Delta disability rates 'highest in Burma'

Disability rates in Burma’s southern Irrawaddy delta have dramatically risen in the past decade and are now the country’s highest, a survey-based report by an international NGO has found. 

The survey, conducted by The Leprosy Mission International (TLMI) along with the Burmese government’s Department of Social Welfare (DSW) in over 100,000 households around the country, concluded that 3.27 percent of Irrawaddy residents suffered from some form of disability. The figure is reasonably high when juxtaposed against the national average of 2.32 percent. 

Previous studies indicate that Mandalay had been the region with the highest proportion of disabled people at the turn of the century, with Irrawaddy division ranking fifth on the table. Things however took a drastic turn after cyclone Nargis in May 2008, which pushed the delta higher up on the disability radar. 

While the report doesn’t classify the different kinds of disabilities people are suffering inside the delta, physical injuries do rank among the top causes. Aid organisations working in there have been prioritising the needs of disabled residents: for instance, families whose breadwinners were incapacitated after the cyclone have been given special allowances to sustain their livelihoods. 

But recent developments in the international aid coordination efforts beckon attention towards the seriousness of the issue. Earlier this month, the military government announced an end to operations in the delta by the Tripartite Core Group’s (TCG), a coordinating body comprising the junta, the UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc

The TCG was formed weeks after the cyclone struck the region, killing some 140,000 and leaving 2.4 million destitue. The organisation is said to have been responsible for persuading the Burmese government to allow international workers into the delta to pursue aid efforts. 

While the TCG was meant to be operational until 2011, the upcoming election in the country – Burma’s first in 20 years – have forced the junta to dissolve the body, fearing interference. The Burmese Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement is now overseeing recovery operations. 

This spells doom for the international NGOs, which need to have a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the ministry – a difficult task, given the junta’s determination to stop issuing visas to international aid workers in the build-up to the election.

“A few months ago, the government announced that aid efforts over the next couple of years would bring desired results in the delta. However, they surprised everyone [in mid-August] when they claimed that recovery needs had been met,” a medical source inside Burma told DVB, requesting anonymity.

The abrupt discontinuation of relief work is expected to have many negative impacts, with the livelihood requirements of disabled people likely to go unmet. Moreover, the prevailing climatic conditions – the region had suffered from drought earlier this year – add to their plight.  

The exodus of aid assistance will also widely increase social, health and income instability in the delta. “The UN resident coordinator has been in talks with higher authorities in the government to try and improve the situation. It is difficult to predict at this point whether anything positive will result out of that,” the source added.

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