Netherlands Burma Water Management Cooperation to Address Challenges, Boost Trade

By Paul Vrieze 23 June 2014

RANGOON — Burma and the Netherlands resumed water management cooperation in 2013 after a hiatus of some 25 years. During a recent visit by the Dutch minister of infrastructure and transport, both sides expanded the cooperation and revealed plans for a joint US$20 million pilot project to improve use of the Irrawaddy River.

“We’re planning to develop 70 kilometers of riverbank in a bend of the river at Bagan city for multipurpose use,” Minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen told The Irrawaddy in a recent interview in Rangoon.

She said the project would be a private public partnership, adding, “Currently, we’re completing the funding, this will be arranged via several projects.” The Good Growth Fund, which offers investment and export financing to Dutch firms doing business in developing countries, is expected to play a role in the financing.

On June 4, the minister attended a water management seminar with Burmese Vice President Nyan Tun, who is chairman of the National Water Resources Committee, along with local officials from several ministries. She visited with a delegation of more than a dozen Dutch water experts and companies, such as engineering firm Royal Haskoning DHV, dredging company Boskalis, Damen Shipyards, and the Port of Rotterdam Authority.

At Bagan, Dutch firms will build hydraulic structures to protect and restore the unstable river banks near the temples and hotels, and they will dredge the river to limit fluctuations of its course and improve water transport. They will also construct small-scale hydropower installations to generate power for local communities.

The pilot project is one of the outcomes of a broad-ranging water cooperation program between Burma and the Netherlands that was agreed upon during a first visit by the minister in May 2013.

The cooperation includes a Netherlands-funded $1 million study with recommendations for a national master plan on water management, assistance for improving measurement data collection, scholarships for Burmese PhD students at Dutch universities, and advice on so-called “quick-wins” projects to improve water management in Burma.

The program revives an old connection between the countries. From the 1960s until the 1988 military coup, Dutch water experts and engineering firms were regular visitors to Burma, helping to assess flood risks and giving advice on dike development in the Irrawaddy Delta, while many Burmese students went to study water management at universities in the Netherlands.

The low-lying northern European country is internationally renowned for its water management expertise and technology, built up during centuries of preventing flooding and reclaiming land.

Burma is crossed by the Irrawaddy and four other major rivers and faces a range of water issues, including the management of its rivers, large-scale hydropower plans, drought in the central dry zone, cyclone and flood risks in the Irrawaddy Delta, rapid deforestation in watersheds, and a lack of access to drinking water in rural areas.

Vice President Nyan Tun told the seminar that environmentally sustainable development and sound water management were key elements of President Thein Sein’s reform agenda, adding, “Many of the water-related laws are in place, though incomplete, and we are [addressing this].We also began with drafting a national water policy.”

Schultz said the Netherlands is keen to help Burma’s reformist government meet these challenges, while showing how communities and private sector can benefit from water projects and new technology, such as the micro hydropower installations included in the Bagan project. “This pilot can serve as an example … it shows how you can generate energy on a small scale without large dams, and that this approach is actually preferable,” she said.

The minister hopes the cooperation program will also result in more water projects involving Dutch firms and experts. “Since we have so much [water management] knowledge, we feel an obligation to share it with others, but potential trade is of course another reason. If we share those ideas, we hope that they want us to join,” she said.

The minister said she believes that bilateral trade and cooperation in areas such as water infrastructure construction and ship yard and port development—sectors that have seen little development for decades—could expand and become worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The [Burmese] managing director of inland water transport said he has to replace 80 percent of the ships, but he no longer has shipyards,” Schultz said. “We believe this country could become another Vietnam,” she added, referring to Netherlands-Vietnam trade, mostly in port and shipyard development, which has grown to a value of $3.6 billion since 2000.

‘No Progress for 30 Years’

Dutch experts traveling with the minister said Burma faces numerous water management challenges because the former military regime failed to prioritize the sector after seizing power in 1988, and the country became cut off from international advances in water management.

“There is has been no progress for the last 30 years,” said Paul van Meel, an engineer with Royal Haskoning DHV who leads the Dutch policy study. “But there is a lot [of water infrastructure] from before [1988], so there is a base to build upon.”

“Little has been done in terms of planning, training and studies in past decades. There is also a great shortage of data because there was not much measuring going on in past decades,” said Wim van Driel, a program manager at Delta Alliance, a Netherlands-based institute that hosts a network for researchers, authorities and civil society groups from the world’s major river deltas.

“It will take tens of millions of dollars and many years to build up this knowledge and a [water management] curriculum,” he added.

They said the current government is actively pushing water management policy and water projects forward, adding that last year it set up a National Water Resources Committee and a senior water expert group that are tasked with formulating policy and studying water projects.

Prof. Khin Ni Ni Thein, secretary of the expert group and member of the committee, was not available for comment on Burma’s new water policy.

Risks to the Irrawaddy Delta

A key area of study for Dutch experts is the Irrawaddy Delta, Burma’s most productive agricultural area and home to its largest city and commercial capital, Rangoon.

Van Driel, who is involved in a vulnerability and resilience assessment for the delta, said the region faces a range of issues such as an increase in salt water intrusion due to rising sea water levels, pollution from chemicals and pesticides due to agricultural intensification, declining fish stocks due to overfishing, and worsening flood protection due to rapidly declining mangrove forests.

Another issue is the increase in population pressure in the delta, where some 8 million people live. “There is concern over spatial planning in the delta; how can they ensure that all people live in areas that are safe?” Van Driel said.

Cyclones and associated floods are a risk for both the Irrawaddy Delta and Burma’s lengthy Bay of Bengal coastline. Cyclone Nargis hit the delta in May 2008, killing an estimated 138,000 people, crippling Rangoon and causing approximately $10 billion in damages. Cyclone Giri hit Kyaukphyu Island off the Arakan coast in 2010, leaving 70,000 people homeless and killing 157 others.

A tropical cyclone moving eastward and hitting the Irrawaddy Delta, like Nargis did, is a rare event, the experts said, adding, however, that it is difficult to predict the course of a cyclone and the chances that another one would strike the delta region.

“It seems there is no data to indicate that a storm of these proportions has ever hit the delta,” Michel Tonneijck, senior project manager for rivers, deltas and coasts at Royal Haskoning DHV, said of Nargis.

Van Meel said that according to some scientists climate change could have contributed to the unusual path of Cyclone Nargis, but he added, “There are differing theories about this.”

“This question is super important but not easy to answer. Most cyclones head to India and Bangladesh, but sometimes one will veer off in this direction,” said Tjitte Nauta, a specialist advisor at Dutch engineering institute Deltares. He is using computer models to calculate the water flows of Burma’s major rivers and the course and storm surge of past cyclones, including Nargis.

Monitoring the water temperature in the Bay of Bengal can indicate whether a cyclone is forming, Nauta said, but he added, “In terms of predicting the storm’s track, it’s still guesswork… you would need carry out a comprehensive statistical analysis of all the historical tracks [of cyclones].”

Tonneijck said Burmese authorities had set up a cyclone warning system in the Irrawaddy Delta after 2008. “The warning system has been greatly improved since Nargis. Before the cyclone, this was all very marginal. Now the meteorological department has a lot of information and has received all sorts of equipment,” he said, adding that weather warnings can be sent to local coordinators.

“Meanwhile, in the delta they have created flood shelters. Instead of hiding in the trees like before, people can shelter in large concrete buildings on stilts,” said Tonneijck, who coordinated the development of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta Plan. “These buildings often house schools and the local teacher is often the coordination point for the community and receives the weather warning.”

He noted, however, that getting the message to isolated villages could be a challenge, adding, “The communication connections in the delta are very marginal, some parts don’t have a phone network reception, but in these villages you have radios and satellite dishes [to receive weather warnings].”

The sources of funding for the Bagan Project were corrected in this article at 5 pm June 23, 2014.