Rebuilding Burma's cyclone-hit Irrawaddy Delta

Riverside home in the Irrawaddy Delta
Image caption The fertile, wet Irrawaddy Delta region is Burma's rice bowl

To this day mystery surrounds the response of Burma's military government to the catastrophic cyclone that, on 2 May 2008, smashed into the Irrawaddy Delta, a poor but densely populated region where most of the country's rice is cultivated.

It was the worst natural disaster in the country's recorded history, killing at least 140,000 people and leaving three million in urgent need of assistance.

Yet the government refused visas for international aid workers; its preference was for foreign funding to support its own agencies, even though those agencies were completely overwhelmed.

It took weeks of sustained diplomatic pressure to persuade the ruling generals to accept a co-ordinated international aid effort.

Paranoia about the real intentions of an international community which had isolated the regime with sanctions; a long-held belief in self-reliance; and fear of allowing large numbers of foreigners into the delta, which has a long history of political resistance to the central government - all these factors may have played a part in the military's hesitation.

'Blown away'

Even today, outsiders need special permission to visit the areas hit hardest by Cyclone Nargis, at the mouth of the delta.

And it is a difficult journey, on broken roads, through a flat, green, waterlogged landscape, and then by boat down one of the many wide, brown tributaries of the Irrawaddy.

I was among a group of journalists taken to two villages located downstream from Bogale, the largest town in the south-east of the delta - Pyin Ma Gone and Myit Poe Kyone Sein.

These are isolated communities without power, without phones and with very little technology. Nearly all of the farmwork is done by water buffalo or human hand. The cyclone destroyed almost everything they had.

"The wind became so strong it ripped my house apart," recalls Maung Hla, a 52-year-old farmer in Pyin Ma Gone, where a third of the population perished.

"My wife was blown away to the other side of the river. We never saw her again. All my buffaloes were killed and all my rice seeds were destroyed."

Image caption Maung Hla lost many family members, including his wife

He lost a total of 10 family members. He said the government provided some replacement rice seeds to plant, but the quality was very poor, producing a small crop.

The year after they were hit by heavy floods, which at least helped wash some of the salt out of the soil; then there was a plague of rats, because so many of their natural predators had been killed by the cyclone.

Maung Hla owns 12 acres of land, more than most, although ownership is never clear-cut in a country where the military government nationalised all land in the 1960s.

"Looks can be deceiving in the delta," says Andrew Kirkwood, a long-standing aid worker in Burma who now runs LIFT, one of the trust funds through which different NGOs channel their development funding.

"Especially now, it's very, very green, with lots of rice to be harvested. But we have to remember that 70% of people don't own any land. A great many of them live below the poverty line."

'Turning point'

The combined impact of sanctions and the military's xenophobia meant Burma received very little development aid in the past. It got just a tenth of the amount, per capita, that was given to neighbouring Laos, which also has an authoritarian government.

Image caption Work is under way to improve Burma's rice crop

Until this year only 60 international NGOs and UN agencies worked in Burma. The World Bank could not work in the country at all. This added to the dramatic impoverishment already inflicted by 50 years of military misrule.

The political changes of the past 18 months have transformed the aid environment; as sanctions have been lifted, most of the big Western donors have begun offering substantial assistance for the first time in more than a decade.

The European Union offered 150m euros ($199m; £122m) this year, nearly as much as it has given Burma over the previous 15 years. But the cyclone also had a big impact.

"Cyclone Nargis was a turning point," says Andreas List, head of the EU Office in Rangoon. "After it, the government realised they needed international help."

Andrew Kirkwood believes the impact was even greater - that the shock of the cyclone helped to persuade the military to accept reform.

"I personally think that the cyclone and the pouring in of assistance actually did contribute to the political process. It enabled some trust-building between the international community and the government," he says.

"The real challenge now is aid co-ordination. We're all looking to the government for their priorities. That dialogue is still in very early stages. But I don't think we could have conceived that this dialogue would have been taking place just two years ago."

Catching up

The projects we saw in the delta, funded by the EU but co-ordinated through LIFT, were modest, but tailored to the needs of the two villages still recovering from the destruction wreaked by the cyclone.

Image caption NGOs are introducing small but effective projects to help local people

In Pyin Ma Gone they have been experimenting with different strains of rice, seeing which produce greater yields in the sometimes salty soil. The erratic quality of seeds available to Burmese farmers in the past has given them much lower yields than in other Asian countries.

"There's another fight we are having," says U Hla Min, an expert in rice cultivation who is working in the villages. "Marketing."

Because of poor communication and transport links, in the past farmers had to sell their rice to visiting rice traders at whatever price the traders offered - often much lower than the market rate.

Now, with outside assistance, they have established a network for passing the latest market rates in towns like Bogale around all the villages, so they can demand a better price for their crop.

We watched villagers making clay stoves, using a more fuel-efficient design, which cuts firewood use down by 20%. This makes a big difference when fuel costs are a big chunk of household budgets, and should also reduce the felling of mangrove trees, which offer effective protection against cyclones.

What was so striking about these delta villages was how little they had. The help they are getting is the kind other poor communities around the world have been getting for decades. Now, for the first time, the people of Burma have an opportunity to start catching up.