At Inle Lake, the tension beneath the surface

Myanmar information search service

In January, at an event bringing together about 50 youth from Inle and Yangon, some Yangon youth carried a poster showing a typical Inle scene: a fisherman standing on his long wooden boat, with a conical net in the water and the Shan mountains visible in the background.

The picture wasn’t so different from many other images of Inle. Located in southern Shan State, the lake is known for its natural beauty and, especially, for the unique relationship between those who live there and the 116-square-kilometre lake. Images like this – emphasising the grace of the men and women who work and live on the water – are the area’s calling card, featuring in nearly every travel guide, tourism write-up and in-flight magazine article published about Myanmar. Visitors from all over the world treat Inle as a must-see Myanmar location, part of a well-travelled loop taking in Shwedagon Pagoda, Mandalay’s royal palace and Bagan’s ancient ruins. Like the birds that nest in the area, travellers flock to the area for its unspoiled environment, where ecosystem and economy are balanced as neatly as a leg-rower balances on a boat.

For the local contingent, however, the image on the poster told a different story. Ko Win Zaw Oo, leader of a civil society group called Thu Mitta, was one of 50 youth gathering at the Ahtet Laeti Monastery. The natural splendour of the fisherman, the lake and the mountains did not awe him, for he has lived at Inle all his life. What he saw instead were the areas in the background of the picture where once-green mountains had been laid bare, the once-dense forest cut and carted away for firewood.

“I feel sad about the poster you’re carrying,” he said, pointing to the sign. For him, the lack of trees on the mountains was a sign of environmental degradation, and the picture – for some idyllic – of the fisherman emphasised how Inle Lake’s traditional custodians – the Intha – still live in poverty.

“And how could we solve this?” he asked. “Are we happy as fishermen? Why have we remained constantly in a state of poverty? This is not a good sign. It shows an alarming situation for the livelihood of the Intha.”

Ko Win Zaw Oo was expressing a sentiment common among those in the area. For all Inle Lake has been thrust into the tourism spotlight, the attention does not seem to have done much good for either of its main draws. However scenic their lives may appear, the Intha are still dependent on ancient practices to scrape out a meager living. Meanwhile, the once-pristine environment, now damaged by visitors and local mismanagement alike, has become a polluted, shrinking pool, posing a threat to both people and wildlife.

Experts say commercial floating farms, which grow vegetables on the so-called “floating islands” of Inle Lake, are the main culprits due to their excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Small-scale farmers also play a role in polluting, though experts caution it is best not to condemn their work but rather to try to persuade them of the need to look after the environment through more careful cultivation. And locals point out that tourism, however many jobs it brings to their area, damages the lake as well.

Whoever is responsible, the science bears out Ko Win Zaw Oo’s worries. Pesticides from agriculture, chemical dyes from textile processing, excess siltation from watershed erosion, the dumping of garbage and waste – any of these can pose a threat to an ecosystem. In combination, as at Inle, they wreak havoc.

One measurement of the health of a body of water is its pH value. Living things flourish in waters measuring around 7, but will struggle or die in water which is more acidic (below 7), or more alkaline or caustic (above 7). The more the needle sways, in other words, the worse the news for biodiversity.

A report released by the Department of Fisheries in February 2012 shows less-than-picture-postcard results: pH values of 9.6 in the central lake; 8.4 in Kaela to the west; 9.1 in Maing Thoak to the northeast; 8.9 in Nang Pan and 9.3 in Inn Paw Khon to the south; 9.0 by the Paung Daw Oo Pagoda.

U Mg Mg Pyone, secretary of the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA), said levels like this mean the water is not safe for consumption.

“What we proved by monitoring pH levels from 15 different sites is that in some places the water is not drinkable because of too much chemical use nearby,” he said.

Fish and vegetables – especially the area’s staple crop, tomatoes – showed traces of the same poisonous chemicals found in the water, U Mg Mg Pyone said. And some of these toxins are working their way even further up the food chain, with blood samples from residents showing traces as well.

There are two emergent threats to the rich verdant ecology and vibrant biodiversity around the Inle Lake area. One is deterioration of water quality – as shown in the high pH levels. The other is depletion of water area. The lake as residents know it seems to be disappearing before their eyes.

Water levels during the peak of the hot season, in March and April, were significantly down this year, with just 30 centimetres (1 foot) at the jetty at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. Transportation was disrupted and some villages were cut off entirely. While a similar drop in water levels occurred in 2010, when much of Myanmar was affected by drought, residents say the weather is not the only factor. They also blame the expansion of rice cultivation beside the lake and the continuous building of hotels to cater to the tourist boom.

Source: Myanmar Times

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