Friday, August 18, 2017

Night of terror after illegal dam bursts


It was the night a village drowned. A dam burst after days of heavy rain unleashed a 2.4-metre (8-foot) wave that devastated Yay Myat village, sweeping away homes as parents clung to their children, and destroying livelihoods.

Volunteers help to dig out a house in Yay Myat village, Mandalay Region, that was buried under sand during a flash flood. (Than Naing Soe/The Myanmar Times)Volunteers help to dig out a house in Yay Myat village, Mandalay Region, that was buried under sand during a flash flood. (Than Naing Soe/The Myanmar Times)

Ko Myo Ko, 20, was awakened by loud thunder. His little house was shaking as the waters rose. When he went outside to find out what was happening, the strong current was already pounding his house with rocks. It was too late to run.

As Ko Myo Ko tightly hugged his two-year-old son, Mg Pyae Sone Oo, his wife, Ma Khaing Soe Wah, clasped the house’s central roof-pole. But in the inky darkness, the waters had already swept the house off its foundations. Ko Myo Ko carried his son through a hole in the roof, where another surge snatched the boy from his grasp, carrying him away while sweeping Ko Myo Ko into a tree. “I tried to save my son, but I couldn’t,” he sobbed. His wife is still missing.

The flash flood struck just after midnight on September 17 in Singu township, northern Mandalay Region. Residents said they were completely unprepared for the ferocity.

“I’ve lived here for 40 years and never seen anything like it,” said U Chit Tin.

But villagers, who earn their living from farming and gold mining, said this disaster was man-made.

A dam had been built, without planning permission, at the junction of two mountain streams about 1.6 kilometres (1 mile) above the village, and was used to irrigate nearby fields. After three days of heavy rain, the 90m (300-foot) wide, 6m (20-foot) high dam crumbled.

Villagers said the person who built the dam was from neighbouring Kyi Tauk Pauk village. It was unclear whether he would be charged for constructing it without permission: while Yay Myat villager said they wanted action to be taken, local police said they had no intention to do so.

Flood victims in front of their house in Yay Myat.Flood victims in front of their house in Yay Myat.

“Our family of three had to run to a nearby hill empty-handed,” said shopkeeper Daw Aye Than. Her entire stock, worth more than K3 million, was lost in the torrent. “How can I make a living now?” she said, pointing to her empty house.

Neighbour Daw Amar Yin said, “My house is one-storey. As the water level rose, we had to climb up on the roof. My son and I were very afraid, and shouted for help. But nobody could hear.”

When morning came, 40 houses were covered with sand and 14 more had entirely disappeared. The body of Mg Pyae Sone Oo was found about 300m from the village, but there is to date no trace of his mother, Ma Khaing Soe Wah, or another missing girl, 7-year-old Ma Yadana Soe.

Since the disaster villagers have been searching the banks of the stream for those who were lost. “We saved a pregnant woman, Ma Zin Mar Soe,” said U Aung Win.

The Mandalay Region government and local social welfare organisations have provided some relief supplies. “The associations donated two days’ worth of food. After that, some villagers were able to fend for themselves. There have been many donations, from at least 20 groups a day,” said village administrator U Maung Naing, who said volunteers had also helped free the houses from sand. Residents plan to move nearly 60 houses east of the village to avoid the risk of further flash floods.

Villager U Aung Win said he had been planning to hold a donation ceremony in October. His stockpiles of rice, oil, salt, dried fish and other goods were all lost. “Although my donation ceremony was destroyed, I am at least glad nobody in our family was killed,” he said.

But not all were so lucky.

“I’ve been married for just four years,” said a grief-stricken Ko Myo Ko. “Now my son’s body has been found, and at least I can bury him. But I can’t accept that my wife has gone too.”