Rehabilitation Planned for Taungthaman Lake and U Bein Bridge

By Zarni Mann 9 May 2016

MANDALAY — Rehabilitation efforts and restoration work are planned for Mandalay’s famed Taungthaman Lake and U Bein Bridge, according to the local committee tasked with maintaining the area, which is a major tourist draw.

The committee said it is considering reopening a dike that holds water in Taungthaman Lake year-round, affecting the local environment and the world’s longest teak bridge.

“As experts have suggested, we are considering letting the water flow freely,” said Than Myint, chairman of the committee. “However, the process is still under negotiation with the irrigation department.”

In the past, Taungthaman Lake was a natural reservoir that would fill during monsoon season along with the Irrawaddy River’s rising water levels, and see waters recede in the summer months.

However, under military rule, authorities in the 1990s ordered that a dike be built to control the water flow, creating a year-round lake. The lake has been used for commercial fishing since 1989, but over the years, untreated wastewater from a nearby industrial zone has increased water pollution, to the detriment of its fish stocks and the broader ecosystem.

Over the years, adapting to a kind of land-grab via watery encroachment, farmers became fishermen, boatmen and construction workers. Local farmers, who haven’t worked their lands in years, now hope to be able to return.

“In the past, we farmed in winter and summer, while fishing and working as boatmen in monsoon season. Since our lands went underwater, and we were unable to fish because the lake became a fish farm, we could only work as boatmen,” said Pho Mya, one such farmer.

“If this project happens, we will be the happiest people when we are able to work our land again,” he said, adding that although he earned money as a boatman, he has never been able to match what he made planting his own crops.

Experts suggest that not only will free flowing water revive the seasonal flora and fauna of the area and allow the farmers to work their land again; it will also slow the decay of U Bein Bridge.

Decay of the wooden bridge has accelerated in recent years due to its prolonged exposure to the lake’s waters. The 160-year-old bridge is undergoing repairs, and some of its rotten columns and floorboards have been replaced, but much compromised teakwood remains.

Myo Thit, divisional minister of the Ministry of Environmental Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources, visited the region on Saturday and said he would rehabilitate the lake and its bridge without affecting the environment or culture of the area.

“It is a time-consuming project because the region was affected for decades,” he said, adding that he would work alongside the local government departments involved in the region.

“For example, we will work with the Mandalay Municipal Department on the waste water flowing from the industrial zones, in order to clean up the lake,” he added.

There have also been suggestions to set visiting hours on the bridge, limit crossings on holidays and collect fees, but no decisions regarding these proposed regulations have been made.

“Because thousands of visitors cross the bridge, especially on holidays, concerns about the strength of the bridge have been highlighted,” said the minister. “We can’t just do what we want; we have to think about the visitors who want to cross this legendary bridge,” he added.

During the most recent Burmese New Year holiday, about 300 people visited the region, according to the conservation committee.