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Providing access to clean water in Myanmar’s Rakhine state

By Mariana Palavra

August 22, 2015

Children and families in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are still recovering from the sectarian violence that erupted in 2012. Many live in camps, where they are vulnerable to both water shortages and floods. UNICEF is currently helping flood-affected families access clean water, but when we visited in early June, before heavy monsoon rains and a tropical cyclone caused extensive flooding, they faced the opposite problem – water shortages caused by a prolonged drought.

SITTWE, Myanmar, 21 August 2015 – A boat journey of less than an hour separates Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state, from Ah Nauk Ye village, where more than 1,000 Muslim families were relocated after the 2012 intercommunal violence in Rakhine State. Although the camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) was set up a few steps away from the waterfront, it faces serious water shortages every dry season.

© UNICEF Myanmar/2015/Thame
Nour Hartu, 25, with her younger daughter, Tosmin Ara, 9, in Ah Nauk Ye village, Rakhine state, Myanmar.

Nour Hartu, 25, arrived at this camp with her youngest daughter, after fleeing the Muslim-majority Paukio Taw Town. Her husband migrated to Malaysia more than a decade ago, and a few years later her parents-in-law followed in his steps.

“They secretly took my eldest daughter to Malaysia,” Nour Hartu reveals. “Every hour of every day, I miss my village. I had a big, strong house and a small business. All my memories of my oldest child are there.”

Sometimes, Nour Hartu receives a phone call from her daughter, who is studying and living in Malaysia with her grandparents. But she hasn’t received a single word or help from her husband.

She is not sure exactly how old her daughters are. She calculates that the eldest, Yasmin Ara, is over 10 years old, and Tosmin Ara is over 9 years old, although she looks younger. Tosmin, who never had the chance to meet her father, is now attending second grade at the camp’s temporary learning centre. 

Living on rations 

With no freedom of movement and no job, Nour Hartu depends on food aid to survive. Whatever she saves from her ration, she exchanges for fish or other essential goods. She also receives a ration of 10 litres of drinking water each day. This year, the water shortages were worse than ever before, provoking disputes between camp residents and the nearby host community, where villagers didn’t want to share the water from their ponds. 

UNICEF and Solidarités International are working closely with the Rakhine state government to address the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) problems faced by families living in the camp. Together, they have distributed water to fill seven ponds, supported the treatment process, and made sure that every person has five litres of safe drinking water per day. 

“Now I feel safe because the water is treated. With the rainy season coming, the water problem should ease, as the ponds are filled up with rainwater,” Nour Hartu says.

Migration village

Ponnek Yun was one of the few townships in Rakhine not affected by the 2012 violence. But it has not been spared of water shortages. Most villagers rely on rain for drinking water, but this year it hasn’t been enough. For most of the year, what little water they have has been rationed.

© UNICEF Myanmar/2015/Thame
Nan New Oo (right), 14, with her mother and sister, Ponnek Yun Township, Rakhine state.

Nan New Oo, 14, knows the problem well. When she is not at school, she fetches water from one of the ponds. “I can carry two jars at a time,” she says. “This water is only good for cooking. If we need to drink, we fetch water from the margins of the pond, let it settle for 24 hours and filter it through a piece of cloth.”

Nan New Oo learned this trick from her 34-year-old mother, Ma Hla Sein, who also uses ahla (a type of aluminium) to purify the water. “This is the village’s traditional water purification method,” she says. 

Ma Hla Sein takes care of her children on her own, because her husband migrated to Thailand for work – as did the majority of the men in the village. “My husband used to make one dollar a day working in the fields,” she says. “Sometimes, I would do construction work to make up to three dollars a day. Now, my husband is making three times more cutting wood in Thailand.”

Ma Hla Sein has recently been attending safe water and hygiene awareness sessions, provided by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), with support from UNICEF. UNICEF has also distributed purified water and water purification tablets, and six ponds have been built or renovated in the township.

Dignity and equal opportunity

UNICEF aims to ensure that all children in Rakhine State can develop to their full potential. To do this, it works to tackle child poverty, promote development and child rights, and meet the humanitarian needs of people displaced by violence.

Rakhine is one of the poorest states in Myanmar, and families are less likely to access basic services than in other parts of the country. UNICEF is working with the state government and partners to ensure that every family in Rakhine has access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or legal status.

“Every child has a right to safe water, although the way UNICEF supports families might differ, depending on the situation they live in, such as camps, communities or remote areas,” explains UNICEF WASH specialist Bishnu Pokhrel. “In order to build a peaceful society, we need to ensure that all families can access services and live with dignity and equal opportunity.”

These two families have found a solution to access drinking water, but for both of them someone is still missing: “I don’t want another husband or family,” says Nour Hartu. “I only have one dream: to have my eldest child with me again, so the three of us can live together.”

While her 11 year-old brother wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and migrate to Thailand, Nan New Oo wishes it was the other way around. “I miss my father,” she says. “I want him to come back… with money.”

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