The Chindwin River, the biggest tributary of the Ayeyarwady River, rises in northern Myanmar at the junction of several smaller rivers in the Hukawng Valley. It flows south about 1,200 km, its journey in the upper reaches marked by sheer cliffs and forested mountains, and sandbanks that are constantly shifting the shape of the river in the dry season. Its lower sections are more populated, dotted with villages among cleared out patches of forests alongside tea gardens and rice fields.
Myanmar’s rivers have always been vital means of transport for people and goods, and traveling along the Chindwin, one can still see logs being shipped on bamboo rafts as well as rice, fish and vegetables sent from the riverside towns downstream to Mandalay and Yangon.
Conditions are changing rapidly, however, causing serious environmental impacts.
Water quality is deteriorating due to heavy metal contamination (especially mercury) from jade, copper and gold mining upstream. This makes it dangerous for people to continue using the river for drinking, bathing or washing.
Land use changes, including deforestation in the valleys, have led to severe erosion during the seasonally heavy monsoon rains, when the rivers run high. Huge parts of the river banks have been washed away, taking down houses and forcing hundreds of families to relocate inland. Erosion has also affected riverside farming and fields, which are a crucial to the local food supply and subsistence livelihoods. Sedimentation of the river has increased as well.
During the dry season, the river is dropping to levels much lower than in recent years, making it difficult for boats to travel upstream. The low water levels affect the northern region’s economy which depends heavily on river transportation for the trade of goods such as rice, cooking oils, dry fish and fish paste with lower Myanmar.
Planning for a sustainable future
SEI’s Ayeyarwady Futures Partnership (AFP) programme is working with Myanmar to deal with these pressing environmental concerns. Using the WEAP (Water Evaluation And Planning) tool, SEI is building a model of the Chindwin River to inform policy-making. The process includes scientific assessment studies of water flows and hydrology, consultation meeting, field surveys and in-depth interviews, as well as a series of trainings for government agencies to support the water resources management and planning processes.
The AFP programme aims to engage with state and non-state actors in Myanmar and across the Mekong Region to help Myanmar to plan for sustainable development of the Ayeyarwady River Basin through participatory and evidence-based processes.
The Chindwin River was as a pilot study area for modelling. The assessment was completed in 2014, but at the request of the Myanmar partners, SEI held another stakeholder consultation in May, in Monywa in the Sagaing Region in May 2015. The focus of the meeting was the establishment of a Chindwin River Basin Organisation (RBO).
“There is a need to improve the knowledge and capability of relevant local stakeholders for better river basin management,” said Aung Zaw Oo, head of the Sagaing Region office of the Ministry of Transport, at the meeting.
The Department of Water Resources and Improvement of River Systems (DWIR), the official host of the AFP in Myanmar, was represented at the meeting by Htun Naing Win, deputy director of DWIR for the Sagaing Region. He stressed the importance of the Chindwin River, which he said DWIR wants to manage so it can be used for transport, agriculture and farming or for domestic needs. “DWIR is active in reviewing regulations to support the implementation of river monitoring, improvement and conservation efforts,” he said.
Pollution: an immediate concern
The aim of the Chindwin RBO would be to achieve a healthy Chindwin River and to manage the water and river systems of the Chindwin Basin sustainably for future generations. The issue of unregulated mining and loss of water quality was one issue of immediate concern.
The contamination of water in the river, on nearby farmlands, and in wells used for drinking water has affected many villages near Monywa, as well as fisheries downstream. The continuing loss of river water quality is of major concern for people in this region. As part of the scoping study, the SEI team also took water samples from various locations along the Chindwin and Uru Rivers for water quality testing.
Chayanis Krittasudthacheewa, who leads the AFP at SEI, said the gaps in Myanmar’s institutional resources affect the country’s capacity to implement and enforce effective laws and regulations. There is also a need to raise awareness of existing laws and regulations, she said, and to increase the engagement of stakeholders in river basin management.
SEI’s consultation workshop proposed some specific tasks for the RBO in its first three years: manage and prioritize water usage for irrigation, transportation, farming; monitor water quality and sedimentation; serve as a multi-state holder platform for dialogue; assess environmental impacts and related problems; assess livelihood issues within local communities.