Saturday, 7 June 2008

Business Booms for Some in Irrawaddy Delta

People affected by cyclone Nargis wait in harbor of Laputta to board boats prior to travel back to their devastated villages in the southwest Irrawaddy Delta. (Photo: AFP)

The Irrawaddy News

The old proverb “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good” sums up the effect Cyclone Nargis had on the economy of the devastated Irrawaddy delta region of Burma.

While agriculture, fisheries and the salt industry are struggling to recover, guesthouses and restaurants in Laputta, a major delta center, are reporting that business is booming. Buses from Rangoon to Laputta are packed, and operators are advising travelers to book three days in advance.

Three of Laputta’s five guesthouses have been contracted to the UN and international agencies, and the other two are usually full, their few rooms booked by visitors to the town and individual relief workers.

House rents have soared. “A small hut that can accommodate 10 people costs 100,000 kyat (US $80) a month,” said a Laputta landlord.

Because of the shortage and expense of accommodation, most visitors from Rangoon stayed in Laputta’s monasteries, he said.

By a bitter irony in a region where thousands are still going hungry, restaurant owners and grocery stores in Laputta report booming business. UN and relief agency staff and other foreign visitors are good customers.

“Even a small roadside food shop earns about 100,000 kyat ($80) a day,” said a local restaurant owner.

Such an income remains a dream for enterprises that depend on the region’s ruined agriculture and fisheries, however.

Although some official aid has reached the town and a UN Development Programme (UNDP) reconstruction package is promised, farmers, fisheries and salt producers face a long haul ahead. There is talk of granting local authority credits to fishermen, but official confirmation is still awaited.

Some supplies of farmed crabs have been sent to Rangoon, but one Laputta entrepreneur described them as “minimal.”

Fishing nets and boats are expected from the UNDP, which is also said to be prepared to reconstruct damaged piers and bridges.

A UNDP staffer said international agencies that had helped Burma after the 2004 tsunami were still in place and available for post-cyclone reconstruction work.

The crucial agricultural task now was to desalinate fields that had been inundated with sea water, the staffer said. “It may take at least two years to make the soil usable again.”

The authorities had provided ploughs and cattle to two refugee camps near Laputta, but the staffer said the aid was insufficient for farmers waiting to work uncontaminated fields.

Laputta Township’s salt pans will take at least six months to recover from the damage caused by the cyclone, said one salt works owner. A grisly first task would be to remove the bodies which had been preserved in the salt.

There was also a pressing need to recruit new workers to replace those lost in the cyclone, said a salt works owner from Nga Pu Taw Township. “It is a big headache for me.”

The salt pans of the Irrawaddy delta provide seasonal work, performed by casual laborers whose names would not appear on official death lists—an additional administrative problem for one of the hardest-hit industries.

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