Community Researchers Detail Drivers of Degradation along the Irrawaddy River

By Yen Saning 24 July 2015

RANGOON — Illegal logging and chemical waste are among the biggest factors driving environmental degradation along the Irrawaddy River according to a group of community researchers who released their findings at a conference in Rangoon on Wednesday.

In 2013-14, community researchers from 27 villages along the Irrawaddy River conducted their own community-centered Strategic Environmental Assessments (C-SEA) on the river and its surrounds in a program facilitated by the Renewable Energy Association Myanmar and Green Activities, alongside regional partner the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network.

The villages situated alongside Burma’s largest river are spread across six states and divisions—Kachin State and Sagaing, Magwe, Mandalay, Pegu and Irrawaddy divisions.

The group’s data, presented on Wednesday at “The 3rd National Conference on the Ayeyarwady and its People: ‘Development at the Crossroad,’” depicted some worrying trends including riverbank erosion, depleted fish stocks, plants and animals, excess silt and changing tidal patterns.

The groups said the emergence of riverside industries had led to an increase in water pollution and the loss of locals’ land. They also cited the prospect of dam construction and the impact of illegal logging in watershed areas as threatening the river and surrounding areas.

Ko Ko Kyaw, who conducted an assessment in Maung Kone village in Sagaing Division’s Tigyaing Township cited the deleterious impact of industry on the environment, including sugar, ethanol and wood processing businesses as well as a nickel factory.

Aye Thwin of Kyaw Zan village tract in Mawlamyinegyun Township, Irrawaddy Division, also documented the effects of industry on a local tributary of the river.

“[The tributary] has been narrowed and the water is polluted from pesticides used in orchard farming and the waste of a rice mill over the years. Freshwater fish are rarer now,” he said.

“The waste from these industries, disposed into the river, has made the water black with pollution. If we use it to take a bath we’re itchy and we cannot drink it anymore.”

The C-SEA researchers recommendations for the effective and sustainable management of the river included developing a community-centered water use policy; facilitating independent impact assessments to determine whether dams should be built; halting all logging in watershed areas; restricting mining; curbing the disposal of waste water and unrefined materials from industries; taking action against illegal electro-fishing; and reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides.

“Everyone talks about the value of watershed forest,” said Tin Aye, secretary general of the Myanmar Forestry Association, in response to the findings. “If forests are destroyed in upstream watershed areas of the Irrawaddy… the environment and culture will be destroyed in downstream areas of the Irrawaddy.”

Min Lwin Swe, deputy general manager of a research center under the Ministry of Science and Technology, addressed the issue of pollution caused by the use of old gasifiers in rice mills.

“Chaff and oily tar are disposed of in the river and remain on the riverbed,” he said at the conference, adding that rice mill owners struggled to purchase, or adapt to, the latest equipment and machinery.

“Although the technology is good, problems occur as people do not use it properly… [It is] necessary to make sure people follow rules and regulations.”