Environmentalists Reject Irrawaddy River as ‘International’ Waterway

By Zarni Mann 17 May 2014

MANDALAY — Environmental activists have rejected a government body’s designation of the Irrawaddy River as an “international river,” saying the trans-border status could invite undue influence on the river by neighboring countries.

In a letter, Burma’s Directorate of Water Resources and Improvement of River Systems (DWIR) wrote that the Irrawaddy originated from the tributary rivers of Dayin and Xi-ann in China, and another small river from India, and thus was an “international” river spanning the three countries. The letter was included in an invitation to the Mandalay-based environmental NGO Green Activities to attend an event on Friday in Mandalay concerning the Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Management project.

Activists argued that the relative insignificance of the tributaries did not warrant the description of the Irrawaddy—which flows across more than 1,300 miles in Burma and sustains livelihoods for millions of Burmese people—as an international river.

“If they use [terminology] like this, someday, every time we talk about the Irrawaddy, we will have to negotiate with those two countries. The Chinese are saying the Irrawaddy is a part of China because they want to resume the Myitsone dam project. Such usage is intolerable,” said Tin Thit, president of Green Activities.

“Can we say the whole Irrawaddy is originating from China or another country and call it an ‘international river,’ simply because of a small river from China that has little effect on the flow of the Irrawaddy?” Tin Thit said.

The activists said they raised their disagreement on the designation by distributing pamphlets and statements at the Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Management (AIRBM) event, condemning the DWIR assertion.

According to the activists, a World Bank official involved with the AIRBM reacted to the environmentalists’ concerns by apologizing and assuring them that the designation would not happen again.

The AIRBM is a US$100 million project funded by the World Bank that aims to safeguard the Irrawaddy River, its ecosystem and the livelihoods of the people living along it.

“Actually, that letter came from DWIR, which is under the Ministry of Transport. As they are part of the government, they must take care of the terminology, as the issue of the Irrawaddy is very sensitive—no one wants the influence of China or another country over this river since China planned to build a dam on it,” said Maung Maung Oo, secretary of Green Activities who attended the event.

The event was organized to share information on the preliminary stages of the AIRBM project, and seek advice and consultation from local NGOs, environmentalists and social workers. The project includes efforts to improve the waterway’s flow between Mandalay and Nyaung Oo, which is badly crimped by sedimentation.

“We advised them that the project should be people-centered and urged them to bring along local environmentalists and researchers to benefit the people, not the government,” Maung Maung Oo said.