Poisoned Waters
covering burma and southeast asia
Thursday, January 17, 2019
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COVER STORY

Poisoned Waters


By Kyi Wai/Inle Lake, Shan State SEPTEMBER, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.9


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Chemical pollution and silt are killing Burma’s beautiful Inle Lake

Lay Phoo heads for home at the end of a long day’s fishing in the murky waters of Burma’s Inle Lake, with less than two kilograms of fish in the bottom of his boat. It’s a meager catch, yet Lay Phoo is satisfied—the day before, he caught nothing at all.

Lay Phoo has been fishing these waters for more than 50 years. He was a boy of 11 when he first learned to row a boat out into the lake, standing at the stern and using one leg to manipulate the oar, as generations of fishermen had been doing before him—a favorite motif of Inle Lake postcards and tourism brochures. The idyllic picture of the famous “one-legged oarsmen” trawling the placid waters of the lake is deceptive, however.

Inle Lake, one of the country’s major tourist attractions, is terminally ill and its fishermen have fallen on bad times. The lake’s surface is shrinking dramatically. As its surface inexorably drops, the pollution of its water rises. The fish are dying and entire species are threatened with extinction.

A farmer from Burma's Intha tribe sprays pesticde on a floating garden on Inle Lake in Shan State [Photo: AFP]

Lakeside communities that once thrived on fishing are turning to cultivation, expanding the area of the deceptively picturesque floating gardens lining its shores, pushing up yields with expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides—and inevitably adding to the pollution. “It’s a vicious cycle,” said a frustrated local official.

Fishermen like Lay Phoo find themselves trapped in this circle, unable to afford either the nets that might increase the size of their catch or the land to cultivate and earn the extra money they need to survive. Meanwhile, fishing as his ancestors did, with a simple bamboo basket from his flat-bottomed boat, he watches the source of his meager income slowly and literally dry up.

Inle Lake, Burma’s second largest stretch of inland water, has shrunk in size by more than one-third in the past 65 years, from 69 square km to just over 46 square km, according to a report published this year by the University of Tokyo’s Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science.

Fish sellers wait for customers near the lake shore [Photo: AFP]
The report blames the expansion of the lake’s famous floating gardens—another favorite tourism brochure motif—for 93 percent of the recent loss of water.

Drawing on local knowledge, the three authors of the research paper said that in the past 100 to 200 years “the length of the lake has reportedly declined from roughly 58 km to 18 km and its maximum width has decreased from 13 km to 6.5 km.”

A 1968 report by Rangoon environmentalist Khin Thant said the average depth of the lake was then 7 feet—today, the depth varies between 9 feet and just 18 inches.

Nine species of fish found nowhere else in the world once swam in the then relatively unpolluted waters of Inle Lake. In her 1968 survey, Khin Thant identified just one of them, a variety of carp, among the 23 species of fish she listed. A research paper submitted to Rangoon University in 2002 reported that even that rare species had now become extinct. Local fishermen suspect several other species have also died out.

Fifteen years ago, Tun Win, 57, could catch enough fish in just a half day on the lake to support his family. Today, he has to spend the whole day on the lake to bring home a third of the former catch.

Many fishermen with enough money to buy land are growing tomatoes to ensure a livelihood, adding to the pollution—which in turn kills the fish and contributes to the loss of surface water.

Htwe Tee, 10, an Intha fisherman, sits on his long-tail boat on Inle Lake.

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