Key Water Issues

Key Water Issues in Myanmar

Myanmar’s on-going political and economic transformation presents both opportunities and challenges for water management.  Although Myanmar has abundant water resources at the national scale, inability to access water and to manage increasing local variability of supply lies behind much of the prevailing poverty and food insecurity. Both droughts and floods negatively affect livelihoods and economic development.  Rapid development and change is putting pressure on water resources, with emerging risks of cross-sectorial competition, over exploitation and pollution.

Water in Agriculture

The agricultural sector in Myanmar provides 22% of GDP, employs 60% of the labor force and is the biggest contributor to growth in the national economy.  The productivity, intensity of use, and value of land increase with access to water.  Government and development partners are investing heavily in construction and rehabilitation of irrigation systems to improve agricultural production and reduce the risk from climate variability and change.  In the past, problems with operation and maintenance of schemes, inflexible or unreliable delivery of water, inappropriate design, and low returns to farmers have meant that this investment has not always brought the expected benefits.  If irrigation investment continues with ‘business as usual’, there is a danger of under-achieving on potential benefits.

Access to Groundwater

Groundwater plays a vital role for domestic water and livestock in Myanmar, and is increasingly being used for irrigation. Groundwater currently supplies less than 5% of Myanmar’s irrigation, but is the fastest growing irrigation sector. Access to groundwater can provide new opportunities and reduce risk in farming systems, but unregulated expansion and use can result in resource depletion and unsustainability.

Water in Energy

Energy is critical for economic development in Myanmar.  Only around third of the population have access to electricity and demand is forecast to grow by 15% per year. To match this, the country will need to add 800 to 1000 MW to its power generation capacity every year.  Hydropower is an important component of Myanmar’s current and future power generation strategy, and a potential source of export earnings.  Myanmar has hydropower potential of over 47,000 MW, of which around 3,150 MW has been developed and another 2,400 MW is under construction.  Major cascades of dams are proposed on all of Myanmar’s large rivers, many with foreign investment. However, there is widespread community opposition to hydropower development and concern that dams will disrupt flow, threaten fisheries and damage livelihoods and ecosystems. Myanmar’s new government faces important decisions about directions for hydropower development and the balance between benefits from the new ‘built’ infrastructure and the existing ‘natural’ capital of the river systems.

Water in Environment

Myanmar’s diverse array of aquatic ecosystems underpin economic development, support local livelihoods, and are globally significant in terms of biodiversity.  Increasing human population, economic development and climate change are all placing stress on ecosystems. Degradation is increasing with serious implications for the livelihoods, wellbeing and resilience of rural communities and the national economy.  Finding a balance between use and environmental sustainability is critical for Myanmar’s future.  Three areas are particularly urgent:

  • Myanmar’s water bodies are facing increasing pollution from agricultural chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers), industry, mining, urban development and inappropriate disposal of sewage. This is particularly serious in situations where water treatment facilities do not exist and people rely on water from rivers and streams for drinking and domestic use.
  • Deforestation and agricultural expansion, particularly in the uplands, affects runoff, erosion and downstream sediment, resulting in reduced navigability and decreasing storage in dams. Clearing of mangroves in coastal and delta areas adversely impacts fisheries, can lead to increased coastal erosion and may undermine the protection of villages and towns to storm surges and cyclones.
  • Damming of rivers for irrigation and hydropower, well as abstractions for irrigation, fundamentally changes downstream flow patterns and dependent ecosystems, often with serious consequences for fisheries, river side gardens and other benefits.

Information availability for water management and planning

Myanmar faces a significant challenge in lack of technical information and expertise to support planning, management and innovation in the water sector.  Hydrometric monitoring is weak, with few climate and river flow gauging stations, and basic information on the extent and condition of water resources (surface and groundwater), sectorial water use, water quality and aquatic ecosystems is lacking, or is difficult to access.  As in many countries, there has been a lack of coordination between the numerous government agencies that manage water.