Developing climate change resilience in Myanmar

Sixty-one-year-old Daw Myint Shwe has had to move her house in Thingangyin village in Ayeyarwady Region four times.

“When the waves start lapping at the base of my house, it has to be moved. I move it a hundred feet or so back at a time. I can’t afford to build a new home so I just move it bit by bit. This year, three families had to move their houses – the year before it was twenty.”

She lives in a fishing village that’s part of the town of Labutta, which was one of the worst hit when Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008. She recalled the day that a group of politicians came to inspect the damage after the cyclone.

“It was high tide when they arrived so they could see how dangerously close our village is to the water. Erosion makes things worse – it’s why I have to keep moving my home. The government provided rehabilitation funds and asked us to move to a new place. The local school was destroyed so a new one was built about a mile-and-a-half away.  Some families moved to be close to it and the temporary shelter, but everyone returned within two years. Some stayed as little as a month. The problem was that the jobs are here, near the water, and transport from the new village to this village is difficult because there are no roads.”

She said that parents worry about their children’s safety when they travel to school when the area floods, but that out of economic necessity moving isn’t viable.

“I was born here and I love the river, and I depend on it too. We all do, because we fish for a living. In summer, the big-time fishermen go to the Bay of Bengal to catch the bigger fish. But life is very difficult,” she said.

Ma Sandar Aye, 39, is one of Daw Myint Shwe’s neighbours. She and her husband fish for a living, but are finding it increasingly difficult to make enough to get by on due to difficult weather conditions.  

“We haven’t been able to fish for over a month because the winds are so strong. The winds were never as strong as this in the past. I don’t know when the weather will improve and my husband and I are starting to think about looking for different work because it’s become too hard to survive.”

She said that on a good day, she and her husband can earn K10,000 (US$7.35) but the average amount is K2,500.

“Some days we make nothing,” she said ruefully.

She said that since Cyclone Nargis, she and her husband pay a lot more attention to weather warnings on the TV and radio. Their village chief also sends weather alerts through the loudspeaker at the monastery. She said that because no one had experienced such an extreme weather event before – which was the worst in Myanmar’s recorded history – people were unprepared.

“Twenty-eight people died in this village during Cyclone Nargis. Those of us who survived did so because we took shelter in the monastery. There have been fewer storms since Cyclone Nargis, but we get two or three bad ones a year,” said Ma Sandar Aye.

She told Mizzima Weekly that she wants her two children to get a better education than she did, so that they can a job that is less physically demanding and more financially stable than fishing. She said it’s common for young people to move to Yangon to find work as day labourers or garment factory workers.

“There are 79 households in our village and 20 young people moved to Yangon last year. There just aren’t enough jobs here for the young people,” she explained.

Checking out climate change vulnerability

Last year, the Myanmar Climate Change Alliance, which is funded by the European Union and implemented by UN- Habitat and UN- Environment Programme, conducted a detailed climate change vulnerability assessment of Labutta Township in the Delta Area, which is home to around 315,000 people and of Pakokku, in the Dry Zone Area.

The assessment was undertaken also in collaboration with WWF and the Columbia University, and analysed existing vulnerabilities to climate change as well as to project future ones between now and 2050. It also describes different scenarios that illustrate the potential impacts of climate change before issuing recommendations for adaptation to avoid the worst case scenarios in the future.

The projections are worrying, particularly as Labutta is still struggling to recover from the effects of Cyclone Nargis. By 2050, temperatures may increase by as much as 2.3°C, with an estimated 17 more hot days every year. Rainfall patterns are also likely to change, with more intense rainfall over a shorter period of time and more frequent episodes of heavy rains. Due to higher temperatures, more evaporation and a greater moisture level in the atmosphere, strong winds and cyclones are also expected to increase. Salinity is also highlighted as a critical challenge. Its two salt lines are moving north and east, affecting a greater number of people. Daw Myint Shwe and the next generation of Labutta residents will be forced to keep moving their homes to a safer place – the sea-level is expected rise by as much as 41 centimetres by 2050. Not only would this increase the surface of salt infiltration, the intensity and extent of inundations and floods are likely to become more severe.

The soon-to-be-published assessment found that drinking water in Labutta relies overwhelmingly on uncovered, rain-fed sources; as many as 80 percent of people depend on such facilities for their drinking water.

“The shorter monsoon season, greater evaporation and salinity require improvements to rainwater harvesting and water storage to allow people to continue living in this area” as climate changes states the report’s authors.

Labutta Township is extremely vulnerable to climate change and unless adequate planning and infrastructure is put in place, its vulnerability will only heighten as the years go by. This isn’t purely a physical vulnerability – the study points out that socio-economic conditions will worsen unless important changes are made to make it more resilient. The vulnerabilities of climate change are far reaching and entwined – without making progress in one aspect, any progress at all is difficult to achieve.

Lack of jobs

One of the reasons why so many young people are already leaving Labutta to find work elsewhere is because its economy is not diversified. As many as 72 percent of its population rely on highly climate-sensitive agriculture and fisheries, which on average provide incomes well below the minimum wage. Training in other trades and professions is rare. When it becomes impossible to make a living in agriculture and without any skills or opportunities to turn to, there is no option but to move.

“We are sad whenever a young person leaves Labutta and we pray for them. They usually only come back for the water festival, or never at all,” said Daw Myint Shwe.

Men are twice as likely as women to migrate to other towns and cities than women and the vulnerability assessments forecasts even higher rates of migration in the future because it will become increasingly difficult to make a living out of fishing, as most people do. The effect of Cyclone Nargis on rice cultivation is still being felt, almost a decade after the disaster.

The study also documented significant disparities in wages in Labutta, which are significantly higher for men than women. Despite having central roles in activities relating to the value chains of the fish sector and agricultural commodities, women like Ma Sandar Aye are far more likely to be considered economically inactive.

Women most vulnerable

“It’s fair to say that gender issues are some of the most problematic aspects of climate change. Women are among the most vulnerable members of their communities for several reasons. Their capacity to provide for families and to get an education are deeply affected by climate change. And when women are responsible for providing daily wages for their household, the impacts of climate change can result in the cycle of poverty becoming exacerbated. As more disasters occur on an increasingly frequent basis, it becomes increasingly difficult for women to access clean water and they are more likely to contract waterborne diseases,” said Pasquale Capizzi, Chief Technical adviser at MCCA.

A father-of-three in Labutta called U MyintSwe said that his biggest asset is his children – he wants them to get a better education than he did, but he worries for their safety during the rainy season.
“Attending school is a problem. My children have to cross the river with a boat for four months in the year.  I worry that the boat will capsize. The boat is small and there are no life jackets because they are too expensive to buy,” said U Myint Swe.

The assessment found that while a network of waterways provides mobility for people in Labutta and sustains commerce from Pyinsalu, the combined effect of up to 41 centimetres sea-level rise and heavy rains means that waterways may become impassable with high tides, storm surges and waves, and main roads may be inundated.

“Lack of effective connectivity is a severe obstacle for development and may represent a hazard for people,” states the report.

Additionally, the assessment found that existing infrastructure in Labutta is not adapted to strong winds and floods and is unable to withstand the effects of tropical storms and cyclones. The risk is compounded by projected changes in the future. It reported that housing and basic service infrastructure primarily uses non-resistant local materials; in some areas up to 97 percent of houses use local materials, while the network of disaster resilient life-line buildings, such as cyclone shelters only cater for 10 percent of the total population. That is to say, even if Daw Myint Shwe could afford to build a new house in an area less affected by erosion, chances are that it would not be able to withstand the impact of a severe storm.

“The interplay of these underlying vulnerabilities with ongoing and future changes in the climate will, if not urgently addressed, leave the people of Labutta more vulnerable to disasters. The effects will be seen through more frequent loss of lives and assets, lower incomes driving poverty, increased migration, worse outcomes for women and a challenging public health situation,” warns the report’s authors.

It concludes that without adaptation measures, climate change will be a barrier to socio-economic development as Labutta is not resilient.

Mr Capizzi said that MCCA is “implementing solutions in villages to help communities to develop greater resilience.” This includes cyclone shelters, mangrove replantation, water harvesting and vocational trainings.

However, building resilience over the long-term will require consistent efforts and investment for this and other townships to adapt and develop. “The effort in Labutta is important, but equally so other townships of Myanmar.”

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