The new government is making all the right noises, but it remains to be seen if and how it can ensure water resources are sustainably prioritised, say water experts.
At a three-day conference bringing together international experts in Yangon starting on May 24, participants noted the data gap needs to be closed before strategies can be drafted.
“We do not having enough data, nor reliable data, and sometimes [there is no] data at all,” said Daw Ni Ni Thein, secretary of the Myanmar Water think tank.
Myanmar faces no shortage of water-related challenges – from seasonal droughts, sanitation issues and cylones – but fresh efforts to address the problems are significantly hampered by a legacy of mismanagement.
“The previous projects [under the former government] happened in an ad hoc manner and were not cohesive, well-planned or holistic,” Daw Ni Ni Thein added.
In the last days of former president U Thein Sein’s reign, the National Water Resources Committee was disbanded and has yet to be replaced.
This means there is no long-term plan for water security in Myanmar.
“It would be a grave mistake to consider water as just another aspect of the environment,” said Daw Ni Ni Thein.
The agricultural sector, which employs more than half of the country’s labour force, accounts for 91 percent of the total water usage. With no systematic water allocation or accounting structure, every year only 5pc of residents in the dry zone have adequate water in the rainy season.
The 2014 census showed that almost 30pc of the population lacks access to clean water, and the sector lacks policies or targets to improve the situation, according to the Global Water Partnership (GWP), an international coalition.
As one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change and natural disasters, Myanmar is in dire need of water management planning.
In 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed at least 38,000 people, and in 2015, Cyclone Komen hit 12 states, causing severe flooding, displacing 4.6
million people and inflicting K6 billion in damages.
Hydroelectric dams approved by the previous administration, add further threats to the ecosystem and flow of the Ayeyarwady River, and could cripple Myanmar’s main rice basket – the Ayeyarwady delta.
In an attempt to find solutions, GWP gathered senior-level water experts, UN staff and government officials at round-table discussions in Yangon.
They linked water to several of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals put forward by the UN in 2015 and agreed to by the government, including food security, gender equality, poverty, climate action, and access to clean water and sanitation.
The fact that the National League for Democracy-led government has engaged with the UN and development partners on water management was viewed by many as a step in the right direction.
“I think the most important detail is that the new government is willing to host such a meeting, one where you listen to all the parties before deciding what you are going to do,” said Alice Bouman, chair of the Global Water Partnership.
Watt Botkosal, chair of GWP Southeast Asia, explained to The Myanmar Times how Myanmar could learn from its neighbour, Cambodia, in making water a priority.
“We have an integrated master plan for water security because water affects everything, life, people, the economy and the environment,” he said.
Myanmar representatives at the conference – including Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein – admitted they do not have a master plan on water security yet because there isn’t enough information to create one.
But starting from scratch on water management policies leaves room for Myanmar to make the right choices.
“Many governments have made expensive mistakes. They do things, sometimes with the best of intentions, according to the state-of-the-art knowledge that they have at the time,” Ms Bouman said.
“For Myanmar we are saying, ‘Let us not run before we can walk, but first find out where we have to intervene and what we have to do.’”
The Department of Meteorology and Hydrology is already preparing a new hydro-informatics centre in Yangon which will collate all the available information.
For Yangon, Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein will sign off on a new water system on May 29 to improve the drain system.
“Myanmar is very rich in water resources, but all people have a responsibility to maintain them,” he said.
“We are working very hard to solve the problems of flooding, distribution of drinking water, water transportation, food hygiene foods, public health and electricity shortages in Yangon,” U Phyo Min Thein said. “These problems are due to the unsystematic plans of the former directors of the respective sectors. The issues are not limited to only Yangon City,” he said.
While Myanmar continues to face significant obstacles in improving water security and management, it still lacks a successor to the NWRC, conference attendees were optimistic for the future. Just over 50 days into the new government’s tenure, baby steps are being made.
Additional reporting by Ei Ei Thu