Tun Lwin: ‘Each Year There is Drought in the Dry Zone, Flooding in the Delta’

By Yen Saning 9 September 2015

RANGOON — Tun Lwin, Burma’s most well-known meteorologist, served in the Ministry of Meteorology and Hydrology for over 30 years, including as director-general. But even after his retirement, he says he never lost his passion for meteorology and the environment. Tun Lwin founded Myanmar Climate Change Watch in 2009 and his assessments and predictions are sought by weather watchers and environmentalists around the country. The meteorologist has his own weather forecast website and a strong following on Facebook. In this interview excerpt, The Irrawaddy’s Yen Snaing speaks to Tun Lwin about changing weather patterns in Burma, dealing with climate change and the recent flood crisis.

When did it first appear to you that weather patterns were changing in a significant way?

I did a research paper in 2003 when I was serving as deputy-director in the Ministry of Meteorology and Hydrology. The paper, which examined the changing climate in Burma over the last 50 years, was my first. When you talk about climate, [examining] monsoons is the key. This country has monsoons in both seasons, not only in summer but also in winter. I focused on a period of 50 to 60 years, collecting data from about 80 to 100 weather stations. I found there were about 16 changes in monsoon patterns since 1978. The monsoon season now begins 15 days later and ends about 25 days earlier. So the rainy season has shortened by about 40 days, which is huge. In the past, before 1978, we had a rainy season from May 15 until up to October 10.

Also, starting from 2006, the number of storms or depressions forming in the Bay of Bengal grew less frequent [during the monsoon season]. From 2006 until last year, there were absolutely no storms during the whole rainy season. That’s a huge impact on the weather in dry zones such as Mandalay, Magwe and lower Sagaing Division. That area never enjoys monsoon rain. Dry zone areas, for example, in Karenni State and Shan State, received very little rain this year. This is the impact of climate change.

What about storms outside the traditional monsoon season?

We have historical records for storms in the Bay of Bengal from around 1877 to 2014. When I checked the total number for each year, the minimum frequency was on average four per year. From 2006 to 2014, on average, in the post-monsoon season of October to December, we had three storms in three months. I refer to them as post-monsoon storms. They are forming at the wrong time, after the monsoon season. For farmers, it’s harvesting time. They don’t need rain at that time. They do need rain during the rainy season but instead there is more rain after the rainy season.

That affects a lot of farmers, especially in lower Burma areas. Their crops, rice, paddy, beans and things like that are often lost. That has been happening in this country for around nine years. Each year, there is extreme weather, for example, drought in the dry zone, flooding in the delta.

Can you talk more about the recent floods in Burma?

This year’s flooding is very peculiar in the sense that El Nino is this year and normally we have less rain but higher temperatures. But this year we have received a huge amount of rain, starting from early in the monsoon season in early June. This year there is more rain in the western parts of the country than the east. For example, in Karenni State and Shan State, they have received less rain this year. But in Arakan State, Chin State and Magwe Division, they are receiving a huge amount of rain.

This year was unfortunate, as three rain bearing weather systems converged on Burma simultaneously. One was a monsoonal front in the north of the Bay of Bengal and we had another monsoonal surge from the south of the country. Making matters worse, Cyclone Komen formed in the Bay of Bengal in July. So with three systems occurring at the same time, there was much rain and flooding.

What factors do you think exacerbated the floods?

My theory is that the main contributor behind this unfortunate event was deforestation. If you don’t have trees anymore, you can’t control water, you can’t store water. You can’t control the run-off. If there are no trees, the soil may degrade, river beds become shallower. So environmental degradation is a very important factor. Land use management and water use management is very poor; people just do whatever they want. There are also so many issues with dams because when they release water, it doesn’t occur in phases, but [all at once].

What do you think of the government’s response to the flood crisis?

I criticize the government, as there are [measures] to take before and after a crisis. Before a crisis, there are two aspects to focus on: preparedness and prevention. These areas were very weak, not only in government but among the public also. Nobody cares until something happens. But after the flooding, rescue, rehabilitation and resettlement was not so bad. A lot of volunteers are helping; the whole country is helping. But the job is not finished yet.

In the government sector, there are eight sub-committees in the national-level disaster management program. After Nargis, the government moved to have a so-called disaster management program in each and every state and division at the district and township level. It is supposed to state what people should do during a flood, an earthquake and storms etc. Everything is there, but nobody uses it. Implementation in this country is very poor.

There is a lot more we should do. Warning systems in the country still need to be updated. Warning systems should be linked from the provider straight to the user, there should be no barrier between them. We are still working on this.

Can you elaborate on the factors contributing to climate change? What can we do to better adapt to climate change in Burma?

There are many reasons why we are suffering. Our environment is degrading. The main issue is probably deforestation. Also, the government has a new [energy] plan right now which involves coal power plants, which are very bad in terms of [exacerbating] climate change. The whole world is moving away from coal. For example, China is breaking away from coal projects.

Unless you have climate-related knowledge, you can do nothing. They need a good plan and to have a good plan, they need knowledge. That’s what we are missing here.