local food production, and bringing villages together to prioritize and plan their own paths to prosperity.

The residents of Laputta Township have suffered more than most of us can imagine. Everyone I met lost much of what they had in the storm: homes, boats, fishing and farming equipment, supplies of rice and seeds. Most tragically, they lost family and friends.

More than 80,000 died in this township of roughly 320,000 people. Entire villages in the southern part of the Delta — the area fully exposed to the cyclone as it roared off the Bay of Bengal — were swept away and may never be rebuilt.

And yet there is hope here, as there always seems to be among people who have experienced such collective trauma.

"Nargis opened people's eyes here in Myanmar," says Mra Sabai Nyun, a Harvard-educated Myanmar woman who oversees Mercy Corps' livelihoods recovery program. "People have seen that they can work together — that they must work together — to deal with their challenges. And in a place like Myanmar, with little history of public participation, that is an important and fundamental change."

Since Cyclone Nargis hit, we've been working closely our partner organization Merlin, which has been working in the Delta for years and already well positioned to help survivors. The Mercy Corps team has brought to the partnership experience and expertise in helping post-disaster communities reclaim their economic livelihoods and plan collaboratively for the future.

This combination of skills, resources and local know-how is enabling the joint Merlin-Mercy Corps team to make a difference in thousands of lives.