A Natural Disaster in the Making

Key Issues: 

Irrawaddy Vol.16 No.4  April 2008



Burma’s rulers have shown little inclination to learn from the environmental mistakes of their neighbors

WHILE the world ponders the continuing repressive policies of the Burmese junta, a different crisis is looming across the country.

The health and welfare of large numbers of the country’s 50 million or so population is endangered by the consequences of a deteriorating natural environment.

A combination of water pollution, land degradation through forest slashing, and badly thought out infrastructure projects is threatening to displace hundreds of thousands of people and put the lives of many others in danger, say environmentalists.

The lawless pursuit of profit is wrecking good farm land, poisoning drinking water and depleting natural resources such as fish, on which millions depend for food.

Several international NGOs have sent out warnings that years of wanton plunder by the military and its business affiliates—plus  massive new projects being pursued without proper technical assessments—are coalescing to create an ecological disaster.

Altsean, a Bangkok-based NGO which campaigns on human rights issues within countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, says in a report on its Web site that the junta’s money-earning policies have “resulted in massive environmental degradation and health hazards.”

Deforestation is a particular problem in a country with a fragile ecology and where the few environmental protection laws that do exist are poorly enforced.

Burma’s forests are disappearing rapidly because of unsustainable timber extraction, mainly to feed Chinese industrial demand and to provide fuel for local populations living without electricity.

Altsean estimates that only 30 percent of Burma is now forested, compared with 70 percent in 1948.

“Poverty, high taxation and government resettlement programs only contribute to the pressures on citizens to fell more trees, clear land and degrade their own environment for their own immediate survival,” Altsean says.

Ironically in a country that is rich in gas, nearly two-thirds of energy generation in Burma depends on burning wood.

“Deforestation leads to massive soil erosion, sedimentation of rivers, increased flooding, acute dry season water shortages in some areas, and a considerable decrease in biodiversity,” the Altsean report says.

However, it is the combination of damaging developments that now poses the greatest threat to a population already prone to sickness and disease because of poverty.

River dam systems planned on the major Irrawaddy and Salween rivers—to generate electricity for Thailand and China—will reduce water flows which will not only undermine drinking water and fish supplies downstream, but also dangerously raise pollution levels from mercury and other poisons leaking from crude gold mining practices upstream.

Slower water flows mean that poisons accumulate more rapidly rather than become diluted and flushed out.

Army-run or sanctioned gold mines along the tributaries of the Irrawaddy in Kachin State are using not only mercury but also cyanide and other poisons as part of their extraction processes, warns the Kachin Development Networking Group, a sustainable economics organization.

The Thailand-based environment NGO Salween Watch estimates that the lives of 300,000 people along the Salween will be disrupted by a massive dam being built at Tasang. Many will be forced to move, adding to ecological stress.

“Dams decrease river flow, which means fewer habitats and nutrients, and increased stresses on aquatic life downstream. They can cause massive changes in the ecology and water quality of the river and its tributaries,” says a Salween Watch report. “In addition, dams have huge impacts on coastal ecosystems.”

The Tasang dam will be Southeast Asia’s biggest hydroelectric project. The planners estimate it will have a generating capacity of 7,000 megawatts.