Last year in Myanmar, floods resulted in 31 deaths and displaced over 300,000 people. River morphological change played a part in these disasters by influencing flooding locally. To help better manage the river systems in Myanmar, SERVIR-Mekong and SEI are developing a seasonal river morphological monitoring and warning system called Dancing Rivers.

Recurrent riverbank erosion and collapse are becoming frequent, particularly during Myanmar’s  monsoon season. This forces people to relocate their homes and lose agricultural livelihoods. In recent years, increased quarrying activities have emerged as an additional drivers of relocation and livelihood loss. The choice between staying in one place or relocating permanently elsewhere is often only a question of a few meters for many communities living along the country’s rivers. These temporary but frequent relocations expose communities to a host of difficulties, including water shortages, lack of fertile farmland, and loss of meagre savings as people are forced to rebuild their lives from scratch.

The Directorate of Water Resources and Improvement of River Systems (DWIR), Myanmar’s national governmental agency responsible for managing river systems, faces a daunting challenge to  monitor river morphological change over several thousand kilometres of river in the country – a challenge that requires extensive human, financial, and technical resources.

Above: ebb and flow of monsoon rainfall in Ayeyarwady and its sub-catchments (based on the CHIRPS rainfall data).

How can we improve the monitoring mechanism and build the warning system?

To address this river management knowledge gap, SERVIR-Mekong, a joint initiative between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is developing a seasonal river morphological monitoring and warning system called Dancing Rivers. The SERVIR-Mekong consortium, which includes the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center and SEI, is co-developing this service with DWIR to ensure an adequate knowledge base to plan and make informed decisions on riverbank protection at large spatio-temporal scales.

River course changes in an Ayeyarwady reach. Photo: Dhyey Bhatpuria / SEI.

To capture user needs and feed into the overall service planning, the SERVIR-Mekong project team conducted a needs assessment workshop in Yangon on May 16, 2019, with national and regional DWIR officials, multiple government agencies, universities, and national and international NGOs.

Need assessment workshop participants discussing the operational use of the proposed tool. Photos: Rajesh Daniel / SEI.

The workshop focused on: i) capturing the user needs by identifying existing monitoring mechanisms and ii) identifying potential operational use by various agencies through the demonstration of large-scale erosion and deposition maps. The current monitoring mechanism follows a bottom-up approach in which the local communities/DWIR offices inform the regional governments and DWIR divisions to highlight the seriousness of erosion. DWIR then undertakes further field assessments and works with the regional and national government to identify funding sources for river protection measures. “The workshop not only benefitted DWIR, but many other organizations involved, especially local people living along Myanmar’s big rivers,” said Aung Myo Khaing, Director, Planning and Research Division, DWIR.

In addition to DWIR, the General Administration Department (GAD) and Irrigation and Water Utilization Management Department (IWUMD) were also identified as potential users due to their mandate to allocate the newly created land areas from morphological change for agricultural purposes. GAD also issues permits for sand mining along the riverbanks, for which the deposition and erosion maps could be used for deciding suitable areas. The DDM intervenes when there is a need to evacuate or relocate the communities affected by the riverbank erosion.

Bottom-up information flow mapped for the existing riverbank erosion monitoring mechanism in Myanmar. Source: Karthi Matheswaran / SEI.

Introducing Dancing Rivers – a morphological monitoring system

During the workshop, SERVIR-Mekong presented preliminary erosion-deposition maps and morphological hotspots along major portions of the Ayeyarwady River using a long-term remote sensing dataset (1985 to 2018) to enable stakeholders to visualize potential applications.

“This tool will help decision makers better understand risk areas from river morphological changes along the Ayeyawady River so they can address issues in reducing negative impacts on local communities, navigation, and ecosystem habitats,” said Dr. Thanapon Piman, SERVIR-Mekong Hydrologist from SEI.

Based on user needs and inputs, SERVIR-Mekong will co-develop the Dancing Rivers service with DWIR in a phased manner to include amalgamation of different satellite platforms over the course of time for seasonal monitoring to overcome lack of adequate coverage due to cloud cover. SERVIR-Mekong plans to organize a series of trainings in Myanmar on tool development and operational application to ensure the tool’s sustainability in the long run.

Preliminary outputs on river morphological hotspots mapped from long-term remote sensing data (1985 to 2018). Source: Karthi Matheswaran / SEI.

Changes in river morphology including floods, erosion, and landslides are affecting ecosystems and the lives and livelihoods of communities living along rivers in Myanmar.  Rajesh Daniel / SEI, YouTube .