Water Polluted by Myanmar Military-Run Cement Plant Causes Health Issues in Karen State

By Nyein Nyein 1 November 2019

Murky water from lakes and ponds near the 4,000-tonne Myaing Kalay cement factory in Hpa-an, Karen State was found to have high levels of chlorine and phosphate, which caused a die-off of fish last month, according to an environmental non-profit.

The Environmental Laboratory (EcoLab) of environmental group Advancing Life and Regenerating Motherland (ALARM) tested water samples from 10 villages in Hpa-an Township, south of the Myaing Kalay cement factory, in the last two weeks.

The tests found high chlorine levels which may be caused by the raw materials used for cement production as well as the waste from the coal-powered factory, according to ALARM. The group also tested water samples from the areas where raw materials such as limestone are extracted for the Myaing Kalay cement plant.

The Myaing Kalay cement factory has been run by the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings company for more than two decades. Objections from local residents over the environmental and social impacts of the plant have been mounting since the factory switched from natural gas to coal power late last year

ALARM made specific recommendations to the plant’s operators to control the chlorine levels in the water, based on the results of their tests: the group said the factory needs to monitor its chlorine bypass system, check its chlorine filter bag and check its chlorine bypass filter fan. The group also suggested that the operators take preventative measures to prepare for the possibility of floods.

Dr. Daw Aye Aye Win, the officer in charge of ALARM’s EcoLab, told The Irrawaddy that testing of over 14 different parameters showed the water from the villages’ wells is safe for drinking, though its pH value is a bit low.

“As the sediments are left on the bottom, the filtered water is generally safe. If the water [particulate] concentration is more than 0.05 ppm [parts per million], it is dangerous for fish and could poison the fish but it is still safe for humans to drink,” Dr. Daw Aye Aye Win explained.

Local residents’ concerns mounted following reports of murky water and fish die-offs in local water sources in the second week of October. Some residents also reported experiencing skin rash problems.

Because the lab took water samples on Oct. 18, the murky sediments had already sunk to the bottom in some places, Dr. Daw Aye Aye Win said.

She added that they tested water samples not only from wells, but also from ponds, lakes and streams where fish had died and which local residents already regarded as contaminated.

According to Dr. Daw Aye Aye Win, the water from three places—Zee Taw pond, Yay Twin Gon Village’s Nga Thay stream and Mayan Gon Village’s stream—has excessive phosphate and chlorine levels that are higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Surface Water Standard for Aquatic Life. The EcoLab evaluated 26 different water parameters for these samples to verify the level of pollution.

The water of Mayan Gon Village’s stream is high in biological oxygen demand (BOD) and chemical oxygen demand (COD). High BOD and COD, together with phosphate levels, reduce the oxygen level. Along with the high chlorine levels, this caused the death of the fish.

ALARM also said the high chlorine level could lead to skin problems for humans, such as inflammation, reddish skin, blisters and itching.

On Oct. 11, Karen State Chief Minister Daw Nan Khin Htwe Myint visited Yay Twin Gon, Nat Gon and Nga Pyaw Taw villages and said there is no problem with the local drinking water because the National Health Laboratory had already tested local water sources.

But the local residents were afraid to drink the water and also concerned about using it for farming because the water was still murky. Following the chief minister’s visit, in order to reassure the villagers, the government provided the Bar Ket, Yathaepyan, Pankone and Kawt Yin village tracts with clean drinking water.

The Karen State government said early this week that samples of murky water from some 20 villages in Hpa-an were being tested at government labs, following the change in color of the water in ponds, lakes and wells.

Despite the tests, many villages are still experiencing polluted water, including Myaing Kalay’s Larkar Village Tract and Kankalay Village in Khe Dauk Village Tract, to the north of Myaing Kalay cement factory.

“We are still looking for the answer to why these water resources in the villages become murky,” said Saw Tha Poe, a member of the Karen State branch of Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA), a civil society group.

He told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the causes of the polluted water need to be explained. “We need experts who can help us prove the causes,” he said, citing the problems occurring in areas close to the cement factory.

“These villages we visited are still faced with polluted water. They need to have safe access to clean water. Using alum [aluminum sulfate] or water cleansing pills won’t help in the future,” he added.