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Q&A: Boat expert helps UNHCR reach needy on Myanmar's west coast

News Stories, 14 January 2013

© UNHCR/V.Tan
Boat consultant Bo Colomby with one of 16 boats used by UNHCR in Rakhine state.

MAUNGDAW, Myanmar, January 14 (UNHCR) Nestled in the backwaters of western Myanmar, Rakhine state was thrust into the public spotlight when inter-communal violence broke out six months ago. The UN refugee agency has been working there since 1994, helping Muslim returnees from Bangladesh and people without citizenship in northern Rakhine state. In this riverine region with few paved roads, UNHCR staff have been relying on speedboats to reach the communities. The agency's boat consultant, Bo Colomby, says its annual boat usage could circle the earth three to four times. And it is set to grow as UNHCR works to assist thousands of people displaced by last year's violence on islets further south. UNHCR's senior regional public information officer in Bangkok, Vivian Tan, spoke to Colomby about the agency's boat operations. Excerpts from the interview:

How did you start working with boats and UNHCR?

I'm a journalist/film maker by training but got into boats when I lived on an island on Canada's west coast in the 1970s. Because of heavy snow and rains, the roads were only useable in the summer, so I relied heavily on boats to get around. I got involved in building, repairing, then owning boats. I also had formal training in boat design and construction at this time. In the early 1990s before the international sanctions started, I came to Myanmar and formed a company to build boats.

I met UNHCR in 1994 when I was in Rakhine state helping an NGO with boats for their malaria-testing work. UNHCR was working in Maungdaw and had some boat problems. I worked with UNHCR to put together a Marine Transport System for the northern Rakhine state operation. This included training personnel in management, maintenance and operations. I helped to recruit and train Myanmar-licensed boat operators using a professional speedboat syllabus as the basis.

Why does UNHCR need speedboats in Rakhine state?

In the beginning, the bulk of UNHCR's field operation was by water. Without the boat operation, there would be no field operation. All of Maungdaw north and Buthidaung north and south could only be reached by boat. Local boats were not safe or efficient. In recent years, more roads have been built in northern Rakhine state so boat usage has decreased somewhat. Even then, the roads are sometimes washed away by the monsoon rains. This is a riverine area, a maritime culture, so we will always need boats.

Are there specific challenges to operating boats in this area?

These are difficult waters to navigate, with strong outflow and tidal currents at the mouth of the several rivers. The water is deep in parts, but much shallower as you approach shore, so you need smaller boats to navigate in those areas.

During the monsoon season from mid-May to October, huge volumes of water flow from creeks and rivers and can create whirlpools. You can still travel but need bigger boats for the rougher waters. Travel should only be done at slack tides especially when leaving and arriving on the Lower Kaladan River [near Rakhine state capital Sittwe].

November to May is cyclone season. We have to look out for warning signals from Bangladesh. It's always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to cyclone storm forecasting. Monitor the weather situation daily. Don't plan any boat trips if there is not enough information available to make an accurate forecast.

What exactly do you do as a boat consultant?

I always ask UNHCR's head of office for next year's work plan. Based on that I make projections on anticipated boat travel, then create a matrix chart of what's needed. A few times a year I check on life in outboard motors, make sure there are spare parts and accessories, and make sure that necessary maintenance procedures and overhaul of the engines are done at the proper time. I also run refresher trainings on safety and responsibility for the boat operators, and boat users on how to use the boat safely. In addition I troubleshoot all aspects of the system including administration, management, operation and maintenance.

What are the key safety tips you give boat users?

Don't leave shore without fully-charged telecoms equipment. Make sure there is a lifejacket next to you on the boat. The boat operator will tell you where to sit to ensure proper balance. Don't change your position without informing him.

Take time to learn about the area you're covering the size of the river, the small creeks, tide conditions. Remember to check the weather report before going out. If you're already out and feel that bad weather is coming, don't try to out-run it. Make for shore, call a base station, explain your position and wait it out. You can't fight nature. If there is any reason you don't feel that travel is safe, don't go!

Lastly, this area has some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, so sit back and enjoy the view.

In your 17 years consulting for UNHCR, what was your proudest moment?

I was very proud when UNHCR's boat operators rescued more than 730 people during the Buthidaung flood of June 2010. They took the initiative and worked with the authorities and informed the UNHCR head of office. They saved an impressive number of lives.

You work for years with these guys and try to instil a sense of safety in users. You think you're doing well but you never know. If you do well, nobody dies. Then you have one of these catastrophes, and these guys react professionally and selflessly. And you have a drink afterwards with them and they say, "It's thanks to your training and your confidence in us that gave us the will to do this." It doesn't get any better.

Has the situation in Rakhine state changed over the years?

Since 1996, I've watched many UNHCR people come through. It's been such a privilege working with so many people of different nationalities. I've seen all this dedication. They've helped make the people's lives better. I saw this place when I first came here, how poor it was and how there was no infrastructure. Then everyone got something. I saw Maungdaw and Buthidaung expand. I could see people's lives getting a little better. And this was in large part because UNHCR and its partners were here.

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