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Iconic lake on the brink of environmental collapse

Thousands of dead fish have washed up on the banks of the Taungthaman lake on two separate occasions over the past month, signalling a deeply unhealthy natural environment.

Taungthaman Lake in Amarapura, just outside of the city of Mandalay, is a tourist hotspot. Home to the iconic, 165-year-old U Bein bridge, the scenic lake is enjoyed by thousands of domestic and international visitors each year.

Yet travellers’ day trips to the world’s longest teakwood bridge do not underpin the livelihoods of the locals living on the lake’s shore. It is an environment that sustains the families of over two thousand fishing industry workers, and hundreds more in related businesses.

Now, nets are being pulled up empty, as soaring pollution levels from nearby factories choke the life out of the waterway.

Local duck breeder Maung Win squares the blame directly at rubber and sugar processing plants upstream, belching big businesses that he says are emptying pollutants directly into the river network and allowing ash from smokestacks to fall into the lake. Maung Win says that the lake’s administrator, a private businessmen named Chit Khine, is turning a blind eye.

“The pollution came from upstream from various factories including sugar refineries and distilleries, such as Mya Yi Nandar, Kantharyar and Aungpinle,” Maung Win said.

“It has been like this for over a month and is now at its worst. This never happened under the lake’s old manager, U Myint Wei, over about 24 years. Now it is happening under U Chit Khine, and he took over administration just this year.”

According to Maung Win, one result has been the loss of ducks belonging to the breeders that operate along the lake’s bank. Ducks have died after eating the poisoned fish that float to the water’s surface.

“We have been seeing the deaths for over a month, but the most recent one has been the largest scale, killing nearly the entire fish population and a lot of ducks,” he said.

“We have no choice but to let the ducks roam for food in the lake and we have to pay the lake’s management to do that.”

As the dead fish wash up in the thousands, the health risk to humans increases.

Desperate locals, utterly reliant on a previously healthy waterway, have collected the poisoned fish from the shore to sell at the local market.

Last year Chit Khine outlaid 500 million kyat [US$500,000] to secure a five-year tender as the lake’s administrator. Rejecting allegations that he may be complicit in the deteriorating health of the lake, he suggested that the blame lies with public administrators.

“For the moment, although I haven’t directly witnessed it, but judging from their actions, I can tell that bribery going on. There has been no official action whatsoever regarding building along the bridge and inside the lake’s boundaries,” he said.

Chit Khine said he would be prepared to sue to ensure the lake’s survival.

“I am considering pressing charges against the township administrator and other relevant officials. I’ll probably go ahead with this and when I do, I’ll make sure the charges cannot be dismissed,” he warned.

In recent years, tourism officials, historians and architects have led a concerted push to save the U Bein bridge from dilapidation. But with the surrounding ecosystem on the cusp of disaster, the people of Taungthaman Lake need an environmental saviour.