MINDAT, Chin State — It’s been another bad year of flooding in Burma. This year, however, the monsoon season’s heavy downpours and swelling rivers didn’t just take a toll on people, animals and crops — it also claimed one casualty in the form of a golden pagoda in Magwe Division. Shocking video of the sacred Buddhist monument sliding into flooded river waters circulated widely on the internet last month, with the cries of distraught local residents clearly audible as it sank from view.
But just west of this region, communities in the far-flung hills of Chin State were settled in for a silent battle with the annual, intense seasonal rains.
Over the past few years, Chin State has suffered particularly erratic rainfall.
A throw-away comment by my translator as we drove through the mountains in between Mount Victoria and Mindat in southern Chin State alerted me to the seriousness of this climate variability. In a clearing not far from the road, sawdust peppered the ground under the stilts of a cluster of new homes.
“A new village?” I asked. Naing Kee Shin shook his head. “No, a relocated village. It’s being rebuilt after most of the houses were lost two years ago in the big landslide.”
What struck me was how 26-year-old Naing Kee Shin spoke about the incident with such nonchalance: “It happens a lot now, in the last few years.”
Having grown up his whole life in Chin State, Naing Kee Shin is reminded daily of the effects of food insecurity and climate change. He’s seen neighbours in his town grapple with famine-like hardship during a rodent infestation in 2006 and families losing all their grain reserves in monsoon season landslides two years ago, and he regularly listens to farmers discussing crop damage due to erratic rainy season weather.
The negative agricultural impacts of heavy rains can often leave families here hungry, eating only one or two meals a day if their crops fail.
“We need to let people know that this is extremely serious but without going into the doom and despair, because that isn’t really helpful,” Pascuale Capizzi, the chief technical adviser for the Myanmar Climate Change Alliance (MCCA), tells DVB.
Burma is already feeling the extremes, from severe flooding and drought to exposure to strong coastal typhoons like the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which killed an estimated 140,000 people. Out of 183 countries assessed, Burma was ranked second-most affected by extreme weather events between 1996 and 2015 in the Global Climate Risk Index, and things don’t seem to be easing up.
“In the last six decades, you already had changes in the climate that affected Myanmar, so we have to be clear on this,” explains Capizzi. The challenge, he said, is communicating these climatic realities.
While some changes are easily apparent — such as increasingly frequent bursts of intense rainfall over short periods of time, and tropical storms that morph into cyclones — other invisible changes are more difficult to communicate, such as temperature rise coupled with high humidity, which can pose severe health risks.
Using census data identifying the poorest parts of the country, MCCA will conduct climate change vulnerability assessments in these regions. This week the alliance will begin a three-month study in Chin State.
In the government’s strategic roadmap for dealing with the effects of a warming planet, the “Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan 2016-2030,” experts predict an increase in the occurrence of intense rains in Burma’s upland regions. This likelihood will cause crop-yield losses and other livelihood stresses that disproportionately affect poor and otherwise marginalised people’s lives, explains Capizzi.
But there is some good news.
As the country is still at the nascent stages of a social and economic transformation, early planning for climate disaster risk management presents an opportunity, says Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT) Programme Officer Zaw Naing Oo. For example, addressing extant technical gaps is key to mitigating the negative impacts of climate change, says Zaw Naing Oo: “Chin farmers need simple technology, such as elevated storage and quality seeds.”
Zaw Naing Oo is soberly aware of the impacts of climate change after speaking to farmers in northern Chin State. Pointing to the past few years, he states, “Landslides have totally ruined food reserves and crops, particularly hurting small farmers.”
Local solutions support farmers facing brunt of food insecurity
Due to Chin State’s isolation and harsh weather conditions, the agriculture-driven state is experiencing local food shortages to the point that its inhabitants have become importers of rice, a staple produced in abundance elsewhere in the country. Local economies are not diversified and livelihoods depend greatly on climate-sensitive agricultural practices.
Leaning on a post at the side of a road at Chomay village, farmer Maung Tha Swe explains that many of those who work the soil like himself, originally hailing from Chin State’s upper reaches such as Matupi, have migrated to the lower regions after their crops were all-but obliterated by landslides. “Families have lost houses, roads, crops. There’s been many changes, so people are moving to the lowlands, closer to the river, as water and lack of pipes and tanks is also a problem.”
Deforestation has compounded climate change challenges, with Chin State experiencing more frequent flash floods due in part to intense surface runoff and soil erosion as the root systems that serve as a kind of natural glue for the land are reduced.
“Slash-and-burn” agriculture has been practised for generations in Chin State, yet some farmers say they are noticing that crops are producing lower yields these days. As the nutrient-rich topsoil continues to be washed away during the rainy season, Zaw Naing Oo posits that the clearing of crops and/or trees during burn-off campaigns, without sufficient fallow periods, may be compounding problems. In response, LIFT is advocating for resilience measures to reduce soil loss, such as encouraging “slash-and-mulch” to replace slash-and-burn.
“It’s about protecting the nutrients and the bio-organisms in that topsoil,” says Zaw Naing Oo.
In the north of the state, instruction in slash-and-mulch is currently being delivered through a local farmers’ group. This is part of a $2.2 million agriculture extension program that also includes nutrition education and natural resource management planning.
However, one of the challenges is encouraging farmers to invest in a new agricultural practice without seeing the immediate evidence of positive change in front of them.
“This is about benefiting the farmers in the future,” says Zaw Naing Oo, admitting that it will take a few years before farmers start seeing results.
An agroforestry pilot is also underway in Chin State, providing an alternative to shifting cultivation (of which “slash-and-burn” is one form) and backed by the World Agroforestry Centre.
In response to Cyclone Komen in 2015, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) prepared a $10.4 million Emergency Support for Chin State Livelihoods Restoration project financed by Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction. “The project aims at restoring village access infrastructure [roads and bridges] and community infrastructure with increased disaster resiliency,” said Stefania Dina, an ADB agriculture and rural development specialist. The project kicked off this year.
Where do climate funds go?
International donors are prioritising budgeting for adaptation efforts such as diversifying local economies, and supporting vocational training for Chin State’s most isolated regions to bolster the employability of vulnerable communities that are acutely susceptible to climate hardship.
A range of donors working with LIFT are also providing small loans to encourage farmers to rely less on rain-dependent crops and diversify into other forms of agriculture, such as livestock rearing, that are less affected by climate change and extreme weather events.
One point of tension is a concern from some of those who spoke to DVB in areas outside of the Chin State capital. Chin activist Cherry Zahau is worried by what she described as the “Hakha-isation” approach adopted by some international non-governmental organisations; that is, most programs are focused on areas around the capital of Chin State in the north, rather than spreading into the southern part as well. “I have said this to many people — that everything is so centralised in policy-making that they don’t know what is going on in the small villages in Chin State.”
Although the MCCA’s initial climate change vulnerability assessment in Chin State will take place in the north, Capizzi defends that, saying: “It is a way to set things up, which we hope to be replicated in [Burma’s] 330 townships in the next five to 10 years.” Census data will also inform the assessment to take into account which populations are most vulnerable in underdeveloped or underserviced areas.
He adds, “More [climate] finance will come to Myanmar, that is for sure, particularly from GCF [Green Climate Fund] and Adaptation Fund. There are more donors interested in working in climate change and particularly linking with the impact on vulnerable groups.”
In Chin State, where poverty rates are as high as 73 percent, the social justice component of climate change is a particularly poignant lens through which to view the existing and future challenges. Dina from the ADB emphasises that women are especially vulnerable in hazard areas.
“Women are particularly affected because of their greater role in subsistence activities and their unequal access to information, education, finance and land,” she said.
Likewise, Naing Kee Shing is worried about the changes in the climate and how they will affect his community.
“Rainy season here is not great — too much rain, landslides,” he says. “Communications is blocked by landslides every year and in summer, it is hotter year by year.”
The connection between Chin people and their land is sacred. Naing Kee Shing explains that traditions such as collective land ownership, and communities working together at harvest time, remain strong to this day.
In the past, he says, farmers put their faith in the sacred harvest festival at the end of October to “dance for three days to scare off the bad spirits not to destroy the crops.” Now and in the years to come, the people of Chin State will be combining this time-honoured effort to sway Mother Nature with modern techniques for climate change adaptation and mitigation.
It is younger generations like the one Naing Kee Shing belongs to that will be at the vanguard of this fusion between tradition and 21st century, forward-thinking education.