‘Fuel for water’: Heatwave piles misery on Myanmar displaced

Record high temperatures and an ongoing drought have added to the hardships of civilians forced to flee conflict in Karenni State

Zay Yar Tun fills his truck with water for delivery to refugees in the parched hills of war-ravaged eastern Myanmar, where a heatwave is adding to the misery of life in displacement camps.

Under a roof of plastic sheets in one of the camps in Karenni State, Augusta waits for the 10 gallons that must cover her family’s drinking, cooking and washing needs for the next three days.

More than 123,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in Karenni by the conflict unleashed by the military’s 2021 coup, according to the United Nations.

Now, a heatwave that has sent the mercury in Myanmar to 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit) in some places has added to uncertainties of life in the camps.

“Last year, we got water from a spring nearby,” Augusta told AFP.

“But now we can’t get water from that place as there is no water left there.

“We have to be frugal… If we don’t shower today, maybe tomorrow we can wash our hands and faces.”

The scarcity means she and her children are often unable to wash properly or clean their clothes in the baking heat.

“The children are itching and they seem dirty, and we also don’t have clean clothes for them,” she said.

A swelling camp

A dozen or so camp residents queue up at the truck for water rations that will have to last them three or four days.

Children carry the containers home in baskets on their backs or via trolleys as hot wind whips up dust from the dirt road.

“When there were only residents living in this place, there was enough water,” said Zay Yar Tun, of the charity Clean Yangon.

“But after the displaced people fled here, the population is too much for the amount of water we can get here.”

Donations keep Zay Yar Tun’s team and its two trucks running, and they make two deliveries to the camp each week.

Finding the streams or springs to fill up their truck can be dangerous in Karenni State, which has emerged as one of the hotspots of resistance to military rule.

The military regularly calls in air and artillery strikes on its opponents and landmines are a constant danger.

Transporting cargo to the camps is difficult too.

The fuel the team needs to run their trucks and pumps is expensive because of military restrictions on importing fuel into Karenni State, Zay Yar Tun said.

“The price of fuel is very expensive, and it seems like we are exchanging fuel to get water,” he said.

‘Borrowing water’

Families like Augusta’s are forced to make similar calculations as they try to get through the heat.

“If we are going to take a bath in the creek, we have to go far away from the camp,” she said.

“It’s not a walkable distance under this temperature.”

“If we go by motorcycle, it’s not worth it because of the cost of fuel. If we save money for fuel, we may as well use it to buy water.”

Respite in the form of the rainy season may be some way off yet.

Myanmar’s weather office has forecast that the monsoon, which usually begins around May, is likely to arrive late this year, state media reported this week.

Until then, water will be priceless in the camp, said Augusta.

“Sometimes we say to each other: ‘I haven’t got any water left, have you got any? Please could you give me some?’” she said.

“Our life has come to this, where we have to borrow water.”

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