Emergency and rehabilitation specialist Eric Weerts has been lending his support to disabled people’s organizations involved in the humanitarian relief effort in Myanmar. Accompanied by a logistics expert, Eric has managed to visit areas still under water, particularly in the south of the country, in the Irrawaddy river delta.
The floods began in early August. What’s the situation today?
It varies a lot from region to region, but in general the water levels have already dropped a lot. We’ve been to homes where the water was up to the roof at the peak of the flooding. That [reduction] is a good sign, although it’s still impossible to get through to some villages, especially in the south. We need to maintain a cautious approach because the situation changes, the water moves very quickly, and we’re finding it hard to know in real time what’s happening in some remote areas.
How have people reacted to the floods?
When you travel along the roads out of Rangoon, heading towards the southern delta region, you can see people living in tents and makeshift camps. Some people are still unable to return home and they rely on food and water handed out by small local organizations to survive. People live by the roadside because the land is [higher], and it makes it easier to transport humanitarian aid.
Were people prepared for this disaster?
Although the floods were on a much bigger scale than in previous years, the Burmese are used to this kind of situation and they’re quite well prepared. That’s certainly been true since Cyclone Nargis hit the country in 2008. People who weren’t affected by the floods this time around understand how important it is to help victims, rather than waiting for support from outside. When a village is only partially affected, families in houses which can still be used take in people whose homes have been flooded.
Do people with disabilities get enough help?
One of the reasons we came here was to check that the needs of older people, people with reduced mobility, and people with mental or sensory disabilities were being taken into account, and [that they were] not suffering any kind of discrimination. It might seem paradoxical, but during humanitarian emergencies, it’s often the most vulnerable people who find it hard to access the help they need. What we found was quite reassuring. Communities make sure everyone gets their fair share of aid and the most vulnerable people often get additional help—transport during evacuations, for example, or bigger food rations. The technical aids used to help transport people with reduced mobility are often made with whatever comes to hand and they’re remarkably ingenious.
What can be done to improve the lives of people with disabilities in situations like these?
It all depends on the disability in question. But it would be better if appropriate transport were pre-positioned, so if residents do have to be evacuated, people with reduced mobility don’t have to rely on people to carry them on their backs. It’s also important to think about blind people. A change of environment can be really stressful for them and can lead to a sudden loss of independence. By properly equipping temporary shelters in ways that help them find their way around them, by putting up lines they can follow and recognize to get from one place to another, we can make them feel much more comfortable.
Can we learn any lessons yet about the way in which these floods have been managed?
That’s what we’re trying to do. Handicap International is working with local disabled people’s organizations to make them better integrated—socially, economically, but also during emergencies. We want people with disabilities to sit on committees that analyze risks and draw up the evacuation plans for each community, for example. But what we’ve seen so far gives us good grounds for hope. We’ve noticed that people are able to adapt. And disabled people’s organizations are doing some remarkable work. Disasters of this kind will happen again, and if we want to limit their impact on people’s lives, we need to take every opportunity to improve the way in which the population prepares for them.