Myanmar’s junta-built dams are taking a toll on river life
By May Thingyan Hein
Maung Nyo, a fisherman from Rwarma village 40km north of Yangon, can no longer rely on the Myit Makha River for his livelihood.
“We can’t feed our families because we never catch enough fish nowadays. Some are even finding other jobs,” he said. “I don’t want to change my work because all my ancestors were fishermen, but my business is in ruins.”
Five years ago, Maung Nyo used to catch five to eight kilograms of fish daily during the rainy season, but that figure has decreased to between 0.7 and one kilogram per day. “I have no idea why the number of fish in the river has fallen,” he said.
The reduced haul has also affected the fish processing factories that once thrived on the river’s bountiful produce. “Sheatfish, bream and other kinds of rare fish were found in the river about 20 years ago. Since around 2006, we haven’t seen any of them except very rarely,” said one processor based in Tidegyi.
The Myit Makha River originates in Pyay province and stretches about 400km to the Yangon region. The military junta that ruled between 1988 and 2010 built ten dams on the river, according to Irrigation and Agriculture Ministry figures. The dams were built with little attention to the possible impact on fisheries, environmentalists have said.
“In building dams, bio-engineering technologies should be used so as not to devastate the ecosystem of the area and not to destroy the species of fish in the river,” activist Sein Sein Thein said. “Right now there are at least ten dams on the Myit Makha River and they were not constructed systematically. That is the reason for the scarcity of fish in the river.”
Sein Sein Thein, a trained zoologist, has been researching the environmental damage done by dams on the river since 2005. Residents living along its upper reaches said the dams do not supply enough water for irrigation during dry seasons. Bank erosion and floods are common during the rainy season and some villagers have resorted to eating snakes due to the reduced catches of fish, Sein Sein Thein found.
“A river is a precious natural resource. A dying river is very costly for the community,” she said. “River systems should never be destroyed.”
There are four main rivers in Myanmar, of which the Irrawaddy is the longest, flowing from the northernmost state of Kachin to the Andaman Sea. Under the former regime, hundreds of bridges, dams and water gates were constructed on the rivers and their tributaries, to improve the livelihoods of farmers, which still account for about 75% of the population.
“We can’t be blamed for destroying the rivers,” said one government engineer. “The dams were built to fulfil the needs of agricultural lands. Thanks to the dams, we can now grow crops even in the dry seasons.”
Blocked from international aid and assistance from development agencies for the past two decades because of sanctions, few of the dam projects conducted environmental impact studies.
The current government has begun to show greater concern for the environmental impact of big dams. In October 2011, President Thein Sein announced the postponement of the $3.5-billion Myitzone dam, to be built by a Chinese company on the Irrawaddy in Kachin State.
The delayed project may save the Irrawaddy – seen as a lifeline for millions of farmers and fishermen – but the Myit Makha River has not been as fortunate.
“The river is dying,” said one villager in Kahmom on the banks of the Myit Makha, who asked to remain anonymous.
“I think it started dying ten years ago. It barely flows now. In Innma, you can’t even find the river. In some places, the water is no more than ankle deep. Now people have lost their jobs, and soon we will also have trouble getting daily water.”