Friday, August 18, 2017

Water experts: Myanmar needs to prepare for climate change

With the threat of climate change and population growth, Myanmar – a nation rich in water resources – has to put in place proper measures to ensure water security for the future, experts said.

A farmer ploughing a rice filed. Water security is critcal for the agriculture sector which remains a pillar of Myanmar’s economy. Photo - AFPA farmer ploughing a rice filed. Water security is critcal for the agriculture sector which remains a pillar of Myanmar’s economy. Photo - AFP

National University of Singapore’s Assistant Professor Dr Winston Chow, who has been studying the urban vulnerabilities of climate change, said there are challenges for the water sector in the region due to climate change.

In the medium and long term, he said there would be increases in air temperature and ocean heat, and very variable rainfall, especially in Southeast Asia.

“We may experience more floods, droughts and typhoons in the future, compared to the present.

“The El Nino phenomenon – on top of climate change – can also make droughts worse.

“The rising sea level is another factor that can cause saltwater intrusion in groundwater sources and fresh water,” he told The Myanmar Times.

According to the ‘Climate change 2013: The Physical Science Basic’ report, which contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, temperatures across the Southeast Asian region had gone up at a rate of 0.14°C to 0.20°C per decade since the 1960s, coupled with a rising number of hot days and warm nights, and a decline in cooler weather.

A positive trend in the occurrence of heavy and light rain events, and a negative trend in moderate rain events have been observed. It is projected that warming is very likely to continue with substantial sub-regional variations.

Myanmar is no stranger to bad weather conditions. For the last 30 years, climate change has brought the country extreme weather conditions that caused floods, droughts and higher temperatures.

The country also faces problems like water shortages, which is common in some parts of Myanmar especially the central areas, during summer. When El Nino hit in 2010 and 2015, the water shortage problem was even more severe.

Other water issues are pollution and lack of safe drinking water.

Chow said in light of these climate change challenges, policymakers must make the right decisions to adapt.

“Each city has different climate change impacts that they have to deal with, and policymakers have to decide what to do accordingly,” he said.

He said countries should have water security plans and also resources and capacity to implement the plans.

“The key to dealing with climate change at the ASEAN level is that cities have to be proactive in taking the lead.

“It is always cheaper to prepare for something first than dealing with its aftermath,” he said.

Myanmar must also consider its growing population. According the Yangon City Development Committee’s (YCDC) population forecast, Yangon that has over 5.2 million people in 2014 will have 10 million residents in 2040. The demand for water in the city will increase from 156 million gallons in 2014 to 525 million gallons in 2040.

YCDC engineering department (water and sanitation) assistant engineer U Zaw Win Aung said 201 million gallons of water was supplied to Yangon, but only about 40 percent covered demand and the rest was lost as non-revenue water.

“We are trying to reduce the non-revenue water percentage to 15pc by 2040. This involves many challenges.

“To do it, we have to fix the water pipeline, set up a systematic pipeline network and increase public awareness on not wasting fresh water,” he said during a water-related event in Yangon late last year.

According to YCDC, only 1.8 million people have access to piped water in 2013. The authority is planning to increase pipe water access to 2.55 million next year.

It is also planning to distribute water from the YCDC pipeline system to 7.8 million Yangon residents in 2040 and meet 80 percent of the city’s water demand by then.

U Zaw Win Aung said YCDC has been developing more water supply projects to meet the future water demand and to improve the water distribution time, water pressure and pipe water quality.

Myanmar Engineering Society’s water resources technical division chairman U Hla Baw said only 5pc of the country’s water wealth of 56 cubic kilometres was usable through present strategies, and financial and technological capabilities.

He said 91 percent of Myanmar’s water allocation now went to the agriculture sector, and only 6pc and 3pc were channeled for domestic and industrial use.

He also said the national water demand for domestic and industrial use would increase in the future.

To develop the country’s water resources management, U Hla Baw said there must be monitoring, assessment and data collection systems in places, as well as regulations for water utilisation.

Related development projects and increased cooperation with international organisations for technical and financial assistance were also necessary, he said.

He added that there must also be improvements in the water sector’s human capital and higher public awareness on the impacts of water utilisation.

Meanwhile, greater awareness is also needed to protect Myanmar’s water sources from contamination as the country faces growing water demand and water security concerns.

Israeli water contamination prevention regulator Hezi Bilik said contamination was destructive to the environment, plants, and both human and animal populations, and stressed that prevention was better and cheaper than cure.

“So we tried reducing contamination as much as we can. We have almost stopped using contaminators such as pesticides that penetrate into ground water,” he said of his country’s experience.

“This is a good investment. When soil or water sources are damaged, you can’t use them without first cleansing the water. You will need to build new supply systems or water purifying systems that can cost a lot.

“I would say it is always better to prevent contamination than to remove contaminants from the water. It is economically cheaper to prevent pollution than to get rid of it,” he told The Myanmar Times.

To safeguard water quality, Bilik said there were control devices that detected contamination and the authorities could penalise people and businesses that pollute the water.

Apart from good legislation, he said public education would also help keep water sources clean.

He also said cleaning up Myanmar’s water sources and increasing the people’s access to pipe or tap water could help cut down waste management and save money.

“As far as I know, people in Myanmar usually don’t drink tap water. Imagine everyone drinking bottled water. You will have 50 million plastic bottles to dispose of.

“If you improve your water quality, make your tap water drinkable, you can prevent a lot of pollution,” he said, adding that tap water was also much cheaper than bottled water.

“I am sure it is cheaper to clean the water to meet drinking standards than consuming bottled water, which is expensive and causes pollution,” he said.

Bilik also said continuous cleansing of surface water had positive effects on the people, as what had happened in Israel over the last 10 to 15 years when the country began cleaning up its water sources.

“Before we cleaned our rivers, nobody could swim there or row boats. After we cleaned them a step at a time, people started to come back and use the area to enjoy nature,” he said.

Chow also suggested some “very simple” and natural ways to conserve water resources and the ecosystem.
He said the coastline should just be left alone.

“There are natural solutions (to prevent salt water intrusion and storm surge). Leave the ecosystem alone at the coast line.

“Your coastline is covered with mangrove trees, and it is a fantastic, wonderful ecosystem that can deal with impact of climate change,” he said.