NGOs Lambaste Myanmar Government For Failure to Issue Flood Warning

The collapse of the Swar dam spillway due to heavy rain triggered massive flooding that submerged 82 villages.

Floodwaters wash out a section of the old Yangon-Mandalay highway near Shwe Thabyay village in central Myanmar's Bago region, Aug. 30, 2018.

NGOS and a local government disaster management worker took the Myanmar government to task on Thursday for failing to issue a warning that a breach in a spillway of the Swar dam in Bago region would flood dozens of villages, a day after the catastrophe killed at least one person and displaced tens of thousands of others.

Heavy seasonal rains caused the spillway in Bago’s Swar township to collapse, triggering massive flooding that submerged 82 villages in 18 village-tracts, according to the regional government, and affected more than 63,400 people, many of whom have sought shelter in monasteries and temporary camps in adjacent areas.

Authorities did not issue warnings about the possibility of danger from the dam, and people had to flee when the flooding occurred, Bago regional lawmaker Kyaw Kyaw told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Wednesday. He also reported that six people were missing after being swept away by floodwaters.

Win Myo Thu, cofounder and director of the Economically Progressive Ecosystem Development group (EcoDev), a prominent local NGO that campaigns for resource rights and good environmental governance in Myanmar, said Thursday that the Irrigation Department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation is responsible for failing to notify the public and relevant authorities.

“It seems this department hasn’t functioned properly since the current government came into power,” he said referring to the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) administration under de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which has been in power since April 2016.

“Administrative officers at all levels in the Irrigation Department should have issued an early warning for people [about the flooding],” he said. “Because they didn’t issue a warning, many villages were submerged within six hours, though relevant officials had enough time to warn people.”

A woman official from the Bago Regional Disaster Management Department confirmed that her agency did not receive any advance warnings or reports about the dangers of the Swar dam.

“I have never seen like this dam problem before,” said the official who did not give her name.

NGO worker Naw Phi Thlaw from southern Myanmar’s Taninthayi region said that if the government had warned about the danger the dam posed in advance, “civil society groups could have prepared to help locals, and civilians would have experienced less suffering.”

Surging floodwaters on Wednesday swelled the Swar River beneath a bridge along the Yangon-Mandalay highway, a major thoroughfare in Myanmar, causing the support pillars to sink and the lanes for southbound vehicles to buckle. The damage stranded thousands of motorists for hours along the roadway until one side was later reopened to small vehicles.

Though other motorists had been using the old Yangon-Mandalay highway, floodwaters have since washed away about 30 feet of soil from a section of a 20-foot bridge near Shwe Thabyay village, said Ohn Lwin, director general of the Myanmar government’s Department of Roads and Bridge under the Ministry of Construction.

“The department will fill this space with rocks and allow small vehicles to pass,” he said. “[But] we are building a 60-foot Bailey bridge for trucks to travel across in the evening.”

“All cars will be able to use this road by Friday,” he said. “We will build a concrete bridge and repair the road. Everything will be finished by December.”

Too much silt

Meanwhile, one expert is warning about the potential dangers posed by Myanmar’s other dams, including the temporarily suspended Myitsone dam in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state — a massive hydroelectric power development project at the confluence of the Mali and N’mai rivers which form the source of the Irrawaddy River.

The controversial U.S. $3.6 billion, 6,000-megawatt dam was suspended in 2011 in the face of protests over its enormous flooding area and environmental impacts as well as anger over the fact that 90 percent of the dam’s electricity was expected to go to China, the dam’s main investor. Beijing has been pushing the NLD government to allow work to restart on the dam.

When the Myanmar government asked the World Bank several years ago to check the strength of the Swar dam which required some repairs, the international financial institution hired Win Myo Thu of EcoDev to do the work.

“What I clearly said is that the amount of silt in the dam was much more than the normal amount,” Win Myo Thu said. “It would increase within a few years, and the pressure of the silt would damage the dam’s strength.”

“Other dams will become like the Swar dam in the future if they are not maintained,” he said.

“This dam is one of the ones built during a previous military government under a plan to build one dam each month,” he said. “Although the military built the dams, they didn’t have any plan to maintain them and still don’t know how to maintain them. That’s why this problem of having a huge amount of silt occurred.”

Deadly flooding caused by downpours in eight Myanmar states and regions have now killed more than 17 people and displaced roughly 213,000 others since July, including those affected by Wednesday’s flooding in Bago region.

Reported by Zarni Htun, Kyaw Zaw Win, and Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.