Bridges over the Irrawaddy River near Innwa (Carsten ten Brink/flickr)
Water distribution is a major issue in Myanmar against a backdrop of climate change and underdevelopment
Thingyan, the Burmese New Year, comes at a welcome time each April as temperatures begin to soar. For four straight days, most of the country stops to spray and water-bomb each other to get respite from the unrelenting heat.
The centrality of water to Myanmar’s most important holiday speaks volumes about the role it plays in the country’s national psyche. Rivers – particularly the mighty Irrawaddy – are at the core of its national identity.
But threats loom on the horizon. The twin spectres of climate change and industrialisation are conspiring to push the country’s water resources to the limit, and Myanmar’s government is ill-equipped to deal with the fallout. An annual index published by Maplecroft, a British consultancy, cites Myanmar as an Asian country most vulnerable to “extreme” climate risks.
“In Myanmar now, the monsoon duration has shortened,” said Dr Than Than Sein, an agricultural biotechnologist and the head of the Institute of Environment, Resources and Development, a foundation that trains farmers on how to cope with these changes in a sustainable manner. “[Farmers] are now suffering from climate change. It’s hard for them to be resilient.”
Overall, fresh water is not scarce in Myanmar – but distribution varies wildly across the country. During the hot season, the semi-arid plains of the dry zone regularly experience intense drought; in the south and in coastal areas, flash flooding during the monsoon months displaces tens of thousands annually.
In a country where 70 per cent of the population lives in rural areas, these distribution challenges pose a serious problem. A glance at Myanmar’s water usage statistics says much about just how underdeveloped its economy is. A full 91 per cent of the country’s water usage goes to agriculture, with households consuming 6 per cent and industry a mere 3 per cent.
Currently, a bewildering array of authorities – including nine different ministries and various local agencies – govern various aspects of water policy in Myanmar, and communication between them has historically been poor. The government, however, is currently implementing a so-called Integrated Water Resources Management strategy, drafted with assistance from the Netherlands, which is set to form the basis for Myanmar’s first comprehensive water law later this year.
But pervasive underdevelopment – compounded by increasing industrial demand for fresh water from Myanmar’s dwindling aquifers – may mean that these efforts at streamlining policy may be too little, too late.
Myanmar has substantial natural gas reserves, but the rural masses rely predominantly on firewood for cooking fuel, a fact that is unlikely to change any time soon. Deforestation in the dry zone has made annual drought cycles worse, a dynamic that will be further exacerbated by climate change.
In 2008 the devastating cyclone Nargis killed more than 100,000, but the toll was far higher than if better environmental management safeguards had been in place. “A big reason for why is because there were few mangroves and nipa [swamp palms],” Dr Than Than Sein explained.
Coastal mangrove forests act as an important barrier against storms, absorbing wave energy. When Nargis hit, the resulting heave of saltwater rendered vast swathes of formerly productive land unusable. “The waves that came in were very high and the land areas were very easily [inundated] and destroyed,” she said.
While mangrove deforestation in neighbouring countries often occurs to make way for aquaculture projects such as shrimp farming, most deforestation in Myanmar is a result of charcoal production. Dense mangrove-wood charcoal is a primary fuel source because access to the national grid and natural gas is limited.
With the abstract threat of climate change increasingly becoming reality, Myanmar can expect an increased frequency of Nargis-like events in the future, and the absence of mangroves aggravates this risk.
Rural electrification is on the government’s agenda, however, but it will take a long time before most people will have better fuel options at their disposal. A key component of this strategy is the construction of hydroelectric dams, intended to sate burgeoning domestic power demand and be a source of export revenue.
Dam construction – particularly where power is primarily earmarked for export – has proven contentious, with environmentalists warning of negative downstream effects and affected communities decrying poor consultation procedures and inadequate compensation.
Dr. Than Than Sein feels that rural education schemes – which the government does not currently pay for – are a better use of scarce resources if combatting climate change is the end goal.
“For me, dams are sometimes useful for irrigation. But what’s the impact?” she said. “Education doesn’t cost a great amount, but building a dam costs a great amount.”