By THE IRRAWADDY
The Irrawaddy speaks to the country director of Save the Children in Burma, Andrew Kirkwood, about the challenges of operating in the Irrawaddy delta.
Question: What do you think about the situation one year after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma?
Answer: I think it depends very much on where you go in the delta. In the commercial centers all around the delta and in villages closer to Rangoon, most people have recovered, in certain senses, a normal life. In most commercial centers, you can see that people have rebuilt homes, markets are working and there’s a great deal of commercial activity.
But in the southwestern part of the delta, in rural areas, the places where cyclone hit, people are still many, many years away from recovering a way to make a living. So, these people don’t have enough water to drink and wash with. They are reliant on food distribution from aid agencies. They lost their family members, their homes and all their ways of making a living. So it’s going take these people many, many years to recover.
Q: Can you estimate how many children became orphans after Cyclone Nargis? What is your organization doing for them?
A: We have registered about 1,000 children who are no longer living with their families, who have lost their families. Those children have been entered in a database which is used by many agencies so we can match parents who have lost their kids with kids who have lost their parents.
Most of those children have either been reunited with their families or placed with extended family members or with foster families in their community. But so many of these children are living in orphanages run by local churches or local monasteries, and we are supporting those orphanages to improve the conditions that these children have for living and for education.
Q: What difficulties and restrictions did you face when your organization was operating aid deliveries in the delta?
A: By far the biggest challenges are logistical. The villages that we are working in are very isolated and can only be reached, most of them, by boats. And some of them are very far south in the delta, where the rivers are very big, the tides are very difficult and the weather—we’re coming now into the monsoon season—can be very dangerous. This is by far the biggest challenge that we face.
Q: The report titled “After the Storm: Voices from the Delta,” which was released by a non-governmental organization in exile and a human rights group, said that INGOs working in the delta reported little about human rights violations. What is your comment on the report?
A: The report by Emergency Assistance Team (EAT) gives the wrong impression of what happened with the relief effort in the delta. Number one, the report focuses very largely on the first month of the cyclone response, when things were most difficult, which doesn’t give a very balanced picture of the Nargis response.
It also doesn’t talk about what was achieved. For example, Save the Children was able to reach 160,000 people with assistance in the first two weeks after the cyclone, including in the very southwestern tip of the delta, where the cyclone struck first. It’s really unfortunate that the report doesn’t give a more balanced picture of how the cyclone relief efforts went.
Q: Do you have any suggestion for the Burmese regime in terms of cooperating with aid agencies for further humanitarian assistance?
A: Save the Children works very closely with some parts of the government. We have a very good relationship with the Department of Social Welfare, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health. With their cooperation, we are able to do a lot of community-based assistance. So, it’s really not right to say that all parts of the government are not being cooperative.