Myanmar: Ensuring a safer and cleaner living environment in the most densely populated area

Maria Santto / Finnish Red Cross
Myanmar Red Cross staff and volunteers work hard to support families in reducing the risks of disasters.
Image: Maria Santto / Finnish Red Cross

Along with many of its neighbors, also Myanmar is forced to face many disasters including earthquakes, cyclones and flooding. The Hlaing Thar Yar Township on the outskirts of its capital Yangon is particularly vulnerable to both natural and man-made hazards.

It is hot and noisy. It is early morning, yet there are people, motorbikes and bicycles everywhere.

The narrow dirt roads are lined with makeshift houses, shops and food stalls fashioned mostly out of wood and corrugated iron sheets. There are no doors, floors or windows.   

The industrial Township of Hlaing Thar Yar is the most densely populated area in Myanmar with 700,000 estimated residents. Ten years ago, when cyclone Nargis ravaged the surrounding areas, tens of thousands sought refuge in the township and have stayed there ever since.

With its lack of basic infrastructure, the area, situated only 5 meters above sea level, is particularly prone to flooding, fires and disease epidemics.

Flooding nearly destroys family’s home and business

– At the beginning of the flood, we were not prepared, and all our belongings got wet. We were in trouble and hardship, shop keeper Daw San San Win, 53, sadly recounts the latest flooding she and her husband faced. 

They almost lost the stock of their roadside kiosk – their lifeline - including pickled tea leaves, rice, oil, dried tea, chilli and shampoo that neighbours and by-passers buy each day.

– When the tide came, the water ran over the low trench and rushed down here with high speed. Everything was submerged under the water, even this house, adds her retired husband Ko Chit Hlaing, 67.
The couple, whose adult son has moved out and works as a sea captain, scrambled to save their belongings.  
– A big mass of water rose up from the tunnel. When I saw it, I packed up the books, cooking oil tanks, rice containers and other things that would have gone bad when wet. It was chaotic and some of them dropped while we were moving, wife Daw San San Win explains. 
– When we got the news that the flood would come again the next day, we stacked sandbags in front of our door.

Volunteers clean up surroundings and educate residents

Sandbags are commonly used to protect the buildings and makeshift shelters during the floods that plague the Hlaing Thar Yar Township often several times a year during the rainy season from July to October.
Local volunteers trained by the Myanmar Red Cross always support vulnerable households in trying to protect their meagre possessions. 
– When the flood hit during the rainy season, our members gathered sandbags and protected the overflow of flood water to the area in case the embarkment breaks. We helped to control the flood by digging tunnels, says Daw Khin Khin Lwin, 54, who together with her husband volunteers with the Red Cross to help her community because “her hobby is to help people”. 
However, much more importantly, the Myanmar Red Cross and its volunteers work throughout the year to improve the overall situation and educate the population.
Red Cross volunteer teams are dispatched weekly to clean up the littered and overgrown drenches so that water can flow freely. They also support in digging new trenches and clearing away garbage from the roadsides. 
All of these efforts jointly help reduce the risks faced by families in the township, particularly during the rainy season. At the same time, they help to hinder the spread of diseases caused by stagnant water and poor hygiene.
An important part of the project is also to spread information and train residents in good waste management and hygiene practices. Ultimately, the aim is to provide a safer and cleaner environment for everyone to live in. 
These waste management and community education activities are a part of Myanmar Red Cross’s comprehensive efforts to reduce disaster risks and build resilience in this urban area.
Other activities include school-based disaster risk reduction, community preparedness and awareness-raising, disaster mitigation and wider national dissemination of lessons learned. These efforts are supported by the Danish and Finnish Red Cross’s and funded by the European Union. 
Text: Caroline Haga / Finnish Red Cross
Photos: Maria Santto / Finnish Red Cross