ENVIRONMENT-BURMA: Flood Of Support Rises to Save Inle Lake

  • by Mon Mon Myat (nyaung shwe, burma)
  • Inter Press Service

At 900 metres above sea level, Inle Lake is a national heritage site in the southern part of Shan State in Burma, also known as Myanmar, and home to more than 170,000 people in over 400 villages. The lake is also a major source of hydroelectric power for southern Burma, raising the stakes for this South-east Asian country to keep the lake afloat.

In June to August, the lake’s water level fell to record low levels, drying up the area and curtailing businesses, water transport and residents’ everyday lives. This was of such concern that two workshops about the lake’s rehabilitation were held in July, in Burma’s capital Naypidaw and in Taung Gyi, Shan State, in July. Burmese Prime Minister Gen. Thein Sein also visited Inle Lake on Aug. 9 to survey the situation.

While the rains have eased somewhat the decline in Inle Lake’s water level, residents have been keeping a close watch on it, especially because October marks the time they hold a pagoda festival and a boat race on the lake.

'Water level is now above 1.2 metres and we hope that would be enough water to hold regular boat races in the lake like in previous years,' remarked an Inle resident who used the join the boat race every year.

But academics and government officials warn that the double threat of declining water quality and shrinking water mass could see Inle Lake vanishing in the near future.

According to a June 2010 report by Burma’s fishery department in Shan State, pH levels of water collected from different areas in the lake range from 8.4 to 9.6, reflecting an above-average alkaline content that is killing fish and causing them to migrate in search of safer habitats.

Meanwhile, Inle Lake is shrinking rapidly due to soil erosion, sedimentation and deforestation in the watershed area. According to official statistics released in 2010, Inle Lake is now just 70 square kilometres wide, less than half of the 163 sq km it spanned just three years ago.

Experts say water and soil conservation as well as forest preservation need to be ramped up in the lake’s headwater and watershed areas in order to save the lake from further damage. U Ohn, general secretary of the Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association, a Burma-based group dedicated to environmental preservation, takes heart from the fact that 300 people, including officials and local residents, 'sat together and discussed openly and sincerely about lake preservation issues' in the Shan State seminar on Inle Lake.

Elderly Inle native Tun Yin says he has never seen the lake face a worst crisis in the 80-odd years that he has lived in the area. 'We could always row a boat to go from place to place in the lake, but this summer we faced a big trouble for transportation as water routes were blocked (due to the) lack of water,' he says.

Long periods of drought and record-high 43.5 degrees Celsius temperatures during the summer months saw Inle Lake’s water level drop to its lowest in 50 years, with dried-up waterways forming new land routes in several areas.

'We couldn't use boats; we couldn't walk because of marshland. Even water for drinking and household use, we had to go far to fetch it,' says Tun Yin's eldest daughter.

As water levels fell below 1.2 metres for the first time in five decades, Inle Lake residents built makeshift bridges in their villages as they could no longer travel by boat. Needless to say, the majority of the residents, comprising fishermen and farmers, were badly affected.

One of Burma’s most popular tourist spots because of its beauty and the many ancient pagodas and monasteries around it, visitor arrivals to Inle Lake also slowed to a trickle, putting at risk local businesses including hotels, weaving factories and goldsmiths that survive on tourist traffic.

Some hotels built on stilts around the lake had to cease operation during the summer, as boats were unable to access the buildings. Other business owners hired dredgers to remove the build-up of silt that had blocked water passages leading to their shops.

Experts say commercial floating firms, who do agriculture on 'floating lands', are the main culprits behind water pollution — which compounds the problem for Inle Lake — because of their excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Floating lands are thick layers of seaweed and water hyacinth that have piled up and hardened, on which vegetation can be grown and houses can be built. These floating lands can be cut up and moved around across the water, and are even traded like normal plots of land.

Yet, environmentalist U Ohn says, many farmers using these floating lands are 'not aware of (the environmental degradation that) is happening in the lake'.

'This is their livelihood. We can't disturb their livelihood but we might need to use law enforcement to certain extent (to protect the environment),' says U Ohn. 'We can't just ban chemical fertiliser and pesticide usage. We have to replace them with biofertiliser and give (the farmers) incentives and (better) practices to follow.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service