Waters levels on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers, two of Burma’s most important waterways, are far lower than usual for this time of year, making them increasingly difficult to navigate and raising fears that they may become all but impassible as the dry season advances.
According to those who use the rivers to transport goods in central Burma, stretches of the Irrawaddy near the Yadanabon Bridge in Sagaing Division and Shinphyukyon in Magwe Division have already narrowed noticeably.
“Normally, the water level starts dropping only around the end of March or early April. But this year, there has been a lot less water since early February, making it much more difficult to move,” said Tin Myint, the owner of several cargo boats that ply the Irrawaddy.
“The area near Shinphyukyon is the worst. Every boat gets stuck on the sandbanks so that we have to help each other by pulling or pushing them back out to the water. It’s like ants swarming on candy. We’re worried the waterways will close completely within a month or two,” he added.
Around Mandalay and Mingun, however, the government is dredging the river to clear the way for traffic.
“This is a popular area for river cruises for foreign tourists, so there are dredgers to ensure that everything flows smoothly. It would be better if they cared for the whole river,” said Tin Myint.
The changes in the waterway affect the region’s economy, which depends heavily on river transportation for transferring commodities like rice, cooking oils, dry fish and fish paste to and from Lower Burma.
The situation on the Chindwin River is even worse. Cargo boats can now only go as far as Pakangyi, near where the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin meet. To get to Monywa, the cargo boat owners say they have to hire shuttle boats to transfer their goods upriver.
“Hiring smaller boats to complete the journey adds to the time and cost of transporting commodities,” said the owner of another cargo boat that normally operates on the Chindwin.
“Even with the shuttle boats, when we go up to the Kalaywa and Khandi region, in some area, we have to pull and push the boats as the water level is too low,” he added.
According to the locals, certain areas of these two rivers can now be crossed on foot, whereas before it was necessary to take a ferry.
The lack of water is also becoming a growing concern for farmers in the area, many of whom have already prepared their fields for summer crops.
“Normally we would be able to pump water up from the river with just one pump and a water pipe around two or three hundred feet long. Now, however, we have to use two pumps and more than 500 feet of pipe, which means we have to spend more on diesel,” said one farmer.
According to environmentalists, the lower water levels are a result of many factors, including the small amount of rainfall during the last monsoon season, reduced runoff from glacial melting in the far north of the country, and deforestation in the region’s watershed area.
“The drop in the water levels of these two rivers has been terrible this year. The building of dams and dykes on their tributaries, gold mining along their banks and excessive excavation of sand and gravel for construction have also added to the environmental damage,” said U Ohn, the vice chairman of the Rangoon-based Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association.
He said the construction of bridges across the Irrawaddy also obstructed the river’s flow by causing silt to pile up at the bases of their support pillars of the bridges. There are at least five bridges spanning the Irrawaddy River.
He added that while environmentalists and activists have long urged the government do more to protect Burma’s rivers, others should also do their part to preserve the country’s vital waterways.
“Every citizen of Burma has the responsibility to stop deforestation in watershed areas in order to save these rivers and to save the livelihoods that depend on these rivers.”