External Affairs

A Year on, Myanmar Landslide Victims Are Hanging on by a Thread

The resettled people live without basic utilities – they don’t have running water or resources for agriculture – leaving them dependent on erratic rain cycles and outside aid.

New City residents clear a small patch of land to grow corn and potatoes. The previous year, animals ate or destroyed all the food they planted. Credit: Brennan O’Connor/The Irrawaddy

Extensive flooding in remote western Chin State, one of the poorest areas in Myanmar, caused massive landslides in 2015. In capital city Hakha, the landslides displaced thousands, wiping out half of the city’s farmland.

Around six months after the disaster struck, the state government started providing homes to victims in a new neighbourhood called “Hakha Thar” in Hakha dialect, or “New Hakha” in English. It is informally referred to as New City, located several kilometres from the city centre.

But, more than a year after the resettlement, residents only just received power and still do not have running water. They are left to rely on collecting rainwater and deliveries from local aid groups.

Located on steep mountain ridges that overlook Hakha, the New City remains unfinished after more than a year since it was built. Photo and caption by Credit: Brennan O’Connor/The Irrawaddy

Sang Vel’s home was located in the landslide zone. She and her family were evacuated to a relief camp where they lived for eight months. It was a tough time; she talked about how they needed to procure their own blankets to ward off the frigid temperatures during the winter months. They were relieved to move out of the camp and into a new home. But after living in New City for a year without basic amenities, the family is growing increasingly frustrated.

Overlooking Hakha, New City is located on several of the highest mountains in town. Most houses are identical: small, square structures slapped together quickly with wood and aluminum siding. The roads connecting them are still unpaved. The frequent wind that blows through Hakha creates dust storms in New City.

Like most residents, Sang Vel and her husband Dan Tlang Ti Phul are unemployed. Before the landslides they sold vegetables to local merchants. But the money they made before is too little to consider commuting by bus into the city. Instead, they rely on their son, who stays permanently in downtown Hakha with relatives, to deliver goods with the family’s three-wheeler.

Workers wait to get paid for digging out a lake that was buried during the 2015 landslides. The lake will be used to collect rain for the city’s drinking water. Credit: Brennan O’Connor/The Irrawaddy

Landslides destroyed hundreds of homes in Hakha and half of the town’s farmland. Due to the loss of arable land many vegetables must be bought in by truck from other city centers in Chin State. Transport costs have resulted in higher food costs. Credit: Brennan O’Connor/The Irrawaddy

During a public town meeting in late 2016, the Chin State government promised that funds from the 2017 budget would be used to complete unfinished public works in New City. There are signs this is starting to happen. Residents recently received electricity, a large water storage tank is finished and roadwork is underway.

No livelihood initiatives for residents have been announced, however. Most of the landslide victims worked in agriculture before the landslides, but much of the farmland has been buried.

After facing difficulties securing stable jobs in the city centre—work was already scarce before the floods—those whose land wasn’t destroyed have returned to their farms, at least for part of the week. Yet the area remains at risk of landslides during this year’s monsoon season.

The government built around 1,000 homes in the new city for victims of the landslides. Credit: Brennan O’Connor/The Irrawaddy

This article was originally published on Global Voices.

Brennan O’Connor is a freelance photographer based in Southeast Asia, currently working on a photo book on Burma’s border areas. The project has taken him around the region to photograph the numerous rebels, refugees and migrants residing on both sides of the Dividing Lines.

Website: www.brennanoconnor.photoshelter.com