Latest Floods Highlight Limits of Govt's Risk Management Efforts

By Nyein Nyein 31 July 2018

YANGON — Since 2017, the government has been working through a water-related risk management plan with technical support from Japan.

Despite the work it has been doing dredging riverbeds and widening waterways in line with that plan, however, heavy rains have nonetheless inundated much of Bago and Tanintharyi regions and Karen State this past week.

More than 140,000 people have been affected across a total of seven states and regions so far. Experts and residents in those areas fear there will be more if water levels keep rising.

The monsoon rains hit Myanmar every year, each time forcing tens to hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and wiping out their crops. In 2015, the worst year in the past decade, they affected 9 million people across most of the country, displacing 1.7 million of them and destroying 15,000 homes. More than 340,000 hectares of farmland were destroyed.

The government and local volunteers have been providing this year’s victims with emergency relief including food, healthcare and shelter.

But collaboration between government ministries, civil society groups, the police and public will be key to fully realizing the government’s management plan, said Daw Khin Ni Ni Thein, an adviser to Myanmar’s National Water Resource Committee (NWRC). She said authorities were working on all parts of the plan but added that success “depends on the support and collaboration” of all parties and cautioned that it would take time.

“While we are developing the platform to cope with the causes [of natural disasters], we cannot prevent natural disasters; these disasters come and the government is dealing with them,” she told The Irrawaddy.

Daw Khin Ni Ni Thein said Myanmar still had to learn more about weather forecasting and to run more drills on responding to unforeseen natural disasters. To that end, the NWRC is building a Hydro Information Center and conducting training courses. It has run four courses to date with 57 graduates.

Daw Khin Ni Ni Thein said the latest flooding has given those graduates a chance to practice what they have learned. “It is something good out of a bad situation,” she said.

In Bago, no stranger to flooding, the Sittaung and Bago rivers have swelled to their highest levels in more than 50 years.

U Nyunt Shwe, Bago Region’s finance and planning minister, told The Irrawaddy recently that the bed of the Bago River has been rising due to sediment buildup and needed to be dredged.

Studies of the Bago and Irrawaddy rivers are underway, but as yet there are no studies of either the Thanlwin or Sittaung rivers, among the country’s largest.

U Win Haling, director of waterway conservation at the Directorate of Water Resources and Improvement of River Systems (DWIR), said at least eight main factors were contributing to the flooding in Bago.

He said the government was dredging the Bago River, widening narrow sections and building dykes to prevent the collapse of riverbanks. But he added that many factors were working against them, including deforestation, groundwater depletion, the disruption of regular weather patterns due to climate change, low embankments and the lack of infrastructure such as water storage tanks and water pumps.

The director said the DWIR also does a lot of work on the Irrawaddy River and its tributaries but lacks data on the Thanlwin and does less work there because it sees less commercial traffic.