In July 2015, heavy monsoon rainfall followed by a powerful cyclone (Komen) caused major damage in Myanmar. Rakhine State, in the west of Myanmar, was among the worst affected regions. Many communities were flooded. Several hundred schools were destroyed or had to be shuttered because of the damage. The disaster increased humanitarian needs in Rakhine State, a region beset by inter-communal violence between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim Rohingya minority.
In the wake of the cyclone, the Burmese authorities drew up a rehabilitation plan focusing on schools in particular. The aim was to rebuild safer school buildings that would be more resistant to cyclones. The SDC decided to support these efforts. It had previously built over 100 schools in Myanmar in areas affected by the conflict and by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The SDC also co-chairs a working group comprised of several ministries involved in school construction efforts which has drawn up new guidelines for the whole country.
In December 2015, the SDC joined forces with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to rebuild six schools in Rakhine State which had been destroyed or severely damaged. The IOM was already carrying out disaster risk reduction projects in the region with financial and technical support from the SDC.
Building schools in a climate of hate
The first stage of the project was to identify the school buildings to be rehabilitated. To avoid stirring up further tensions between the two communities, the SDC was careful to select three schools for the Buddhist community and three for the Muslim community.
"Our aim was to bring together communities torn apart by hatred in a project where they would be working together towards a common goal: preparing for future disasters and enabling children to go back to school," explains Björn Schranz, SDC Humanitarian Aid programme officer for South East Asia and the Pacific. "It wasn't just about school buildings. We also wanted to contribute as much as possible to reducing tensions between communities," concludes Schranz.
In the summer of 2017, however, the efforts undertaken by the SDC and the IOM ran into trouble because of inter-communal violence of an intensity that had rarely been seen in the past. Several villages were burned to the ground and thousands of people were forced into exile. Two of the Rohingya villages that were set on fire were among the six villages where schools were being rebuilt. The incident was indicative of the extremely tense climate in the region.
Avoiding a recurrence of violence
Despite these difficulties, the project succeeded in rebuilding four schools in accordance with safety and cyclone-resistant standards. Thierry Umbehr, head of Humanitarian Affairs at the Swiss embassy in Yangon, looks back on the construction project from the first shovel in the ground to completion: "The construction work was mainly carried out by local companies, focusing on structural resilience and improved access to clean water and sanitation facilities. The local companies also installed ventilation, lighting and safety equipment to improve teaching conditions. The villagers, for their part, helped to equip and get the schools ready for the pupils. The primary school buildings will also serve as a refuge for residents in the event of cyclones or flooding." Nearly 600 pupils have been able to return to school in new buildings.
The rehabilitation of the other two schools has been postponed for the time being. It will depend on whether the security situation improves and the displaced villagers actually return to their villages in Rakhine State. Since the summer of 2017, many localities have been deserted by residents fleeing the violence – most of them to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Replicating the model across the country
The project has also made it possible to test the applicability of the building standards developed by the SDC after Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Lessons learned from the project in Rakhine State will be used to improve the new guidelines for the school-construction sector which are set to take effect in summer 2018 for school districts across the country.