With an estimated 19,000 cu metres of water available per person per annum, Myanmar might be called a regional water superpower. Its capacity for water storage is nine times that available in China, five times that in Vietnam, and 16 times the amount in both Bangladesh and India. The total catchment area of its 10 main rivers covers some 737,800 sq km, with potential surfacewater resources amounting to 1082 cu km and groundwater sources reaching 495 cu km.
Water is therefore seen as a great asset for the country, and its abundance has implications for energy, agriculture, navigation and industry. Myanmar’s fortunate endowment of water resources could be a significant factor in spurring the country’s development, placing it in a good position relative to countries that face potential shortages, a common and increasing problem elsewhere.
A Vast Network
The country, a maze of rivers, tributaries and delta systems, is characterised by four main waterways. The most important river system is the 2170-km Ayeyarwady, which is used for irrigation and is a significant transportation asset. The 2815-km Salween River, also known as the Thanlwin, is more remote than the Ayeyarwady and is used more for local, short-haul transportation. Both rivers have been targeted for the construction of extensive dam systems. The third main waterway, the 1207-km Chindwin River, is the largest tributary of the Ayeyarwady. Long a transportation waterway, it passes areas with valuable natural resources, such as amber, teak and jade. The river is also known for its abundant fish resources. The fourth, the 420-km Sittaung River, is of limited use for energy due to a tidal bore, but timber for export can nonetheless be floated along it, and a canal has been built to the Bago river to avoid the bore. The nation’s other minor rivers include the Lemyo, Mayyu, Nath, Kalatan, Atatran and Gyne rivers.
The rivers of Myanmar have been used for modern transportation since as far back as 1865. An estimated 8000 km of river is open for commercial navigation. This includes 1534 km on the Ayeyarwady, 730 km on the Chindwin, 2404 km in the Ayeyarwady Delta, 380 km on Thanlwin and Mon state rivers, and 1602 km along the rivers of Rakhine state.
The formerly state-owned Inland Water Transport (IWT) operates over 400 craft on these rivers, moving people and goods throughout the country, but private fleets also offer services. In addition to the country’s inland waterways, Myanmar has an exceptionally long coastline of 1930 km, hosting numerous ports, harbours and jetties. Deep sea ports are also being developed. These facilities will become more important as the economy continues to grow and as its external trade expands. Myanmar has a coastal fishing sector which is a major contributor to exports.
While its sheer abundance contains great advantages, water is also the source of several significant challenges for the country, bringing hardship in addition to the many benefits. For one thing, the country’s port and river assets are in serious need of improvement and constantly under threat of decay, especially from sedimentation. The fleets plying the waterways are distinctly low-tech, and even though IWT was privatised in 2010, the firm still lacks the financial wherewithal to make the necessary investments in its fleet.
Furthermore, ports are in need of dredging, better facilities and improved service vessels. One source of such challenges is that rainfall is unevenly distributed across the country. While the rainfall averages are impressive, some areas receive too much water and some too little. Droughts, which have become more frequent recently due to the El Niño weather effect, have brought challenges over the years, causing water levels to fall and threatening entire ecosystems.
Flooding is another major issue. The country was inundated in 2015 and 2016, affecting more than 1m acres of farmland and causing a loss of about 250,000 animals. After water levels fell, houses and transport routes were damaged and food shortages persisted. Additionally, Myanmar faces threats of excess water delivered during powerful storms. Cyclones, for example, periodically bring devastation due to flooding and high winds, which can cause storm surges. Cyclone Nargis in 2008, sustained winds of up to 215 km per hour and claimed more than 100,000 lives.
The nation also faces less dramatic, but in the long term vitally important, water-related challenges. Myanmar must cope with pollution and sanitation issues – an estimated one-third of the country lacks access to clean water – and the aquifer, a key asset, needs constant attention.
The Hydro Factor
The development of hydropower has added to stresses on Myanmar’s water system. While the building of dams has the potential to help the country’s water management, as the structures can be used to control the flow of water and aid in irrigation, they can also negatively affect the environment, blocking fish migration, flooding farmland and impeding transportation. The consequences can be devastating. It is feared, for example, that proposed dams could put the country’s main rice-growing regions at risk. At the same time, Myanmar is underutilising what it has. Water is a valuable strategic asset, but the country is doing very little to harness its full potential. Only an estimated 5% of available resources are being used, and most of this goes towards farming. Agriculture, which employs more than half the country’s workers, accounts for 91% of the water consumed by Myanmar.
Myanmar has long recognised the challenges, and efforts to develop better water management have been ongoing for some time. The country established a National Water Resources Council (NWRC) in 2013 and has had a National Water Policy (NWP) since 2014. Under the NWP, a comprehensive framework will be developed, laws written and institutions created to optimise the utilisation of water resources. The policy is comprehensive, covering watersheds, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, aquifers, and coastal and marine waters, and it seeks to develop all these resources in a integrated, holistic and inclusive manner. The goal is for Myanmar to become efficient in a practice known as Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) by 2020.
Some experts remain sceptical, however. Attendees of a three-day water conference in Yangon in early 2016 noted that very little has actually been accomplished. Under previous governments, relevant measures were carried out in an inconsistent manner. They added that the NWRC was disbanded before the new government came into power, and thus the country had no long-term strategy for water as of 2016. The government has been slowly moving to collect the data that is necessary to begin proper management of this resource.
They emphasised the importance of getting it right, arguing that water cannot be treated like any other part of the environment, as it plays a special role in the economy and ecosystem. Other nations make water management a major priority; Myanmar, they said, should do the same. The NLD understands this, recognising that the country needs a robust and comprehensive water programme if it is to effectively utilise the resource and avoid the some of pitfalls that come if such resources not properly managed.
This has become more urgent of late. As Myanmar has opened to outside investment, spurring rapid growth, its water systems are becoming increasingly strained. Urbanisation, economic growth and industrialisation are all taxing resources heavily. International organisations are stepping in. The World Bank has committed $100m to the Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Management Project, running through to 2020, under which capacity will be built at the relevant institutions, data collection will be improved and sustainable hydropower promoted. The aim is that rivers will become healthier and more sustainable, water will become a valued national asset, and the lives of those living around rivers will be enhanced.
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