The HC Interview: Myanmar

27 July, 2012
A child leans on a water jar outside demolished houses. Villagers start on reconstructing the damages caused by the cyclone in Hnarkaung Chaung town in Kum Yangon town in the Irrawady delta region. Credit: IRIN/VJ Villafranca
A child leans on a water jar outside demolished houses. Villagers start on reconstructing the damages caused by the cyclone in Hnarkaung Chaung town in Kum Yangon town in the Irrawady delta region. Credit: IRIN/VJ Villafranca

Last year, OCHA ranked Myanmar as the most at-risk Asia-Pacific country. It is vulnerable to devastating natural disasters, poverty and conflicts. Despite being a resource-rich country with a strong agricultural base, its population of over 50 million people are among the poorest in the world. Years of conflict and unresolved ethnic differences have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and an influx of refugees in neighbouring countries.

Major disasters such as Cyclone Nargis severely affected millions of people in 2008. Cyclone Giri in 2010 and the Tachilek earthquake in 2011 continued to cause more human suffering and destruction.    
 
The ongoing conflict in Kachin and communal tensions in Rakhine continue to displace people. According to latest estimates, about 130,000 people remain displaced in Kachin and Rakhine. At the Government’s request, UN agencies and other humanitarian partners are providing humanitarian assistance to communities affected by the conflicts.   
 
Ashok Nigam was appointed Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar in November 2011. He talks about working in partnership with the Government to provide humanitarian assistance and support the national disaster preparedness efforts.   
 
 
Q. What is the humanitarian situation in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine and Kachin States where conflicts have led to the displacement of thousands of people?
 
Since June 2011, there has been a conflict between the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and the Government in Kachin State. The conflict has led to the displacement of about 65,000 people, and we have been assessing the situation. We have had access to provide aid to about half those people on a fairly regular basis. We only have intermittent access to the rest. There are some 29,000 people that we have not been able to access since the conflict began, but we are working with the Government to find a way to reach them and provide humanitarian assistance.
 
We are also facing some challenges is Rakhine where people have been displaced as a result of communal conflict, which started in early June. As a result, we estimate that roughly 65,000 people have been displaced. We are working with the Government to provide assistance to these people. We are also conducting our own independent and rapid needs assessment. While we wait for the results, we continue to provide essential supplies such as food. People urgently need shelter, food, medicines, water and sanitation, and we remain concerned about people living in very unhygienic conditions and being exposed to serious medical issues.  
 
Q. What are the major challenges humanitarian partners continue to face while supporting the Government-led response in Rakhine? 
 
We are working with the Government to ensure we get unhindered access in accordance with the humanitarian principles. In Kachin, we have had intermittent access because of the security situation. We have told the Government that the UN and its humanitarian partners are working in very difficult circumstances to provide assistance to everyone in need, and that we need to find solutions to keep helping them. In Rakhine, we have a similar situation where we are trying to access everyone in need. We need the support of the Government at every instance to ensure that we get unhindered access, and this has been a challenge. But we will continue to work with the Government to try and find solutions. We urge all our humanitarian partners and the Government to work with us so that the people in need are assisted.
 
Q. How are the authorities and humanitarian organizations working to promote disaster risk reduction and preparedness in natural-disaster-prone Myanmar?
 
Myanmar has been prone to a number of natural disasters, and we have learned a number of lessons from the previous large-scale disasters, such as Cyclone Nargis, Cyclone Giri and the Tachilek earthquake. The Government has also strengthened its capacity to respond and be better prepared to cope with future disasters. We have been working on setting up a number of cyclone shelters, but an overall rapid response mechanism and a coordinated approach are needed. Preparedness is a critical element of providing humanitarian assistance to people, and that is one of our priorities in Myanmar.
 
Q. What are the humanitarian funding needs in the country?
 
The humanitarian funding needs continue to evolve. We are now asking for US$22 million to provide assistance to up to 85,000 people in Kachin until Februry 2013. So far, donors have been very forthcoming with respect to Kachin, and we are working with them to improve the conditions. With regard to Rakhine, we are currently assessing the needs: we need to determine how many people need assistance returning to their homes and communities, as well as how many would require medium- to longer-term assistance.