THAPAUNG, Irrawaddy Delta—Although they live in thatch huts on stilts up to six feet high, flooding is still an unwelcome annual visitor for those living on farmland stretching across the Ngawun River in the Irrawaddy Delta—the rice bowl of Burma.
“As we live in a low-lying area, floods are not a big deal for us. But this one is unusual,” said Daw Hmway of Shin Gyi Pyauk Village by Thapaung, a provincial town more than 20 miles from the divisional capital Pathein (Bassein).
A heavy deluge caused the river to rise four feet above its danger level of 17 feet last week, she said. Water started to lap the bamboo floor of her stilted hut—an experience which astonished the 70-year-old who last encountered such levels in 2004.
While sitting in the village monastery where she and dozens of other people have sought refuge for the last two weeks, Daw Hmway told The Irrawaddy that she was afraid because the flooding has already destroyed 18 houses in her village.
“It’s quite alarming for us,” she said. “The water shakes our hut. What if our house falls down? That’s why we are staying here now.”
Daw Hmway is one of more than 80,000 people who have been affected by this year’s unusually strong monsoon.
Situated in a flood plain, more than 10,000 acres of farmland in Thapaung are now submerged, according to figures from the township’s Irrigation Department, creating a vast expanse of water as far as the eye can see.
The division’s relief management committee said 24 out of 26 townships in the whole delta region have been hit by torrential rain and floods this month—a big blow to Burma’s annual rice yield as local farmers contribute 20 percent of national production.
“It’s taken for granted that every affected farmer will resume their work as soon as the water subsides. But the problem is that they don’t have any capital for tools and seeds. The relevant authorities have to think strategically for the good of farmers and production,” said the director of a rice wholesale company in Rangoon who asked to remain anonymous.
On a recent visit to some affected villages in Thapaung, The Irrawaddy witnessed flood victims still reeling from their dreadful experience—staying at village primary schools and monasteries, which are usually built on higher ground and hastily converted into relief camps.
“Even though we don’t have enough food, we have to share what we have,” said U Wimala, the abbot of Aye Myitta Monastery in Shin Gyi Pyauk. His rickety premises are now sheltering dozens of flood victims.
The government was quick into action late last week when a quantity of rice was delivered to every household in the affected area—ahead of other informal relief efforts organized by well-wishers.
“Yes, we had the government relief supply but it is only 0.14 bushels [less than one gallon]. We have 10 family members. It’s not enough,” complained Sandar Cho, a mother-of-four from Kya Ku Village.
The local primary school has been forced to close and is currently packed with flood victims ranging from a coughing old man to breast-feeding mums and children who a fortnight ago would recite lessons here. A few pigs are tethered in the corner while a distressed rooster crows every five seconds.
When the floodwater reached the floor of his house last week, Aung Thein hurriedly assembled a makeshift platform at a higher level in the living room to accommodate his sick father and five-year-old son. The new structure is now so close to the roof that it leaves no room for the occupants to stand up.
“Thank god the water is now receding. If not, we would be amongst those staying at the school,” the 35-year-old farmer told The Irrawaddy while waiting for relief supplies to arrive.
Contrary to others in the delta region, people from villages in Thapaung generally do not work during the rainy season.
“Every field is inundated when the rains come so we can only work in the winter and summer. Economically, the flood doesn’t affect us very much. But socially, it’s disastrous,” said Thein Zaw Oo, the administrator of Kya Ku Village.
“Now we can only think about food. But the problem that lies ahead is how we can rebuild our houses which were damaged by the flood. It gives me a headache,” said Htwe Ye, whose hut in Ka Tat Yoe Village was destroyed by the flood.
For two weeks now Mya Myint Zu has stayed away from school as it has been converted into a relief camp. The fifth grader always outsmarts her classmates in every exam and aspires to be a teacher.
Asked whether she was happy not to have any homework to do as the school is now closed, she replied, “Yes, but not very much.
“I want to go back to school. I miss my friends and lessons too.”