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A new path out of adversity

The ILO’s infrastructure project on the Irrawaddy delta in Myanmar, not only re-established access to villages devastated by cyclone Nargis in 2008 but also gave rise to a bustling community life.

Feature | 14 June 2013
MAEIKTHALINKUNE, Myanmar (ILO News) – The children gather around the vending cart, chatting as they pick one of the vividly-coloured syrups to flavour their shaved ice. The vendor, Ko Hla Htay, serves each of them in turn, and gets ready to move to the next village.

“I used to have a shop but this is better,” he says, referring to the footpath linking Maeikthalinkune and Myatthaywawa, two fishing villages on the Irrawaddy delta.

“But I’m worried about the start of the school term because we’ll have the students on their bikes and there won’t be enough space on the footpath for my cart to go through.”

Back in 2009, when the ILO built the footpath, the difficulties of ice-cream vendors trying to negotiate the right of way with dozens of cyclists, couldn’t have been further from the project engineer’s mind.


When cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in May 2008, causing more than 130,000 deaths and ravaging the delta region, the two small, isolated villages were among the worst hit.

The following year, the ILO built 20 jetties, as well as 80 kilometres of footpaths and some 50 foot bridges linking Maeikthalinkune, Myatthaywawa and other nearby villages, as part of the UN’s crisis recovery effort.

Before Nargis struck, there was virtually no interaction between the villages because although they are near one another, they were separated by inlets or cut off by forest that was too difficult to walk through in the dry season and impassable during the monsoons because of thick mud.

“We built the jetties and footpaths to make the villages accessible again and to create jobs for those who had lost everything,” explains Sonish Vaidya, the ILO project engineer.

“Next thing we knew, people were buying bicycles – and falling off them as they did not know how to ride them. They had never had any use for them until then. With the bikes came the trade between the villages, shops were opened, they built a bigger school to cater for children from other areas.”

U Tin Chit, a village elder, explains that the 600 or so people who live in Maeikthalinkune had many difficulties going about their daily lives, especially when it came to taking children to school or the sick and elderly to the clinic.

“The forest tracks were often muddy so people had to go by boat, and you couldn’t send just the children or the elderly on their own on the boat so the whole family had to go. Now children can get to school by themselves, and it’s easy to get to the clinic.”

Trade flourished too. U Kyaw Naing is a shop-owner who worked as the local supervisor on the ILO project. He invites us to his house-cum-shop, where a meal of fried rice, prawn crackers, fruit and coconut and rice sweets is carefully laid down on a mat.

“I used to have a small shop before the cyclone and business wasn’t very good. Now, I have a much bigger shop as we sell to other villages [too].”

A satellite dish on the roof of this Manchester United fan, is perhaps a sign that business is booming.

Some fifteen minutes down the footpath, we come to Myatthaywawa, where Daw Myint Myint San is busy with her small children.

“People used to have to travel by boat, which took time. Now they can just walk,” she says. Like the men in the neighbouring village, she says the footpaths and bridges gave people better access to healthcare and education.

But there are other, subtler, changes too. Back in the first village, U Hla Htwe, who runs the cinema and doubles up as the village headman, says that before the footpaths were built, each village conducted its affairs independently from the other. Now, with closer ties between them, villagers get together to discuss common issues, and in the process, they‘re learning to negotiate and reach consensus.

And the local community is growing bigger: the villagers trained by the ILO to work on the project are now building footpaths linking other villages.

As for the residents of Maeikthalinkune, we ask them what other improvements they’d want to see that would make their lives better. They talk animatedly for a few moments before U Tin Chit replies for the whole group: “A wider footpath”.

Read also the special report on Myanmar in the World of Work magazine