Poisoned Waters (Inle Lake, Shan State)

The Irrawaddy
(print cover story)
By Kyi Wai/Inle Lake, Shan State
September 1, 2007

Chemical pollution and silt are killing Burma’s beautiful Inle Lake

Lay Phoo heads for home at the end of a long day’s fishing in the murky waters of Burma’s Inle Lake, with less than two kilograms of fish in the bottom of his boat. It’s a meager catch, yet Lay Phoo is satisfied—the day before, he caught nothing at all.

Lay Phoo has been fishing these waters for more than 50 years. He was a boy of 11 when he first learned to row a boat out into the lake, standing at the stern and using one leg to manipulate the oar, as generations of fishermen had been doing before him—a favorite motif of Inle Lake postcards and tourism brochures. The idyllic picture of the famous “one-legged oarsmen” trawling the placid waters of the lake is deceptive, however.

Inle Lake, one of the country’s major tourist attractions, is terminally ill and its fishermen have fallen on bad times. The lake’s surface is shrinking dramatically. As its surface inexorably drops, the pollution of its water rises. The fish are dying and entire species are threatened with extinction.

Lakeside communities that once thrived on fishing are turning to cultivation, expanding the area of the deceptively picturesque floating gardens lining its shores, pushing up yields with expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides—and inevitably adding to the pollution. “It’s a vicious cycle,” said a frustrated local official.

Fishermen like Lay Phoo find themselves trapped in this circle, unable to afford either the nets that might increase the size of their catch or the land to cultivate and earn the extra money they need to survive. Meanwhile, fishing as his ancestors did, with a simple bamboo basket from his flat-bottomed boat, he watches the source of his meager income slowly and literally dry up.

Inle Lake, Burma’s second largest stretch of inland water, has shrunk in size by more than one-third in the past 65 years, from 69 square km to just over 46 square km, according to a report published this year by the University of Tokyo’s Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science.

Drawing on local knowledge, the three authors of the research paper said that in the past 100 to 200 years “the length of the lake has reportedly declined from roughly 58 km to 18 km and its maximum width has decreased from 13 km to 6.5 km.”

A 1968 report by Rangoon environmentalist Khin Thant said the average depth of the lake was then 7 feet—today, the depth varies between 9 feet and just 18 inches.

Nine species of fish found nowhere else in the world once swam in the then relatively unpolluted waters of Inle Lake. In her 1968 survey, Khin Thant identified just one of them, a variety of carp, among the 23 species of fish she listed. A research paper submitted to Rangoon
University in 2002 reported that even that rare species had now become extinct. Local fishermen suspect several other species have also died out.

Fifteen years ago, Tun Win, 57, could catch enough fish in just a half day on the lake to support his family. Today, he has to spend the whole day on the lake to bring home a third of the former catch.

Many fishermen with enough money to buy land are growing tomatoes to ensure a livelihood, adding to the pollution—which in turn kills the fish and contributes to the loss of surface water.

Tomato-growing used to be seasonal in the Inle Lake area. “Now an increasing number of farmers are growing tomatoes all year round,” said one market gardener, Khin Win.

Around 40 long boats loaded with tomatoes make the run daily across the lake to the market town of Nyaung Shwe, where the produce is loaded onto trucks and taken to Rangoon and Mandalay.

Competition and the need to boost crop yields forces market gardeners to use ever more fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides. one tomato grower with a large plot in the lakeside village of Lin Kin said he’d like to avoid using chemical fertilizers, which cost him more than 500,000 kyat (US $400) a year—“But I’d end up with lower yields.”

The farmer’s father had once managed with organic fertilizer, but the yields of his land had now been doubled by his son’s use of chemicals.

The source of the chemical fertilizers and pesticides is also a cause of worry to the farming communities that line the banks of the lake. It’s feared that products banned in other countries are being dumped in Burma, according to an academic working with an environmental
organization in Rangoon.

The effect of the chemicals on the water of Inle Lake has yet to be fully documented, but there is stark evidence that the health of people living on its banks is suffering. Of the 64 villages in the area of the lake, only five receive piped water from Nyaung Wun reservoir. The other 59 draw their water from the lake, purifying it as best they can—usually simply by boiling. A few, wealthier homeowners have private wells.

A 43-year-old resident of Kay Lar village said his 8-year-old son died two years ago after drinking water from the lake and falling sick. A rural clinic official said dysentery, hepatitis and kidney ailments are common in the region.

Deforestation around the lake has increased the amount of silt in its depths, further adding to the pollution and lowering water levels. A retired engineer who used to work for the Taunggyi municipality said the lake’s sedimentation rate had doubled in recent years. “The government tries, but it can’t control the sedimentation,” he said. “The lake can’t survive if it goes on like this.”

Tourism is another factor in the lake’s demise. Six hotels and resorts sit on the edge of the lake, and there are plans for more construction to cater to the increasing numbers of tourists.

Inle Lake still commands a prominent place on every tourist itinerary, but some tourist operators are wondering how much longer they can safely push its idyllic image.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work.