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KYAUKPHYU, Arakan State — The residents of this flood-prone part of southwestern Arakan State are still struggling to resume agricultural production seven years after their lands were devastated by Cyclone Giri in 2010.
Giri destroyed the sturdy embankments that helped keep the flow of saline — salt — water from flowing off the bay into the paddy fields, leaving rice farmers with little choice but to try and rebuild the mud and dirt formations themselves.
“We cannot grow paddy until now after the flood,” said 56-year-old Ohn Phe, a farmer in Chaungswe village, part of Kyaukphyu Township.
In his village, farmers are putting in their own funds to help rebuild, and are going into debt. They have not made much progress. The embankments are still under five feet, not tall enough to keep back serious flooding.
Thet Lwin Tun, an official at the Department of Irrigation and Water Management in Kyaukphyu district, said reconstructing the embankments is an urgent task, and the local government has been able to help in some areas.
Even as some have argued farmers could use saline-resistant seeds and other newer methods, budgeting remains a problem for more immediate construction needs. Arakan State received only 0.7 percent of the national budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
The deputy minister for agriculture, livestock and irrigation told the Upper House of Parliament in June that the ministry is not planning to rebuild the embankment in a village called Saichone because there is simply no money for it.
At its longest, the embankment in Saichone stretched across 21,000 acres and could protect about 1,500 acres of paddy fields from flooding, the deputy minister said.
After the embankment was damaged in the cyclone, the ministry could help rebuild only about half of it. The rest of the money is expected to come from the Arakan State budget in the coming fiscal year.
But Kyaw Than, an Upper House MP for Kyaukphyu township, said there isn’t enough money for the completion, and the state needs the central government’s help.
Aung Khin Soe, an official with the agricultural department, said the local government is conducting a survey on the needs of local farmers.
“The state’s departments are working on the reconstruction of embankments, while the farmers are doing their best as these water barriers are essential for the region,” he said.
Some help has come from NGOs. The nonprofit Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT) has provided construction assistance to build embankments that cover more than 22,000 acres of paddy fields from saline water.
A report from LIFT said that 94 percent of these embankments resisted damage from Cyclone Komen in mid-2015.
Ohn Phe, the Chaungswe village farmer, said a private company won a contract in 2014 to reconstruct an embankment affected by Giri, but it was run down again within one year.
Thein Myint, a village administrator in Kyaukngu, which is located on the outskirts of Kyaukphyu, said since maintenance costs for embankments are too expensive and the revamped embankments in the aftermath of the cyclone did not last long, only 100 of 5,000 acres of paddy field are arable.
In Ohn Phe’s village, about 100 local residents have moved after losing land during the 2010 cyclone.
“If the government neglects a rehabilitation plan for this area, the villages will totally disappear over the next 20 years,” he said, criticising alternative vocational plans. “Fishing and catching crabs are not reliable businesses as the sources are declining.”
Thet Lwin Tun, the official with the Kyaukphyu Irrigation Department, said he has urged companies contracted to rebuild the embankments to do a better job.
“The companies did not use enough labour force, causing the delay of construction work in April 2014. They need to abide by the agreements in the contracts,” he said, without naming a specific firm.
Thein Myint, the Kyaukngu village administrator, said that rebuilding the barriers was as important as school construction or other local development.
“I want to ask the government to reconstruct more embankments, and set up plans to narrow the development gap between the cities and our villages,” he said.
This story was originally published by Myanmar Now here.