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Climate of uncertainty fuels anxiety, exodus in Dry Zone

CHAUK TOWNSHIP, Magwe Division — The mercury’s steady ascent and increasingly erratic rainfall have not convinced every farmer in Burma’s Dry Zone that the climate is changing, but they’re unanimous about one thing: A life working the land is more difficult now than it was a generation ago.

Home to nearly one-third of the country’s population and encompassing much of Magwe and lower Sagaing divisions, as well as the central and western parts of Mandalay Division, the Dry Zone is exhibiting some of the most obvious symptoms of the global climfate change sickness. What’s more, for the second year in a row, Burma was ranked second-most vulnerable on the Global Climate Change Risk Index 2017, behind only Haiti.

Social consequences of the degrading climate are already apparent. Many of the Dry Zone’s youth are unable, or simply unwilling, to follow in their parents’ footsteps. An exodus in recent years has seen young people, typically between 15-24 years old, flee the region in search of greener and more lucrative pastures.

In Chauk Township, Magwe Division, all but one farmer DVB spoke to in April were unaware of the country’s unenviable podium finish on climate change vulnerability, but each individual confirmed that rising temperatures and changing weather patterns had acutely changed the nature of their livelihoods.

Once predictable rainfall patterns are a thing of the past for farmers in the region. Experts and residents agree that the monsoon season is starting later and finishing earlier — shrinking the window of opportunity to fill farming families’ coffers and water reserves for the rest of the year. Traditionally beginning in mid-May, the rains are now arriving up to a fortnight later — practically a death knell for sesame farmers who rely on the early downpour to guarantee their season’s harvest.

A farmer in Chauk Township, Magwe Division, collects water from a tank provided by local police. (Photo: Kimberley Phillips)

Tun Lwin, the country’s highest-profile climate expert and former head of the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology, has long warned that rainfall trends have begun changing over the past few decades.

“The monsoon rain has reduced by as much as 30 percent during the last 30 years, therefore the water availability from the rain has reduced. And groundwater has [decreased], therefore water is the big issue.”

With changing rainfall trends, farmers are in search of adaptive measures that will allow them to continue to ply the family trade.

Sitting on a bamboo platform in Set Set Yu village, mother and farmer Soe Soe Win acknowledges that her life is now marked by “many differences,” since she moved to the village as a young woman to marry a local.

“Sometimes when it’s time to harvest, rain pours even though it’s not the [right] time to rain so it can be a bit difficult during harvest season.

Livestock and farming are the primary sources of income for most families in the Dry Zone. (Photo: Kimberley Phillips)

“The problem is the weather. The rain tends to pour down when people don’t want [it to], when it is not the right time … and it doesn’t rain when it should,” said Soe Soe Win.

Soe Soe Win is describing a now-irregular monsoon season, which used to last until September. Often, these rains must sustain farming communities for the rest of the season. But the once-reliable seasonal pattern is shifting perceptibly: The number of rainfall days has reduced significantly in recent years, meaning the showers come in shorter bursts and in higher concentrations.

On the frontlines

The loss of even a few days’ rainfall can have dire consequences for villages. Most rely on that time to collect water for the drier months and to ensure the health of their planted crops, according to Myanmar Climate Change Alliance (MCCA), an initiative funded by the European Union and implemented by the UN-Habitat and UN Environment.

 

On a day in the commercial capital Rangoon when the thermostat surpassed 40° Celsius, MCCA’s chief technical adviser, Pasquale Capizzi, said the measurable changes are already startling.

“Let’s first start with the facts: The facts that have been observed over the last six decades is that you have a shorter number of days in which it is raining. It was 144 and now it’s down to 125 and counting. Because we haven’t talked about a projection for the future yet, this is just today. But you also have, depending on the region, an increase in rainfall. So you have more rain in less days of rain,” Capizzi said.

Experts predict that across the country, mean annual temperatures will rise between 0.8°C-1.4°C by 2050. For each degree warmer Burma’s climate becomes, rice yields are tipped to decrease by 10 percent. By the close of the century, the country can expect to see temperatures rise by between 2.8°C and 3.5°C, spelling disastrous losses for crop farmers in the country’s rice bowl.

This unignorable threat posed to farmers has prompted an intensive focus on adaptation measures. Karma Lodey Rapten, a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) technical specialist based in Mandalay, told DVB the agriculture industry in the region is uniquely vulnerable on several fronts.

Currently midway through a pilot programme in the region, financed by the UNDP’s Adaptation Fund, the agency is providing resilience training and education to equip locals in Shwebo and Monywa townships, Sagaing Division; Myingyan and Nyaung Oo townships in Mandalay Division; and Chauk Township in Magwe Division, to thrive in their changing climate.

“It has been found that 165 of 280 target villages do not have sufficient water and drinking water access. About 80 percent of our villages experience some kind of water shortages, especially during the dry season,” Rapten said.

The team is working to deliver small-scale water infrastructure at the village level, enabling the target villages to access drinking and general-use water year-round, in turn slashing the number of hours villagers — usually women — spend walking each day to and from the nearest well.

On a sweltering day in Set Set Yu village, Chauk Township, local families gathered to get close to a movie star. Two-time Myanmar Academy Award winner Kyaw Thu was in town, but not to entertain. The silver screen icon has largely retreated from the film industry, instead throwing himself into the battle against water scarcity. Kyaw Thu said he was moved to fund wells when confronted by the physical consequences of drought and malnutrition.

Movie star and philanthropist Kyaw Thu fears the social consequences of increasing water scarcity. (Photo: Kimberley Phillips)

“I’ve encountered places that are experiencing serious water shortage. There are villages like this in the region of Bagan, Nyaung-U,” he said, the latter referring to the township in central Burma’s Mandalay Division.

“When I went to those villages, I found out that the people there are really short. When I asked them why they are so short and why their skin is so dark, they confessed that their village was experiencing water shortages and that they had to travel three or four miles to get water and then carry them back to home,” Kyaw Thu added.

“They said they had been surviving like this ever since they were young and those were the reasons for their height being short, and their complexion being dark.”

Fighting back

The climate science community has keenly developed a Burma focus, identifying the country as being at the nexus of development and environmental consequence. Once one of the world’s most notorious pariah states, Burma’s quasi-civilian government headed by former President Thein Sein in 2011 began manoeuvring the nation into the international community, a diplomatic reposturing that the democratically elected National League for Democracy government has continued to pursue with vigour.

With Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi at the helm, the young government is eagerly courting foreign investment. But regional neighbours Cambodia and Vietnam provide a cautionary tale — rampant waste and climbing carbon emissions have often accompanied the foreign-owned hotels, factories and extractive enterprises in fellow ASEAN countries. Mines and dam operations run through joint-partnerships between government ministries and foreign companies have already yielded devastating impacts on villages located near the projects.

The Thai demand for Burmese tin has resulted in one of the country’s first legal battles fought over environmental damage. Residents from Myaung Pyo village, in Tenasserim Division, have taken the Thai firm operating the mine and its local partner Myanmar Mining Enterprise No. 2 before Burma’s Supreme Court, seeking an immediate end to operations. Citing a raft of health concerns and environmental damage — namely, extreme flooding and harmful sedimentation — the case could be the first of many as foreign investment in the extractive industries accelerates.

Government representatives warned attendees at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions would increase in line with industry and infrastructure development. Despite the admission, delegates assured the international community that Burma, then under the Thein Sein administration, was taking the threat seriously.

Capizzi, the MCCA adviser, agrees that the relevant ministries have long-appreciated the urgency of bringing climate change and its knock-on effects under control.

“To me, they have been very serious with this, both in terms of their participation in the global effort, despite the fact that Myanmar is a [carbon] sinking country. But still their willingness to protect and trying to assist in the switch to renewable energies, to me it is a good sign,” he said.

Burgeoning industry and a thirst for development necessitates a jealous guardianship of the country’s forests and mangroves, which have the potential to act as carbon sinks, essentially neutralising emissions. Mangroves, particularly on the monsoon-prone Arakan State coast, also serve as life-saving buffers against storm surges. But frenzied deforestation both on the coast and in virgin forests is putting locals at immediate risk, and compounding the stress on residents in the Dry Zone. Precious forest ecosystems are imperilled to make way for factories, and to meet international demand for palm oil.

A 2015 report released by the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology indicated that the majority of regions nationwide are warming. Kyaw Lwin Oo, a DMH researcher, identified Sagaing, Mandalay and Pegu as areas that experienced a “significant increase” in temperatures between 2000-2007. The DMH data recorded an increase in annual mean temperatures almost nationwide, with particular spikes in major central cities Mandalay, Sagaing and Magwe.

Conducted in the same year, the Climate Asia survey found that 79 percent of respondents nationwide were concerned about extreme weather events, despite relatively low rates of scientific literacy among the general population. Interviewees in the Dry Zone were the most aware of drought risk, and 67 percent said their ability to earn a living had already been affected.

Youth exodus

Most farmers in the Dry Zone can trace their lineage on the arid land for generations. As long as they can remember, they’ve been tending to their crops and making do with simple and content livelihoods. But every farmer DVB spoke to in March was well past middle age, and when asked where their children were, most shared a common response: Mandalay, or overseas. Dwindling work options on local farms has driven widespread migration.

Residents in Set Set Yu village in Chauk Township are mostly elderly farmers that have worked the land for generations. (Kimberley Phillips)

With the exception of a few married daughters, and one son in his 20s, Set Set Yu village’s younger generations have left the region in search of a reliable income. If not Mandalay or the commercial hub of Rangoon, youngsters are working as labourers in Malaysia or Thailand. The money they send home is a much-needed addition to their families’ coffers, but villages feel decidedly different without the energy and dynamism that a younger generation brings.

A senior police officer, who declined to be named, said the exodus is a double-edged sword — parents rely on their children’s incomes to sustain their farms, but declining manpower makes harvesting more gruelling under already tough conditions.

And a community without its youth is at risk of remaining stagnant. The fresh ideas and perspectives that younger generations bring are increasingly concentrated in the country’s city centres, a phenomenon that can further stifle development.

“My opinion is you are hampering the capacity of a place to develop in a certain way, quite simply, if you are taking away the 15- to 24-year-olds. Maybe it is a bit general, but you are taking the energetic young people, the new ideas out of townships, and onto the larger [urban] areas or even abroad,” Capizzi said.

For most of Chauk’s older residents, leaving is not an option. They feel wedded to their ancestral land, and never learned how to earn a living any other way.

But Kyaw Thu fears that dwindling water supplies will strain community bonds in the future. “Due to water scarcity, people might come … [to] rob and attack each other … people will become angry, disappointed and greedy.

“That is why it is crucial … [just] to have water.”