A massive landslide caused by torrential monsoon rains on Friday killed nearly 60 people in a township in southeastern Myanmar’s Mon state, fire officials said, as rescue teams worked throughout the weekend amid heavy rainfall that is forecast to continue.
So far, rescuers have recovered 59 bodies from the landslide that hit Mottama at the base of Malat Taung Mountain in the state’s Paung township, burying more than a dozen houses, according to information on the website of the state Fire Services Department on Monday.
Emergency crews are continuing their work to try to find many who are still missing. Mon state lies along the Andaman Sea and shares a small border with Thailand.
“We have assigned two of our personnel with megaphones on round-the-clock duty at the rescue and recovery sites to issue emergency alerts to rescue workers and to villagers in the area in case of danger,” said Mon state Fire Services chief Tin Thaung Oo.
“Our men are still looking for more bodies that might be buried under the mud,” he said.
Weather officials have issued further flood and landslide warnings for areas in Mon and neighboring Kayin state and Tanintharyi region as more rain is expected to fall.
“In the next few days, there could be some three to five inches of rain in those flood-affected regions, and because there has been so much water already and the ground has softened, residents should be more alert and well-prepared,” said Kyaw Moe Oo, deputy director-general of Myanmar’s Meteorology Department.
“The rains will not go away soon,” he said.
Myanmar Vice President Henry Van Thio and Win Myat Aye, minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, visited landslide survivors during a three-day trip to the affected region that began Saturday. The vice president pledged to provide relief aid, the official Global New Light of Myanmar said.
At least seven separate landslides occurred throughout Paung township during the weekend after nearly a month of heavy monsoon rains, most of which resulted from destruction caused by miners and landowners who sold parcels to them, Mon state lawmaker Zaw Zaw Htoo who represents the township told the online journal The Irrawaddy.
The floods are said to be the worst to hit the country’s southeastern region in 60 years, displacing nearly 35,000 people in Mon state, over 23,000 in Bago region, more than 18,000 in Kayin state, and nearly 2,500 in Tanintharyi region. The homeless residents have sought refuge in temporary shelters, according to a senior official at the Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Ministry.
In Mon State alone, more than 8,000 people are staying in 40 temporary shelters in Mawlamyine, Ye, Bilin, and Paung townships, the official said.
In the state’s Ye town, floodwaters rose as high as rooftops on Sunday, forcing nearly 3,800 residents to be evacuated to 11 relief camps, he said.
Potable water needed
The disaster has also inundated wells in the region with mud, prompting an urgent need for potable water.
“Residents in the region do not have a water supply system, and usually rely on well water,” said Myo Win, a lawmaker in Myanmar’s upper house of parliament who represents Mon state's constituency 8.
“And now that the wells are all polluted by floodwater, people desperately need drinking water in addition to other relief items,” he said.
Annual Monsoonal rains have flooded other areas across Myanmar, forcing more than 80,000 people to seek shelter in evacuation sites, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as soldiers and emergency responders hustle to provide aid to those affected.
Flooding is receding in Ye township of Mawlamyine district, one of the worst affected areas in Mon state, though people living in low-lying parts of the area have already lost their homes and property, locals said.
Six of Ye town’s nine wards have been submerged in floodwaters, they said.
“The entire house my family lived in was broken off its foundation and carried away into the sea in the early morning,” said Thidar Aye, a resident of Aung Mingalar ward.
“I have never experienced such bad flooding in my life,” he said. “I didn’t get a chance to salvage any property except for the family household record, some children’s textbooks, and some cash.”
Ye Mu, another flood victim, said she has nothing left and is now waiting for government assistance.
“We are already very poor, and my husband is sick,” she said. “We live in the rescue camp now.”
Khine Khine Myint who lives in Aung Mingalar ward said her family lost all their clothing during the flooding and now cannot go to the local mosque for Eid al-Adha, a three-day Muslim holiday, also known as the Feast of the Sacrifice, that began on Sunday.
“The floodwaters were advancing so fast that we had to leave with the children,” she said. “I couldn’t carry anything at all. We’ve got nothing left, even for the [holiday] meal.”
Local immigration official Myo Khine said his agency is in the process of compiling a list of households that have been partially or completely damaged.
“Depending on the type of damage, we will assess how to assist the [owners] through the state government and Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Settlement,” he said. “It could take time since we will decide it at an upcoming meeting.”
Ye township administrator Kan Win said that more than 1,300 homes have been damaged by the flooding.
“Up to this morning, we have confirmed that 1,312 households have been affected by the flooding,” he said. “More than 6,082 people have taken shelter in 12 rescue camps.”
Mining, climate change to blame
Some civil society organizations and scholars in Myanmar blamed the deadly landslide on the adverse effects of mining in the southeast and on climate change.
Zon Pun of the Social Development and Peace Network, one of the local groups that has warned the government about the risk of landslides in the region, said the disaster is the result of disregard by authorities.
“To speak frankly, it is a consequence of negligence by the authorities,” he said.
“The General Administration Department has issued permits to rock-mining businesses, although the Ministry of Mines, which is responsible for all mining activity in the country, said these businesses are not operating with its permission,” he added.
In 2017, civil society groups presented their research and findings on uncontrolled rock mining activities in Mon and Kayin states, saying the activities had detrimentally affected the natural environment and calling on officials to regulate them.
“I hope the authorities will learn lessons from this disaster and become more active about disaster preparedness,” said Soe Thura Htun, a geologist and chairman of the Myanmar parliament’s Natural Resource Conservation Commission.
Conservationist Thein Maw said that climate change could also have played a role in the deadly landslide, and that officials should plan accordingly for more such disasters.
“We need to think widely about the worsening climate conditions,” he said. “The authorities should announce the risky area for landslides. There should be an early warning. Guidelines on emergency response for disasters like earthquakes or landslides should be widely circulated, and mechanisms for warning should be in place.”
“The authorities’ motivations for better disaster management cools down once a disaster period is over,” he added. “They should change that habit. It is crucial to establish these mechanisms.”
Myanmar political analyst Yan Myo Thein said that both Mon state and the national government should assume responsibility for the loss of lives and homes by forming an independent investigation commission to look into the disaster.
“Independent investigations of this disaster should be done,” he said, adding that Mon state officials should demand the resignation of a top government leader to ensure accountability.
“The investigative report would provide lessons learned on how to prevent similar disasters, how to provide psychological support for family members left behind, and what the social impacts are,” he said. “Reforms should be made based on evaluations of this incident.”
Reported by Zarni Tun, Wai Mar Tun, Kyaw Thu, and Aung Thein Kha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.