Burma’s opportunity now: Rebuild for a safer future
Simple remedies abound, experts say. But will the government act?
When tropical cyclone Nargis slammed into southern Burma (Myanmar) on May 3 it left an enormous humanitarian crisis in its wake. But it also has presented the country with an opportunity to rebuild in its hard-hit Irrawaddy delta in ways that increase the region’s resilience in the face of future storms.Skip to next paragraph
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That’s the assessment of a range of specialists who have taken part in recovery efforts in areas as diverse as post-Katrina New Orleans and post-tsunami Thailand and Sri Lanka.
No one underestimates the challenge Myanmar faces – from the sheer number of people affected and the country’s poverty to the obdurate behavior of the country’s authoritarian military junta, which at press time was still allowing only a trickle of outside aid, and no outside disaster-relief experts, into the country.
“This is a great human tragedy,” says Deborah Brosnan, a marine scientist and founder of the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute in Portland, Ore., a kind of “ecologists without borders” that aims to bring scientific expertise to bear on conservation and sustainable-development issues worldwide. With fatalities from the storm topping more than 31,000 to date, the issue, she asks, is whether “these people will have died in vain.”
Conditions that contributed to the devastation have a familiar ring, Dr. Brosnan notes. In 1850, British colonial officials began turning the upper part of the delta into the region’s rice bowl – replacing vast stands of forest with rice paddies, complete with levees and dikes that have deteriorated with time. Prior to tropical cyclone Nargis, some 800 miles of dikes and levees had been built to safeguard about 2,300 square miles of rice paddies.
Mangrove forests would have helped
The lower delta, rich in fisheries, once hosted dense stands of mangroves that would knock down a storm surge’s size and sap its energy. But the mangroves have been felled to make way for more rice fields and to provide fuel for many of the delta’s 3.5 million inhabitants. Mangrove losses have become so heavy that by some estimates the mangroves will vanish in another 50 years if current rates continue, Brosnan adds.
When Nargis struck, the lack of natural mangrove barriers and the vast network of channels turned much of the lower delta into a superhighway for Nargis’s 12-foot storm surge.
Several experts say that the Irrawaddy region has natural assets people can build on to make the path to ecologically sound use of the delta far easier to pursue than in places like the Mississippi River delta.
Unlike the Mississippi delta, the Irrawaddy is keeping its silty head above water. Heavy rains in the rainy seasons – and a dearth of expensive, heavily engineered, Mississippi-like levees and dikes – ensure that an ample supply of sediment reaches the delta, offsetting natural subsidence, says Craig Colton, a geographer at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge who specializes in the ecological intersection of people and landscape.