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Floods have receded in many disaster-hit parts of Burma in the past week, while large areas remain inundated. But officials and aid workers warn that hundreds of communities in both areas face an acute shortage of clean water after floods contaminated ponds and wells.
They said emergency operations to provide bottled water and purification tablets are only able to provide temporary help to affected communities, who are at risk of waterborne disease such as diarrhoea.
Flooding has affected 12 out of 14 states and regions since early this month, with western and central Burma suffering the most severe inundation. According to the United Nations, by 11 August about 1.1 million people were affected and 240,000 displaced, while about 700,000 acres of farmland were destroyed, raising fears of food security problems and rising food prices.
In recent days, flooding has receded in Arakan State and Sagaing and Magwe divisions, but Irrawaddy Division is still experiencing flooding with 17 out 26 townships under water, The Irrawaddy Magazine reported Friday.
Scarcity of drinking water
In all four states and regions, a lack of safe water is a serious problem with tens of thousands of people unable to use clean water for bathing, washing and drinking, officials and aid organisations told Myanmar Now.
According to local media reports, some 30 villagers were treated for acute diarrhoea in Magwe’s Pwintbyu Township on 5 August because if a lack of clean water. Dr. Soe Lwin Nyein, a director of Ministry of Health, told Myanmar Now that about 40 people were treated for a diarrhoea outbreak in a village in Sagaing’s Kale Township earlier this week.
Tin Maung Swe, secretary of the Arakan State government, said about 1,000 ponds in some 300 villages in his state were contaminated. “We need to pump flood water out of these ponds. Only then we could use them to store rainwater in the remaining monsoon period,” he said.
“The flood water in Rakhine [Arakan] State is saline. If we could not clean the ponds in time, the locals would face drinking water scarcity in the hot season. Our government will prioritise cleaning water facilities in collaboration with the donors,” Tin Maung Swe said.
Arakan State spokesperson Hla Thein said draft animals that had sought safety on the embankments around ponds had also contaminated water sources with excrement.
According to Sagaing Division authorities, more than 250 ponds there had been flooded.
“Although the ponds were not totally damaged, river water flowed into them. Both the government and private donors are working together to pump out the river water. We will add water purification chemicals into these ponds,” said Soe Soe Zaw, secretary of Sagaing divisional government.
Bottled water donations
Residents of the region’s Kale Township said households there generally have individual water wells, but most of these were flooded. They said had relied on donations of bottled water and that there have been no government or donor efforts so far to rehabilitate wells.
“Although the flood has receded the wells were left damaged,” said Ko Arkar, a town resident. “Some wells in higher areas [that were not flooded] have dried up, surprisingly. So, scarcity of drinking water is a major problem in our town.”
In Pwintbyu Township, dozens of villages throughout the area suffered from severe flooding and tens of thousands of people were forced to seek shelter in temporary camps.
The floods damaged local fresh water resources, a situation that continues to affect residents, said Lynette Lim, communications manager at international aid group Save the Children.
“People generally rely on the hand-dug wells, streams, and hand pumps, but most of water sources were flooded and contaminated. In Pwintbyu, we found that there is not enough drinking water in the camps,” she told Myanmar Now, adding that poor hygiene caused by a lack of latrines was further heightening health risks for the displaced population.
In Irrawaddy Division, communities normally rely on tube wells and river water, both of which have become unavailable due to the floods.
“Water from the river cannot be used for drinking any more as sediments mixed with water flowed upriver,” said Tun Tun Linn, an official at the department of irrigation in Nyaungdon Township.
An official at a camp for displaced villagers in Nyaungdon said 200 villages in the township faced acute drinking water scarcity.
Daw May, a displaced farmer from Ngwe Thaung Yan village, was among hundreds of people living on bamboo platforms raised above the floodwaters. All had been relying on donations of bottled water. “We cannot forecast when the flood will decline, and we are happy to get purified water bottles among the relief items,” she said.
Hla Thein said his Arakan State government was distributing chlorine powder in villages to kill bacteria in fresh water. He added, however, that it could not be used to treat ponds and wells flooded with brackish water, which is a widespread problem in the coastal state.
“Actually, the powder can purify only fresh water. A pack of chlorine powder can purify 10 litres of water. We also donated 500,000 kyat [US$400] to each village we visited for reconstruction [of ponds],” he said, adding that dozens of villages still remain inaccessible for aid workers, as roads have been damaged by floods.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said its operations in Arakan’s Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw and Minbya townships have so far provided 7,500 people with food assistance and 4,500 people with essential items such as blankets, mats and lamps.
“As the water recedes … ICRC’s priority is given to the rehabilitation of water sources, such as wells and ponds, clearing up debris and rehabilitation of community infrastructures through cash for work projects,” said ICRC communication coordinator Jean-Yves Clémenzo.
“On water, so far we have started the installation of rain water catchments serving 3,600 people to clean ponds and to donate gasoline to activate pumps to clean some ponds in villages around Mrauk-U,” he added.
Dr. Than Tun Aung, a director of the Health Ministry’s Central Epidemiological Unit, said authorities had begun emptying wells in areas in central and western Burma. “If these water resources could not be recovered, the flooding areas are likely to face scarcity of household water in the future,” he said.
Zaw Htoo Oo, a field officer of the Myanmar Red Cross Society, said the organisation had so far rehabilitated several ponds and wells in Sagaing’s Kale Township.
Red Cross Chairman That Hla Shwe said, “We are trying to fulfil the needs in order of priority. People at the relief camps are now in need of aid; their houses have been destroyed. Water resources were also contaminated – these issues will require rehabilitation programmes in the coming months.”
Read more about Burma’s flood crisis