In Shan State, New Water Sources Combat an Old Scourge

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 9 May 2016

AUNG BAN, Shan State — Never in her life had Grandma Oke seen running water.

Like many other people living in the remote village of Pyu Laung in southern Shan State’s Naung Taya sub-township, the 75-year-old Pa-O woman had only ever known water from lakes, natural springs in the nearby forest and, of course, falling from the clouds.

But these villagers also knew from experience that these sources of water were not particularly reliable, especially in the summer, when each year the specter of a water shortage looms.

So last week, when water was pumped from hundreds of meters below ground through the village’s first drilled well, Oke grabbed her walking stick and went to witness this spectacle: water coming through pipes.

“It was the first time in my life I had seen so much water bursting from pipes. I was overjoyed!” the elderly woman said.

Around her at the drilling site, young and old alike were also filled with excitement. A local Pa-O music band was playing a traditional tune to celebrate the “auspicious moment”—villagers knew that from then on they would never have to go another summer without water.

“More than 1,600 people from six villages can use this water,” said Kyaw Soe, a water project manager at the Brighter Future Myanmar Foundation (BFM), which built the well.

The foundation has been drilling wells for villages suffering from water shortages since 2014, collaborating with the government for equipment and expertise. As of April, the foundation had drilled 110 wells, most of which are in southern Shan State and Upper Burma.

“There are a few other organizations also drilling. But if you look at the number of wells and the scale of success, BFM simply outperforms them,” said Maung Maung Soe, a former assistant director at the government-run Water Resources Utilization Department in Shan State.

A Drought on the Highlands

Perched at an elevation of about 1,000 meters in Burma’s mountainous east, Pyu Laung village is another example of village life in Shan State, the country’s largest state, boasting a population just north of 5.8 million people, some 75 percent of whom live in rural areas.

At least in part because the Shan State government’s development plan has yet to reach every corner of the state, it is customary for people in rural villages to go to nearby lakes to retrieve water for domestic use. When it rains, they collect water in large cement tanks, using the water both for drinking as well as for storage for the usually dryer summer months.

Shan State, much like the rest of Burma, has been suffering from an unusually powerful El Niño weather pattern this year. In the southern parts of the state, many springs and wells have already dried up, and the lakes on which local communities rely for domestic and farming purposes have dramatically shrunk since February, leaving many villagers with water access problems that are more dire than they have been in previous years.

As a result, Nan Zi, from Kalaw Township’s Lel Gaung village, has had to walk 2.5 miles twice a day to reach a creek that still has water, all while carrying two yellow jerry cans.

“This summer is worse than the previous one. There are more people than there is water available [at the creek],” said the 46-year-old Pa-O woman.

Yet she explained that this water is unclean, meaning that villagers have to purify the water with Alum before they can use it. A mother of eight children, Nan Zi said the 10 gallons of water she collects are not enough for cooking, drinking and for the cattle at home.

“Even the cows don’t have enough drinking water,” she said.

In Shan State’s Pindaya Township, known for its cooler weather, the gnawing water shortage was also on display, perhaps even more visibly. Its landmark Pote Ta Lote Lake, a source of fresh water for local residents, has radically shrunk this year, leaving water only in the middle of the lake.

Than Min Htut, head of the township’s general hospital, told The Irrawaddy that nearly 60 percent of residents, with Pindaya Township’s population totaling some 80,000 people, have been affected by the water shortage and that it has started to take a toll on people’s health, as they have come to rely on any water that is available. In some villages, this means that people have turned to still water from muddy lakes where cattle also quench their thirst. In 2014, a water community water tank in Pindaya Township’s Sha Bya village was contaminated, lending anecdotal support to a government census finding from that year saying that 45.3 percent of people in Shan State are without access to clean water.

“The most common illnesses here are diarrhea, typhoid and skin infections due to a lack of clean water and personal hygiene. Children are particularly vulnerable,” Than Min Htut said.

Lending a Helping Hand

Charity groups in Shan State have been flooded with requests for help from villages hit by water shortages. Many activists have driven water bowsers to villages to distribute water.

Maung Maung Soe, formerly of the Water Resources Utilization Department, said the department could not drill enough wells in the affected areas due to a limited budget.

“[The department] only managed to drill one or two wells per year because we’ve had to share the budget with other departments,” Maung Maung Soe said.

In the past, donors have also tried to dig wells in the affected areas as a long-term solution to the water shortage problem, but most of these attempts have failed. (Legend has it that during his travels in Shan State, a thirsty Burmese king asked the local people for water. But his request was ignored. Furious at being rebuffed, he cursed the people to a life in which they would never have enough water.)

Kyaw Tun, a Rangoon-based geologist, said that it is difficult to extract underground water in Shan State because of the overwhelming presence of limestone and the fact that water can really only be detected through cracks in rocks below ground.

“If you don’t have the technology made available through geophysics, it’s quite painstaking to extract water [in Shan State] because you don’t know where the water is. You have to dig well after well until you finally find it,” Kyaw Tun said.

The Brighter Future Myanmar Foundation took on this financial risk, spending between 7 and 15 million kyats (between US$6,360 and $13,630) for each well.

“Out of 110 wells, only 71 have been successful,” said BFM project manager Kyaw Soe.

Founded by KBZ Bank in 2008, BFM is active nationwide in disaster relief, women’s empowerment and community development, though it is mostly known for its attempts to distribute water, drill wells and build community water tanks primarily in southern Shan State. The foundation recently spent $1.5 million to buy its own drilling machine.

Nang Lang Kham, director of the foundation, said the project is the brainchild of her father Aung Ko Win, chairman of KBZ Bank, who experienced water shortages as a school teacher in Bawsai, a lead-mining area in southern Shan State.

The chairman drilled the community’s first well in the summer of 2014, and it still distributes water to the local community there.

“Emboldened by a successful first attempt as well as by requests from people from hard-hit villages, we continue doing this work,” Nang Lang Kham said. The 27-year-old added that parents in the villages are encouraged to stress to their children not to take water for granted.

“I don’t want children to have the impression that water just comes from the tap. I want them to value and use this water effectively,” she explained.

Yet Nang Lang Kham admitted that merely reacting to water shortage by distributing water and drilling wells was not a durable, long-term solution to a perennial problem.

“I want to go beyond this and create sustainability,” she said, explaining that, for instance, she would like for the foundation to “re-charge” underground water by growing trees and engaging in other forms of environmental conservation with similarly like-minded groups.

While the foundation primarily focuses on rural areas, its projects have sought to create ripple effects in cities such as the Shan State capital Taunggyi, where, according to the city administration office, water can only be supplied to 50 percent of the city’s population.

On a recent evening, people were queuing at the foundation’s community water taps that snake around the slopes of the capital’s Sein Pan and Shwe Taung quarters, where most of the city’s 8,000 residents live. Community leader-turned-Buddhist monk U Khemar Nanda remembers that, back in 2004, similar throngs of people would assemble at his monastery during the summer to retrieve water from the tap connected to a well.

Some 12 years later, that tap is now deserted. Since last year, the foundation has been pumping water up from the ground and into community water tanks, then distributing water from the reservoirs to people twice a day.

“This is a merit that these donors can be proud of for the rest of their lives. They did something really good for many people,” U Khemar Nanda said.

For Nang Lang Kham, this merit is tied to a sense of service to the community, which she said is in “the bloodline of KBZ.”

“A lack of interest in the community where you run your business doesn’t do any good. If you want to exist in that community, you yourself have to be in that community,” she said.