I first visited Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River delta and the villages where CWS Japan supported a nutrition education project in 2017. Our work was done in partnership with the Japanese food products company, AJINOMOTO. Despite the challenges families face from of flooding and riverbank erosion, the program was a success. I am proud that learning about and practicing better nutrition has been worthwhile for families with young children. But I must say that our progress was often delayed with road – and river – bumps and detours along the way. Across Asia, natural disasters of many kinds impact CWS, partner and community investments. And, despite – or maybe because of – the bumps and detours, I felt that if something wasn’t done ASAP to fix the village roads families rely on for their lives and livelihoods, the problem could go on forever.
In Japan, people claim that disaster risk reduction and mitigation measures are the government’s responsibility. In Myanmar, the government does have some disaster control projects like river embankment improvements in the Ayeyarwady Region, but these are not enough. They do not reach the areas where CWS works because the government’s priority is more densely populated or economically important areas.
When leaders in the communities where our ongoing nutrition education work takes place talked about new ways to improve their lives, village road rebuilding was a priority for them. They knew that CWS would be interested to help address this issue because it aligns well with other disaster risk reduction and mitigation work we are supporting in the area.
So, with the CWS Myanmar team in agreement that we should help communities repair and improve their roads, I first looked for a specialist in civil engineering to advise us about appropriate mitigation measures. Fortunately, I found a Japanese non-government organization, Community Road Empowerment–known as CORE–whose team has experience building roads with locally available materials and community participation and who were already working with another project in the Ayeyarwady Region. In talking with the CORE team, I was pleased to meet Yoshi Fukubayashi, a civil engineer who teaches at Miyazaki University and who is now supporting the project to help community members address their multiple reasons for wanting better local roads: to support economic development with better travel routes to markets; to give safe routes to school for their children; and to facilitate their safe evacuation before and during natural disasters.
To start, Yoshi took time with the CWS Myanmar team and me to agree on a road improvement plan that would not have negative environmental impacts on villages on the other side of the river or downstream. We also spoke about the materials and methods, and we agreed on community investment and participation with contributed labor as appropriate in the villages. This is how we started our community road renovation work with financial support from the Japan International Cooperation Foundation, from CWS and, in addition to labor, from communities for some project essentials – like a cook to make the workers lunch each day.
In addition to all I have learned about road building, I have learned more about the virtue of ‘community ownership’ during this effort. In working with so many earnest and engaged people, I was drawn to see a distinct contrast to the situation in Japan, where there is a history of community engagement like I see in Myanmar now. But it is long gone and not needed, really, since our country is so developed now. Still, the recognition that people from less developed countries can work together to maximize collective gain – with help from their friends – is rewarding to see.
Yukiko Maki is a Program Manager with CWS Japan.