A World Bank-funded project helped to understand ‘state of the basin’ of the Ayeyarwady river in Myanmar. We analysed the present use of the river and what threats people perceive.
Myanmar is a country with one of the last ‘untamed’ rivers on earth. At the same time, social and economic developments are developing at high speed. In times of change, and with so much to gain and to lose, the government of Myanmar considers it to be of the utmost importance to study the ‘state of the basin’ of the Ayeyarwady river as it is today.
This part of the ‘State of the Basin’ analysis, package six (SOBA-6), aims to analyse the present use of the river, the values people attribute to it, and what threats people perceive. The SOBA-6 team visited 14 townships, in the period of July 4, 2017 and August 25, 2017 alongside the entire river basin. In each township, the team had several meetings with villagers, entrepreneurs, officials and sometimes community- or spiritual leaders. The results of these meetings are presented in several forms: a report, pictures, videos, storylines, a database of findings and an ‘Ayeyarwady River Basin Communities Atlas’.
The general advice is to ‘continue the conversation’: people spoke to the team with great honesty and are eager to engage in future developments. Overall, they are confident about the future, and strongly connected to the Ayeyarwady. People do worry about climate change. They tell us that ‘seasonal flooding’ has become more frequent and lasts longer, thereby disrupting daily life in a more profound way. They are mostly worried about the effect that this has on their livelihood: they cannot work while living in shelters, and worst of all, their children cannot go to school. They also acknowledge that part of this worsened seasonal flooding might be caused by manmade erosion, due to sand extraction or deforestation upstream or due to developments, like the construction of bridges.
People are (still!) very resilient and adaptive. Along the Ayeyarwady, communities deal with the discomforts of flooding, without expecting too much help from the outside. rarely the inconveniences of the river where mentioned, as compared to how often they want to improve their livelihoods, so they can take better care of themselves and their families.
Where people are directly dependent on the river for their livelihoods, like fishery, the changes in the environment are felt acutely. Fishermen tell us about the reduction in the amount of fish they catch, and blame this on ‘other fishermen’, who fish too much, or too early in the spawning season, or use illegal means like batteries or poison. They ask the government to be stricter in law enforcement.
Gold mining and pollution
The gold mining industry appears to be highly polluting and impacts are felt to be large and generally far reaching. Downstream from the mines, for tens and sometimes hundreds of miles, villagers describe the river as ‘dead’ with hardly any fish remaining. Up to only recently (twenty years ago), the river provided good drinking water and people bathed in the river, but today that seems to be impossible. Swimming in the river reportedly causes skin rashes and other diseases. People argue that the loss of a healthy river environment affects their communities in many undesired ways. It also chases away tourists whereas in theory the river has a huge potential for tourism.
There are many concerns about the impacts of the (big) dams planned for hydroelectricity in the north, particularly regarding navigability, economy, livelihoods and social cohesion. Sufficient solid waste management is lacking nearly everywhere. The result is that garbage ends up in the river. Negative impacts are still limited, but the problem increases, especially with more and more plastics in the economy, and should be addressed for a cleaner river in the future.
In natural disaster-prone areas, like the Delta or places where ‘flash floods’ occur, the concerns raised by extreme weather are much higher than elsewhere, and the awareness about possible impacts of climate variability and climate change is also considerably higher.
Concerning the meta-analysis of this methodology, we concluded that 3D participatory modelling is a valuable technique because ‘it gives voice to the people’. On a more theoretical basis, giving voice to the people is desirable for several reasons. First, because it will tap into local knowledge and experience. The importance of resilience when faced with the risk of flooding has already been mentioned. But also, traditional ways of dealing with issues like clean drinking water (use of crystals or nuts) is interesting to investigate further. Second, it enlarges the ‘license to operate’ of those responsible for future developments along the Ayeyarwady. People tend to be more supportive of developments if they understand the issues and solutions, and ‘see the bigger picture’. Especially when they experience that their points of view and interests are taken seriously. Thirdly, because the database will form the basis for professional stakeholder management, which is a requirement for most donors and financial institutes.