Q&A: Carol Ward in Myanmar


June 17, 2008

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    Mercy Corps  </span>
    A mother and her son at People's Park in Yangon amid fallen trees and storm debris. The city is still reeling from the damage of Cyclone Nargis, a month after it hit Myanmar. Photo: Mercy Corps
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    Carol Ward's assignments for Mercy Corps have taken her to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Lebanon, Central African Republic, and now Myanmar. Photo:

Carol Ward is one of four members of Mercy Corps' Global Emergency Operations team responding to the needs of cyclone survivors in Myanmar. Mercy Corps is supporting the medical aid organization Merlin with a team of disaster-response experts and financial resources.

Ward is a 51-year-old British citizen who's leading the agencies' response in food security and malnutrition prevention. She got into nutrition issues while working for Merlin in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, and earned a master's degree in public health nutrition in 2002.

She arrived in Laputta on June 8.

How did you initially get involved with Mercy Corps?

I started with Mercy Corps just over two years ago when I joined their Global Emergency Operations team. Since then I've served in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Lebanon, Central African Republic, and now in Myanmar.

Among all of them, this assignment is the most demanding. This is a tough place to work; there are all kinds of difficulties in travel and access. There are many restrictions on things you can and cannot do. It's quite hard working with communities because they have to live in this situation, and I sense they don't feel free to express all their needs.

What was it like to experience the cyclone's devastation firsthand?

Well for me, walking around in some of these villages, it feels like almost being on a movie set — it's so horrific it's quite hard to take in. Once-vibrant villages are reduced to matchsticks. But people in Myanmar are very resourceful and resilient, and even faced with such destruction, they are trying to rebuild their homes and their lives.

One story that sticks with me was one recounted by our water-and-sanitation expert. He got to a village where there was nothing standing at all, apart from one tree. He spoke to a teenage boy, who had climbed a tree carrying his young brother — clenching his teeth around his brother's t-shirt. They survived. But the rest of his family died.

What are you finding in terms of malnutrition?

We are not finding as much malnutrition as we'd expect, but we are worried that the threat is there. At the moment people are receiving food, but it's not consistent, and some areas are not being covered in the deliveries.

Traditionally, the Irrawaddy Delta has had vitamin B1 deficiency, which usually comes with a polished rice diet. It affects the whole metabolism in a lot of ways, but most often you have either "wet" beriberi or "dry" beriberi. Wet beriberi results in swelling in the legs, a bit like elephantiasis; it's very painful and causes a lack of mobility. It's the same with dry beriberi. The joints hurt, they are cramped up, it's really unpleasant. For those who have it, it impacts their life. In advanced stages, they are really slowed down and in chronic pain.

There are a lot of chronic malnutrition problems, which are characterized by stunting — essentially very short people. And then there is "wasting," which is acute malnutrition.

What are Merlin and Mercy Corps doing to help?

For the moment we are focusing on food security. We've just purchased 100 metric tons of local rice seed, which should be salt-tolerant. We've also purchased several thousand packages of various vegetable seeds, with the expectation we can get people to diversify their diets.

We have mobile teams going around to communities to see what their needs are so they can start the planting cycle. This includes clearing debris, sorting out the water supply, or prepping the shelter before people can work in the field.

Traditionally, buffaloes fertilized the fields and they also pulled the plows, but most of the buffaloes died in the storm. So it's difficult for people to plant without the buffaloes. Since we have a very short window to get the seed in the ground, we're giving power tillers—called iron buffaloes—to replace the lost buffaloes. There are five for the first village and they'll be delivered on Tuesday.

Tell me about the plans to open a center to treat malnutrition.

We hope to work with the Ministry of Health to set up a stabilization center for severely malnourished children with medical complications who cannot be treated at home. The health ministry has come to us to ask for our assistance and we've offered support in terms of training materials or staff and we're waiting to hear back.

It depends on the rate of malnutrition; in many cases it will be difficult to refer children to the hospital due to transportation issues and disruption to the family. Families have so much to cope with at the moment already. We hope we'll get to treat the children in their communities unless they get to the stage where they need to go to the stabilization center. So we've started screening for malnutrition in the clinics, and we are expecting supplies for supplementary and therapeutic foods to treat children in the communities.

So far, there are no systematic or statistically sound figures to give an adequate picture for nutrition. But we do know, through case by case screening, that we need to put ourselves in prevention mode. We hope we don't get to the stage where we have to treat the children. At the same time, we are preparing our staff in case we ever have to.