Photo: NattapolStudio/Shutterstock

Notes From the Edge of an Environmental Crisis: Myanmar's Lake Inle in Peril

Myanmar Sustainability
by Mferrill Jan 31, 2013
This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

Than Htun carefully lowered his conical myaw htoung fishing net into the water. Crouched barefoot at the front of his small wooden boat, he shifted his weight and adjusted his straw hat to better shade his face. With the sun already curving high overhead and only two fish at the bottom of his boat, it promised to be a long day on Myanmar’s Inle Lake.

In our boat floating alongside, Song tossed me an umbrella, saying, “Better get comfortable.” He popped a rolled leaf of tobacco and betel nut into his mouth. “It’s the same routine, every day,” he said from under the shade of his green parasol, “a life full of waiting.”

Song and I had met a few days earlier in the town of Nyaung Shwe at the edge of Inle Lake. He used to be a fisherman but had traded in his net and boat a few years back for a larger boat with a motor, and a more lucrative job as a tour boat driver. He had introduced me to Than Htun, who in turn had agreed to give me some insight into the fishing life that Song had left behind.

A ten-hour bus ride north of Myanmar’s largest city and former capital of Yangon, Inle Lake is the second largest in the country, following Indawgyi Lake in the conflict-ridden Kachin State. Over the last few decades, Inle has become a popular stopover for tourists wanting a glimpse into the culture of Myanmar and the life of the Intha fishermen. One of many ethnic groups in Shan State, the Intha people have been fishing on the lake for generations, using the same traditional conical myaw htoung nets, wooden boats, and unique leg-rowing technique as their predecessors. The latest Lonely Planet guidebook features an Inle Lake fisherman on the front cover, and the first ATM card ever to be used locally in Myanmar (released in 2012) displays an Intha fisherman prominently on one side.

I had come to Inle with a mission to uncover the reality of life on a lake I’d heard might be verging on an environmental disaster, but what I encountered was so aesthetically flawless I began to doubt my sources. Placid water reflected the green slopes of the surrounding hills with perfect clarity, and the only sounds on the lake were the faraway hum of insects and the gentle ripple of water against the sides of the boats. The cloudless blue of the sky mirrored on the surface of the lake was disrupted only by the small fishermen’s boats scattered across its length.

These fishermen know better than anyone that an ominous uncertainty lurks just below the surface. Over the last few decades, the fish have been disappearing. It’s a fact that is changing the character of the lake itself and the life of the Intha people forever — and up until recently, no one knew the cause.

* * *
A few hours later, when he was satisfied with his catch for the afternoon, Than Htun turned his boat and motioned for us to follow. Song offered to tug Than Htun’s paddleboat behind our faster motorboat, and half an hour’s ride across the lake with Than Htun deftly balanced at his helm while tightly gripping the edge of ours led us to what seemed a moving sea of plants stretched in long lines across the surface of the water.

Nearing one plot of lush greenery, Than Htun leaned far out of his boat and plucked a leaf from a plant, sniffed it, and passed it to me. The fresh, pungent smell of something familiar and faintly reminiscent of home tickled my nose.

“Tomatoes,” Song told me from the back of the boat, “the whole garden.”

There they were: the unassuming villains of the story. The gardens seemed to extend all the way to the forested hills lining the edge of the lake. As Than Htun would explain, half of the year was mainly dedicated to fishing, while the other half (during winter when the fish became harder to find) was split between fishing and tending tomatoes.

Held up by a base of floating lake plants, and fertilized regularly with dead plant material dug up from the bottom of the lake, the tomato plants had been farmed this way for generations without consequence. But like so many harmless activities that become harmful with an increase in scale, this agriculture emerged as a threat as the human population multiplied and the floating plots came to cover a greater and greater percentage of the lake’s surface.

The expansion of the tomato plots changed the character of the lake so significantly that biologists feared a drastic change in the ecosystem. When pesticides became widely available, the lake faced an even more severe threat. In any body of water located near human activities, there is the risk of pollutant runoff from the contaminated land, but the floating gardens presented a unique environmental dilemma. It wasn’t runoff; there was no true land for the pesticides to run off of. On Inle Lake, the pesticides were sprayed directly onto the surface of the water in unregulated amounts.

The consequences were evident and proved devastating for both the lake ecosystem and the fishing families dependent upon it. In the late ’90s, the Nga Phaing (a golden-colored bony fish of cultural importance and a staple food for people living on the lake) all but disappeared, and fishermen were hard-pressed to catch enough fish to make a living. Other, hardier fish that were able to withstand the rising level of chemicals in the water were still available, but these were also on the decline and sold for a cheaper price than the tastier Nga Phaing. Finally, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) introduced tilapia to the lake for the sake of the fishermen’s livelihoods and the ecological balance.

Although the tilapia filled the ecological gap that the disappearance of the Nga Phaing had left, Than Htun explained that the fish was less flavorful and therefore less valuable in the markets. Aside from the occasional appearance of a Nga Phaing at Inle Lake during the rainy season, it’s now only found in abundance in two other locations in the world, both in Myanmar.

Despite its severe effects, pesticide use has continued with ferocity for many years. Than Htun shrugged when I asked him what he thought of the dangers of pesticide use. “The water cleans itself,” he replied, and turned back to his work raking muck from the bottom of the lake onto the base of his plants. “We spray the pesticides on the plants because we have to. We know the chemicals are strong, but the lake is so big that the pesticides can’t possibly have such a great effect.”

I found it hard to believe that he was completely unaware of the relationship between pesticide use and the vanishing fish population, so later I asked what he thought had been the cause of their disappearance. He was silent for a long time. “I have heard that the chemicals are bad for the fish,” he answered quietly, “but what else can we do? I have no other way to make money for my family. Without the pesticides, there would be fewer tomatoes to sell.”

His account confirmed what I heard from others. Over the years, most people living around the lake began to note the correlation between pesticide use and the disappearance of the fish, but without an economically viable alternative, most farmers turned a blind eye to what they believed they could not change. Although some farmers like Than Htun tried to keep their pesticide use to a minimum, after the fish started to disappear fishermen felt an even greater necessity to find another source of income, and many consequently became tomato farmers on a larger scale. Than Htun was one of them.

“My father was a fisherman, so I fish sometimes, but I make most of my money from the tomato gardens now,” he explained. Between increased pressure on farming and the lack of pesticide regulation, it’s no surprise that chemical levels in the lake have not subsided since the Nga Phaing disappeared.

* * *
While it’s tempting to simplify the issue on Inle Lake to problematic pesticides, the causes of its long-term environmental degradation are far more complicated.

The hills surrounding the lake, once thickly forested, are spotted with farm plots where the land has been cleared for firewood and agricultural use, a practice that strips the land of the branching coarse-root architecture that once held it together. The result is the loosening of soil that in turn is washed into the lake by the rain. Over the past two decades, the lake has undergone severe sedimentation, and the water’s depth at the middle has decreased from approximately 17 feet to 10.

The people living on the lake and the hotels being built on its banks are also contributing to degradation; household and hotel wastes are poured into the water every day. U Ko Zaw, the manager of a new luxury hotel overlooking the dock in Nyaung Shwe, began our interview with an elaborate description of the process of using the toilet at his grandfather’s old house on the lake.

“If you stood up in the toilet room, anyone who walked by could see you! You had to be like this.” He crouched down, comically feigning nervous glances over his shoulder. “That was 30 years ago, I was 6 or 7. Even now, many fishing homes have toilets like that. Sometimes you can fall down the hole…careful! But I never did, I was always cautious.”

U Ko Zaw explained that raw sewage was one of the primary sources of pollution in the lake, but that now even the traditional type of drop toilet he’d used as a child could be outfitted with a septic tank below it in which bacteria process the waste and keep the water clean. Though septic tanks are being provided for free by various NGOs, there are still many people who don’t have access to them or aren’t yet aware of their importance.

It’s a universal story: So many times, it’s simply people’s ignorance of the gravity of the situation in their backyard that leads to severe environmental degradation. And often, people who feel they have no other options suffer from the environmental destruction and related health consequences of their own harmful practices.

In the case of Inle Lake, the situation could become especially serious because of the extent to which people living on the lake depend on it for their livelihood. For the Intha, even the simple tasks of cooking and bathing involve the use of unpurified lake water. If this water is contaminated, their own health could be at as much risk as that of the fish population they depend on.

* * *
After Than Htun finished tending to his tomato garden, he invited us back to his stilted bamboo house for tea. We crossed the lake once more, turning off the motor and following closely behind Than Htun after we reached the edge of the lake, until he and his boat vanished into a waving wall of tall yellow grass, where we soon followed. Paddling rhythmically between the reeds closing in on either side of the narrow boat, he led us down a long, circuitous channel until we reached a clearing where a village came into view, hovering precariously above the water on spindly bamboo stilts. Than Htun later explained that each of the small stilted houses was rebuilt at least once every 15 years, sometimes more, depending on whether the mud the stilts were built into was too loose and the house began to tilt to one side. When Than Htun’s house started to collapse last year, all of the men in the village came and spent a day replacing the rotting stilts and crossbeams, as per local tradition, while his mother and sister cooked rice for them to share afterwards.

Outside each home in the floating village of Myaung Wah Kyi, fishing nets lay propped against the walls and colorful lines of clothing hung on porches or between posts across the water. A small wooden boat or two bobbed calmly at each front door.

When we came in sight of his house, Than Htun’s three young nieces waved excitedly from their bamboo porch, clambering effortlessly into their own boat to meet us halfway. They had just come home from school, Than Htun told us. He docked his boat by the corner of his house and secured it to a pole by the door with an orange cord before climbing out to help us moor the motorboat. A bamboo ramp led us to the main room of the house, where Than Htun’s mother, Daw Hla Win, beckoned for Song and me to sit on colorful plastic mats on the floor. She pushed cups of steaming hot tea and the typical accompanying bowl of sunflower seeds in front of us and watched expectantly as we sipped.

The room was dim, lit only by the late-afternoon light slanting in through small cracks in the woven walls. My eyes struggled to adjust after the blaring sun on the open lake. In the shadows I made out a thin figure stretched across a mat in the corner of the room. Than Htun’s father, U Lin Maw, was sick, Than Htun explained, so he shared this home with his parents to help his mother care for his father.

U Lin Maw sat up to take a cup of tea from his wife, and I noticed that his blue-veined arms were covered in long fading lines of what I thought might be Burmese writing. In fact, Daw Hla Win explained, it was not truly Burmese; these were Inn Kwat tattoos, inscribed in the Buddhist written language. The tattoos were a tradition among many people in Myanmar in U Lin Maw’s parents’ time, and they had tattooed him according to custom as a protection against nats, powerful spirits that account for a seemingly endless list of deeply held Burmese beliefs and superstitions.

U Lin Maw pulled down the front of his shirt to reveal more of the writing curving across the hollowed-out spaces around his collarbones. I had seen the tools used for such ceremonial tattoos in the market; a long, golden spear-like wand, dipped in dark gray ink mixed with ceremonial herbs, was used to carve each letter into the recipient’s skin. The resulting bleeding wounds would burn unbearably for days, and consequently the more tattoos a man had, the braver and more pious he was believed to be. Despite his current ailing state, I could tell that Than Htun’s father must have been an exceedingly brave young man, or a very religious one.

Nowadays, the tattoos are mostly used to impress women. At his mother’s amused and relentless urging, Than Htun shyly pulled the cuff of his shirtsleeve up to reveal a small line of script on his wrist that he admitted to having put there for that very purpose.

The decoration of the room told the same story of religious dedication as U Lin Maw’s tattoos had. At the front of the otherwise mostly colorless living room, an ornate golden Buddhist altar full of dried flowers held a prominent place above a small black-and-white television set. U Lin Maw’s eyes watered as he explained to me that in Buddhist practice, one is never supposed to harm another living being, but that he and his sons had been forced by their economic situation to take others’ lives as a living. It took me a stunned moment to realize he was referring to the fish. In fact, more fish were likely being killed by the pesticides they used in tomato farming, but U Lin Maw clearly felt unsettled by the meager daily catch of fish that he and his sons were able to procure.

U Lin Maw confessed with masked embarrassment that he had not been able to pay for his sons or daughter to go to school past the third grade, although they had all been eager to attend. Than Htun nodded good-humoredly and added that he had started fishing on his own when he was 15 years old. In the silence that followed, I sensed a deeper regret. Than Htun and his family were startlingly cheerful and dismissive about the struggles I knew were profoundly important to them. In the few months I’d spent in Myanmar, I had observed that people were willing to expose their hardship on the surface, but rarely displayed any deeper discontent.

“But we want my granddaughters’ lives to be different,” U Lin Maw explained. “Now we save all of our money for their education. We want them to go to high school and learn much more than we did.”

The three girls sat in the corner and scribbled industriously in their school notebooks, seemingly ignoring the conversation going on in the middle of the room. The girls appeared to be genuinely happy. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up; two of them wanted to be teachers, and the eldest a model. Eight-year-old Cherry Oo smiled impishly and gave me her best pose. Her grandmother jumped in, laughing. “They’re going to be academics,” she assured me, waving her granddaughters back to their homework.

* * *
Earlier in the week I had paid a visit to U Win Myint, Myanmar’s minister of Intha affairs. A highly dignified and warm-mannered man, he welcomed my questions and sat me down in his surprisingly humble Nyaung Shwe office with a hot cup of tea, surrounded by posters of Intha leg-rowing competitions and religious festivals on the lake. According to U Win Myint, various NGOs’ environmental projects are currently undergoing the first stages of development, and there is much international interest in the lake’s survival due to its heavy role in tourism in the country, but the ultimate solution to the ecological plight of Inle Lake might be at home.

Education on the lake is improving, and the knowledge that children are gaining in school could be the key to ensuring the ecological survival of Inle Lake. “It is one thing for us to work on environmental projects. It is another to help people to understand the reasoning behind them so that they can help the projects succeed. But the good thing is that people want the education, and they are making the effort to send their children to school now.”

Of course, people still need a viable livelihood. U Win Myint’s vision for the future is to shift the main economic resource of the lake from tomato farming to tourism as more and more visitors flock to the region. Education would help prepare children for a future in tourism-related jobs.

In Than Htun’s home, between noisily cracking open the shells of sunflower seeds, Song explained to Than Htun’s family and me that he makes more money as a boat driver than he ever made as a fisherman, and the work is easier. “You just have to know how to speak English, and you have to know your way around the lake.” He laughed. “That part is easy for a former fisherman.”

Unfortunately (it was beginning to seem to me that every economically viable option must have a serious environmental drawback), tourism itself contributes heavily to the pollution of the lake by heightening demand for motor-operated boats that spill fuel into the water. This is especially problematic in the docking area near the town of Nyaung Shwe, where villagers bathe daily in the contaminated water. As the country’s political situation continues to allow more opportunities for tourism, this could pose yet another serious threat. An increase in tourism could, however, potentially do more good than harm to the health of the lake if the development of the industry is handled carefully.

In the comfortable lobby of his hotel, U Ko Zaw explained that tourism might help in the preservation of the lake because of the environmental orientation of the lake tours themselves. Many tourism companies are using the publicity they receive to educate the greater public about the environmental condition of the lake and what they can do to improve it, and wealthy tourists have often been known to donate money to local projects after learning about them on their tours.

One tourism company collaborated with the Inle Youth Organization to put up large billboards that now welcome everyone passing from the Nyaung Shwe channel into the open water with a message in Burmese and English: “Please use agrochemicals and fertilizers sensibly to preserve your precious environment and culture.” While not all those passing by the billboards are literate, this public call for awareness represents a step in the right direction.

Local youth, encouraged by their parents and the Ministry of Education to take their studies seriously, are particularly knowledgeable about the state of the lake and are taking on an important role in promoting its protection.

“We’re late but not too late yet,” said U Ko Zaw.

But as with any complex ecological dilemma involving human activities, there is no single easy solution. Many larger questions also remain unanswered, such as whether the recent opening of the country might increase positive attention to Myanmar’s many unique ecosystems in the coming years, or whether it will result in rapid development and accelerated environmental degradation.

* * *
Back at the fishing village, night was falling. Than Htun’s mother fried thick chunks of fresh fish over an open fire and brought in a steaming plate for us all to share. The hot oil burned my hands as I picked out the bones and nibbled at a piece of fish. It was salty and mild, and especially satisfying after a long day on the lake. Than Htun waved away a big black-and-white cat that periodically snuck toward the communal plate on the floor. The girls set aside their study books and crept into our circle in the center of the room, munching happily and picking out bones much more adeptly than I had managed.

When the house grew dark, someone flicked on a battery-powered light bulb hanging from a cord overhead, and small moths threw flitting shadows on the bare wooden floor. The adults reclined against the walls and puffed on leaf-wrapped cigars made from lake plants in a nearby shop. The smell of tobacco and vanilla wafted through the room.

I thought back to what U Win Myint had told me at the end of our conversation. Things would change; the Intha lifestyle would modernize over time. Even the traditional way of fishing was already starting to be replaced by conventional methods. “And yet one thing is for sure,” he said. “The people value their culture, and this culture has always depended on the lake. Now we have to realize that the protection of the lake depends on us. It goes both ways.”

Outside, the night air was warm and the sky remained clear. Stars shone overhead and fireflies darted in and out of the reeds around us, appearing and disappearing into the darkness as Song and I glided silently away from the village. The woven homes shone from the inside, a cluster of faintly glowing yellow boxes floating above the black water. Sounds of singing, conversation, and sizzling fish drifted from each home as we slid out toward open water. [Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop in-depth narratives for Matador.]

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