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'This emergency response is an exercise in keeping your head together'

by Blaire Davis | planglobal | Plan International
Monday, 10 August 2015 14:58 GMT

Flood waters have started to recede and people have started to return to their communities from evacuation centres. Photo credit: Plan International

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Blaire Davis, 30, from Rochester, New York, is currently working on Plan International’s emergency response to the floods in Myanmar. With August being the heart of the rainy season, roads washed out and connectivity low, the situation is a challenge, but it’s one Blaire is taking on…

It’s eerily sunny in Sittwe, Myanmar.

Intense flooding due to monsoon rains, exacerbated by Cyclone Komen in recent days, means the situation has been dire.

 On Tuesday 4 August, my team left the capital of Rakhine State, Sittwe, to assess the needs of communities affected by the floods. It took 12 hours to get to Minbya Township and they arrived just as dawn was breaking. The journey normally takes three hours by boat or road.

For the time being, the rain has slowed, so our teams can get down to business and start assessing the situation on the ground. Thankfully, boats are now able to navigate the region’s rivers and roads are gradually being cleared.

Ready to respond

I am part of Plan International’s emergency response team in Myanmar, coordinating the organisation’s flood response. It’s my first emergency response and one I will remember.

Every day has been so different. I have been liaising with the government and the UN Coordination system, reporting back to our country office, fielding media interviews and making sure our response proposals are feasible. We also have a full programme office in Sittwe, and we are working to ensure operations continue while we grapple with this emergency.  

At the moment, though, our priority is those people affected by the floods, in particular children and vulnerable communities. Plan International has been working with the government and other INGOS, to ensure our response is as coordinated and effective as possible.

As access improves, our response will improve. Now that the flood waters have started to recede and people have started to return to their communities from evacuation centres, I am able to go to communities and find out what villagers need. My team and I are expecting to cover 26-31 villages by the weekend, so it’s going to be a busy few days.

The tenacity shown by villagers, in particular young people, is incredible. I was attending a meeting at a school and while I met with the teachers, a student got up to continue teaching the class. The young student was able to switch between teaching the Myanmar Alphabet and English seamlessly. It made me happy to see students participating at that level and in such a proactive way, even when faced with such difficulties.

Communities in need
At this point, the needs of communities are urgent, basic, life-saving relief.  

People need safe, clean water. Wells are not a tenable option in most places in Rakhine, so people use manmade drinking ponds as their water source. It is estimated that 90-100% of ponds have been contaminated by the flood, so they need to be pumped out and refurbished before being re-filled. We’re up against the clock as it’s rainy season. If we do not move fast, we will not only see increased incidences of dehydration, diarrhoea and other water borne diseases, but we will also face a drought in the next dry season. All of which will affect children disproportionately.

Markets are closed and stocks are destroyed, so people need food. Hygiene kits, tarpaulins to collect rain water and water purification materials are also essential.

Children are one of Plan International’s priorities, so in the coming weeks we will prioritise providing a safe space for children who have been affected by the flood. Flood-hit schools also need refurbishing so children have protective learning environments. As an education specialist, I will be focusing my efforts on this next.

On top of all of that, livelihoods have been destroyed, so help will be needed to replant the rice paddies. If this isn’t done in time, this vulnerable region will also face an acute food crisis in the coming months.

This response is going to be a challenge, but it’s one I am committed too. Infrastructure in Myanmar was difficult before the cyclone and the floods have only made it worse. Currently, one bridge is out which makes traveling to Minbya by car impossible.  Many of the communities affected by the floods are remote and it isn’t easy to access them at the best of times. Communities across Rakhine state suffer from extraordinary poverty. Floods will only exacerbate their need for help.

Time to reflect
It’s been an intense week and the best way to describe how I am feeling is: caffeinated. Yet, I am also gaining energy and hope by my team’s willingness to go the extra mile. Seeing INGOs working together and interacting with the government and the Rakhine community is also heartening and I hope it builds trust.

This is my first full emergency response to a natural disaster. I feel overwhelmed about 20% of the time, but we have an amazing, dedicated team at Plan International, so I know we will get the work done. For me, this emergency response is an exercise in keeping your head together and not letting the million things you have to do preclude your ability to do anything. That is my mantra at the moment.