Managing Water in Changing Burma

In a reporter’s notebook, Tyler Chapman speaks with farmers and experts about creating a plan for the nation’s water usage.
By Tyler Chapman
buffalo-water-305.jpg A farmer takes water from a pond in central Burma, October 2012.

MANDALAY, Burma—The rhythm of prosperity and survival for farmers in much of central Burma has been the same for decades:  sesame, rice, peanuts.

Those three crops, planted one after another to coincide with historically reliable weather patterns, have sustained farmers and their families for generations.

Now, the weather is changing and so are their lives. This year, the sesame crop was lost for lack of rain, a financial and psychological setback that left farmers scrambling for alternatives and answers.

For a country with abundant water in the rivers that run south from the Himalayas, Burma is unable to provide either consistent irrigation for its farmers or clean drinking water for its people.

The farmers’ predicament this year is seen as another sign that Burma is feeling the effects of climate change on everything from harvests to the supply of water for bathing, cooking and drinking.

“Of course the farmers are worried about climate change,” said Tai Lynn, the son of a farm family that lost its sesame. “This trend has been under way for a while now.”

Farmers in the Irrawaddy Delta, to the south, say it all began on May 2, 2008, when Cyclone Nargis came ashore and killed up to 138,000 people. Scientists say Nargis was only a precursor to worse storms in the future.

With Nargis came a storm surge that left the farmers' rice paddies and drinking water contaminated with salt water from the Andaman Sea. Then the rainy season, between May and October, started to change.

“These days, the monsoon comes later and leaves sooner,” said Tai Lynn, the farmer’s son. “That leaves a shortage of water.”

“Normally we have 120 days of monsoon a year and now it’s down to 107,” said Dr. Khin Ni Ni Thein, secretary general of the Ayeyarwaddy River Basin Research Organization, a water think tank. “And the intensity is no longer predictable.”

New protests

Floodwaters from heavy rains carry sewage, fertilizer and pesticides into lakes, ponds and wells in rural Burma—the sources of water for millions of people. The dry season parches them.

Rivers that could otherwise provide clean water are polluted with human waste, garbage and runoff from agriculture and mining.

As for the big cities, the water and sewer systems date back to British colonial times and are crumbling from almost 50 years of neglect under the former military dictatorship.

Now that the country is democratizing, people in Rangoon and Mandalay are beginning to protest the lack of clean drinking water, electricity outages that render water pumps useless and sewage systems that overflow in severe rainstorms.

“Life is miserable for people in Yangon (Rangoon),” Dr. Ni Ni said, shortly before the city was pronounced the most unlivable in Southeast Asia.

As if that isn’t enough, the government has acknowledged that nationwide tests showed a high level of arsenic in the nation’s drinking water, increasing the chances of cancer, vascular disease and brain damage.

“We cannot drink arsenic-contaminated water by any means, even after boiling it,” Dr. Than Htut of the Health Ministry told Mizzima.

“People think water from rivers and creeks is dangerous for health as it is contaminated with human waste and other impurities,” he said. “So the people switch to groundwater … But the groundwater is also contaminated … It is becoming a huge problem.”

“Water is a basic human right,” Dr. Ni Ni told me. “If we don’t have water, how will we survive? I’m very much afraid.”

Campaign for change

With the help of international aid groups, the government has begun a nationwide campaign to teach Burmese people basic sanitation techniques and how to purify their drinking water.

For generations, rural Burmese have taken their washing and cooking water from often-muddy lakes and ponds, and relied on rain storage tanks and wells for their drinking water. Gastrointestinal diseases are endemic.

At a novice initiation ceremony at a monastery on flooded Inle Lake last year, I saw some people urinating into the lake through holes in the floor on one side of the building and others scooping water from the lake on the opposite side  for cooking rice.

“The habitual way of doing things has to change,” Dr. Ni Ni said.

She is among water experts and government officials trying to put together a national water plan before Burma’s democracy-fueled economic boom gets under way.

“We need integrated water management,” Dr. Ni Ni told me. “It can’t be done at the cabinet level. It has to come from the highest level … This is a new paradigm. We are going to have to live with more storms and floods.”

“We are talking about the country’s development. If we don’t have good water, we can’t have sustainable development.”

As for the farmers in central Burma, they are hoping President Thein Sein’s government will act quickly.

“If the new government does not take urgent action on water management and climate change,” said Tai Lynn, the farmer’s son, “it will be bad not only for the farmers but for all of us.”

Tyler Chapman is a regular contributor to RFA.


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