Burma’s opportunity now: Rebuild for a safer future

Simple remedies abound, experts say. But will the government act?

Jessica E. Davis/AP
Rebuilding: A woman sits in the reconstructed frame of her home in Dalah, Myanmar (Burma), on May 8. Her original home was washed away in the May 3 cyclone’s storm surge.

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.

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.

Left to themselves, the area’s ecosystems could return to their prestorm conditions fairly quickly, Dr. Colton says. Mangrove swamps and forests less manipulated by human activities could be well on their way to recovery within a year. Where Nargis’s storm surge pushed deep into the delta’s freshwater ecosystems, fish would probably return soon after the water is sufficiently salt-free. Plant species, however, including critical rice fields, may take up to three years to recover, assuming adequate rainfall to flush out the salt from the storm surge.

Ironically, for some areas of the Irrawaddy delta, the first step toward sustainable recovery may be the timely arrival of food aid itself. Specialists note, for instance, that several species of sea turtle, whose adults and eggs have long been a source of food, are either endangered or threatened. One species appears to be on the verge of extinction. The lack of food aid may force people living near nesting areas to harvest more turtles and turtle eggs in order to survive.

Several long-term approaches could provide added protection for the delta’s residents and set the stage for more sustainable use of the area’s resources, specialists say. The key is restoring the delta’s natural processes, beginning with efforts to regenerate the region’s mangroves.

“The mangroves are a keystone species,” Brosnan says. For humans, mangroves can act as a natural storm-surge barrier. And for the marine resources critical to the country’s food supply, they act as nurseries for roughly half the fish species the country relies upon for commercial and subsistence fishing. Belize may be a model. It has done a good job of protecting its mangrove forests, Brosnan notes.

Moreover, some researchers suggests that in the face of sea-level rise due to climate change, healthy coastal wetlands, estuaries, and mangrove stands are more likely to build themselves up to keep pace with rising sea levels than are severely degraded wetlands.

Hurricane-resistant school buildings

Burma could further reduce future storm-surge risks by minimizing construction of new canals. It could be a tough call. Covering some 13,500 square miles, the Irrawaddy delta is nearly three times the size of the Mississippi River delta. In many areas, the canals and streams provide the only transportation routes.

In the long run, Brosnan and others say, it may be necessary to adopt what would amount to a crude type of zoning, encouraging people to rebuild in flood-protected settlements on high ground.

In addition, geographer Colton cites efforts Bangladesh has made to elevate and strengthen new public schools in its vast delta. The schools can then be used as safe temporary shelters when a storm strikes. Over the past 20 to 30 years, such efforts have led to a marked drop in storm deaths.

“Modest hurricane-resistant structures are one step that even a financially strapped government can take,” he says.

It’s unclear how responsive Myan­mar’s government may be to such ideas. A government needs to work collaboratively with local residents, notes Sanjayan Muttulingam, a conservation biologist and lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy. Without local buy-in, efforts to get people to change the way they live and work won’t last long, he says.

“If ever there was a country that had a chance to get it right, it was Sri Lanka” following the tsunamis that struck in December 2004, says Dr. Sanjayan, who comes from that island nation.

For a time, government forces and insurgents worked together. “People of all stripes just pitched in and helped,” he says. “Initially there was a huge amount of ‘Let’s get this right.’ ”

But in the 3-1/2 years since the disaster, that sentiment has eroded. The reasons, he says: inappropriate types of aid early on, and a top-down approach that was well-meaning but failed to acknowledge local expertise or involve residents in decisionmaking.

Given the authoritarian nature of Burma’s junta, the country does not appear to be fertile ground for a collaborative effort, Sanjayan says. “The government could issue a decree, but it would just be a decree. It would never get into the vernacular of the community.”

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