The case for a holistic water management approach in Myanmar

17 January 2019
The case for a holistic water management approach in Myanmar

Myanmar is a rainy country, endowed with a wealth of rivers, streams and bodies of water. And while average annual rainfall in the Dry Zone is less than 1,000 millimeters, coastal regions can receive over 5,000 millimeters of rain over the same period. In other words, Myanmar on the whole is blessed with rich resources of freshwater, with a vast majority of this water flowing into four major rivers, the Chindwin, Ayeyarwady, Sittang and Salween and their associated tributaries.  

Nevertheless, many places in the middle of Myanmar, much of which is classified as a Dry Zone, routinely face a scarcity of water in the summer. But why, given the country’s vast freshwater resources, does this problem of a scarcity of freshwater persist? As such, if Myanmar is to realize its true economic potential, let alone social cohesiveness, it is important to understand why this is happening and to address the root causes.

Regular droughts in the summer in some parts of the country are no excuse, rather the stress placed on dry locations by a lack of summer rainfall points to a lack of adequate technology in conserving freshwater resources. This, combined with a lack of money and strategic planning for the utilization of water, contributes to Myanmar using only 5% of its water resources, with the rest wasted.

An underlying concern for Myanmar lies long-term as the major sources of such rivers and the Salween and Mekong are drying up due to climate change and the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas, and due to the building of large dams upstream. Part of the challenge here, according the NGO, The Third Pole (a reference to the glaciers and water sources on the Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau) is this drying up of the major rivers is a relatively slow process, hence it is hard to warn of the urgency to tackle the crisis. Compounding the problem, China owns the main headwaters of these rivers and has shown an aggressive drive to build large dams or mega dams.

As the Myanmar authorities recognize, there is a struggle to supply adequate freshwater resources for the entire country throughout the year that is compounded by climate change, the destruction of environment and ecological obstacles, a rising population and unsystematic waste water disposal. To this end, it is important to note that unsystematic water management has consequences beyond simply a shortage of water, also impacting the peace and economy of the country.

Faced with these challenges, what is to be done?

There is a good argument for a comprehensive and holistic national management strategy involving the use and storage of water. 

Simply put, Myanmar needs to, as soon as possible, work on plans to build dams and reservoirs while also combatting the deforestation and arbitrary and unsystematic disposal of waste water along with soil erosion in rivers and streams. Myanmar needs to prioritize and tackle all these measures simultaneously if it hopes to systematically conserve freshwater resources as soon as possible.

Opinions differ on the building and efficacy of dams. 

In the West, there is a gradual move to decommission large dams following the recognition of the damage they can cause, including reduction in river flow, and the related problems of dam siltation and trouble with the conditions of the dam.

As environmentalist Michael Buckley told Mizzima, lots of dams are being decommissioned in the US. After 50 years or so they either need to be replaced or taken down. The concrete wears down and becomes unsafe.

As Buckley, author of the book Meltdown in Tibet, says, it’s like plastic. Plastic was hailed as a miracle when it first appeared. Now it is reviled around the planet. It is the same with mega dams. These were engineering wonders when they first appeared. Now the view is changing.

As was seen in the local opposition in Myanmar to the Chinese company-built Myitsone Dam, the arguments revolved around how the project would displace large numbers of people and damage the environment. Part of the concern, according the environmental experts involves how the dam would reduce water flow downstream, plus disrupt marine life in the river. The building of the Myitsone Dam is currently suspended, a result of the order by former President Thein Sein in September 2011.

Similar arguments cloud plans for dams on the Salween River, with a robust opposition from local people. Part of the problem with major dams is they are built primarily for power generation, rather than controlling river flow and water supply, and in Myanmar’s case, a large percentage of the power generated being destined to be sold to neighbours China and Thailand.

Although both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have tended to have a “pro-dam” agenda, hydrology experts and NGOs such as the Burma Rivers Network (BRN), urge caution or the halting of major dam-building in Myanmar. 

Environmental organisations have raised concerns about the ecological impact of these mega-dams on the biodiverse eco-systems of Myanmar's rivers, according to BRN. China's dismal environmental practices concerning dam-building have given environmentalists every reason to be apprehensive, it adds. 

That said, there have been arguments put forward that water supply can be managed by smaller-scale dam and marine projects that do less to disrupt river flow. The key focus here is the aim for damming or water management structures – the main focus being to control and store water for the local area, not as a large dam power generation project, with as little disruption of river flow.

Reservoirs can play important roles in irrigation and regulation of rainfall, helping to correct the imbalance between the dry season and rainy season. Such projects can include local-level schemes which encourage farmers to dig large ponds to conserve water. In addition, there are other water conservation methods, such as those promoted by Israel’s agriculture ministry, that encourage farmers to set up the infrastructure of pipes for drip feeding crop cultivation.

It bears repeating, the knock-on effects of proper water management are far and wide, with the potential to help in alleviating societal divides and poverty. Further, everyone should be made aware that a well-implemented hydro power project, for example, can balance the conservation of freshwater resources with power generation while maintaining a healthy environment and local livelihood.

For these reasons, all professionals and experts need to voice the pros and cons of conservation projects; and do so without bias for the development and progress of peace, the economy and the social cohesiveness of the country going forward. At the same time, the government needs to act decisively based on professional and public feedback and in accordance with the best welfare of the country at heart in implementing projects to conserve Myanmar’s invaluable freshwater resources.