MANDALAY — Shan State’s famed Inle Lake is experiencing a severe drought this dry season with water levels falling so low that local boat transport has suffered, while tourist visitors are offered a view of a lake much reduced in size and scenery.
In recent years, drought has become an annual problem and local communities, activists and even government officials are now questioning whether enough is being done to avert an environmental crisis.
In 2010 the lake was hit with record low water levels and again suffered a serious drought in 2013. Local villagers said the situation has now become so dire that low water levels have become a permanent challenge for communities living on the lake.
“When I was young, our village is on the water all year-round. When I was 20, for seven months we were on the water, but now we can live on the water for only three months during the rainy season when there is heavy rainfall,” said Phyo Thu, a 36-year-old resident from Magyiseik village, located on the southern edge of the lake.
“Many families in our village have motorbikes to move around when the water dries up. We even tease each other about selling off our boats since they are useful for only three months,” he said.
Combined pressures are leading to the alarming situation at the lake, which is known for its grand views, picturesque floating villages and vegetable gardens, and iconic images of ethnic Intha fishermen who row by holding a peddle with a leg.
Environmental degradation in the surrounding hills is a major reason for the drought, researchers and government reports have said. Deforestation caused by villagers collecting firewood has damaged the watershed, with huge amounts of nutrient-rich soil washing down the denuded mountainside and into the lake, where it reduces water depth, blocks water ways and leads to a proliferation of algae and weeds.
Climate change is further compounding the problems as the amount of rainfall has begun to fluctuate greatly with each year.
“Deforestation and the impact of environmental destruction were so great that our efforts to re-grow trees and conserve the environment failed,” said Hnin Hnin Ohn, project manager of Shwe Inn Thu, one of several local environmental groups implementing initiatives to conserve the lake.
“If large amounts of silt keep entering the lake and the area of water keeps reducing at this rate, drought might occur every summer,” she said. “We worry the lake will disappear in the near future.”
Population growth and unsustainable agricultural methods, such as the use of chemical fertilizer and pesticide, on farms around the lake and on the floating gardens are polluting the water, a pressing problem for local communities that rely on the lake for drinking water.
Local villagers have expanded the floating gardens, which mostly produce tomatoes, and the gardens now cover some 7,000 acres of the lake’s surface.
“We’ve been trying to promote the use of organic fertilizer for five years. Some villages on eastern bank of the lake use it but we still need to spread this to the whole lake,” said Hnin Hhin Ohn.
A rapid increase in tourist visitors to Inle Lake following the opening of Burma under President Thein Sein’s government in recent years is adding further pressure as hotels and tourism infrastructure around the lake expand.
In 2013-2014, some 100,000 tourists made their way to the lake, according to an October 2014 presentation by the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry Department on government measures to conserve the lake.
Recently, local authorities issued a letter warning local communities against using the lake’s water for drinking purposes this dry season due to the dangerously high pH levels of between 8.2 to 8.6, which were found at nine measurement points on the lake.
“Almost every drain and waste ends up in the lake because all the houses, hotels, guest houses and restaurants were built in the lake or on its edge. So, we do not have clean and safe water to use, or to drink,” said Aung Nge, a member of Inn-Sar-Lu-Kae, another local group working to preserve the lake.
Many communities have little choice but to rely on the lake for drinking water, though some initiatives are under way to provide free bottled water to affected villages. The lake’s indigenous residents, the Intha, are traditionally completely reliant on the lake for cleaning and drinking water.
Thar Gyi, a resident of Thalae Oo, a village located on the east side of the lake, said, “Before, there were springs on the eastern and western sides that could provide enough clean water for every village. But since the hotel zone emerged, the springs on the eastern side have been destroyed.”
In 2012, work began on a new 250-hectare hotel zone on Inle Lake’s eastern edge and some forest was removed to make way for the construction of 16 hotels.
Kyaw Soe, a resident of Magyisate village and member of local environmental group Hnalone Hla Inn Maung Mae, said government measures had been half-hearted and prioritized economic development over conservation, undercutting the local communities’ environmental projects.
“The government established the hotel zone where trees were bulldozed, while the locals and environmental activists are trying their best to grow back trees to prevent silt erosion,” he said.
Aung Kyaw Zwar, head of a hospitality training school in Inn-Paw-Khone village, said the expanding tourism sector is an important source of income for local communities and was helping to develop the region. He said its negative impacts should be addressed through proper government planning.
“We couldn’t tell the businessmen to stop developing the region and the tourists not to visit us. This [growth] could open opportunities for the locals,” he said. “What we need is a strategic planning to deal with the [environmental] impact from which the lake and its inhabitants suffer. Since the planning in the past was weak, we let the lake suffer.”
Local authorities have been implementing a five-year strategic plan from 2011-2015, which includes a range of measures such as dredging of the lake and its waterways, reforestation programs and the construction of small dams in hillside gullies and streams that capture silt.
Win Myo Thu, managing director of EcoDev, a national environmental NGO, said the lake was in a critical situation and its degradation could only be halted if the government develops a comprehensive, integrated conservation strategy soon.
“If there’s no strict policy on environmental matters from the government, but priority will only be given to economic profits, then conservation work on the lake will be in vain,” he said. “I feel like the current conservation projects could not save it anymore—the only hope is that the government puts all its efforts into helping to keep the lake alive.”
Kyaw Kyaw Oo, a senior official with the department of irrigation in Nyaung Shwe, the biggest town on the lake, said government measures taken in recent years had reduced environmental degradation, but he acknowledged that an overall long-term policy for the lake was still lacking.
“We’ve built check dams on streams in the western and northern area of the lake to control the silt. We could say these dams are now reducing the flow of silt into the lake,” he said.
“In my own opinion, the conservation of Inle Lake or many other environment plans lacks a clear goal and master plan… Setting a concrete goal defines how far we will go to save the lake,” Kyaw Kyaw Oo said. “The measures we are now taking are just a response to the situation. To correct these weaknesses, all we need is an environmental law.”