RIH LAKE, Chin State — Rih Lake, the heart-shaped natural landmark of Burma’s underdeveloped Chin State, faces the threat of environmental destruction, say local environmental activists who fear the impact of a planned government housing project in the area.
“The authorities said last year that the project was for government housing and it would help the development of the region. It is good to develop the region, but they do not care about the conservation of nature,” said Ko Dawla, chairman of a committee that advocates for conservation of Rih Lake and its surrounding environment.
The housing project is planned for an area that includes part of the mountains that surround much of the lake. The activists said the project would destroy more than 15 acres of forest around the lake, with unknown effects to the region’s fragile ecosystem.
“The water level and the lake’s surface area are reducing year by year. … Since the changing of the ecosystem itself affects the region, we don’t want the nature to be spoiled by human errors,” Ko Dawla said, adding that the lake’s waters had receded by as much as 12 feet in some places.
Activists said that the forest near the lake was designated as a protected forest by the state government in 2013, but conservation work has been hampered by difficulties in educating the local population. They said conservation of Rih Lake was largely off the radar of the country’s environmentalists, due to limited communication with the region blamed on poor transportation and telecommunications infrastructure.
“The major needs, such as transportation, education and health care, are still neglected and of course, the environmental matters of our region are not in the mind of the government. When we talk about development, we shouldn’t forget about potential environment destruction as well,” said Ko David, another environmental activist.
According to activists and local residents, the housing project has not yet begun but state government officials and local authorities are visiting the area frequently and attempting to persuade local residents that the project will benefit the area.
“If the authorities really care about the environment of the lake and the social welfare of the locals, we have no reason to oppose such a project. But the authorities have not done the proper research on the environmental consequences, and the project is only for them, not for the locals—not for the development of the region at all,” said Lian Tuang, a local resident.
Concern over conservation of the lake was raised with Aung San Suu Kyi on the opposition leader’s recent visit to Chin State, where she spent four days traveling in the region to promote constitutional reform. Suu Kyi promised during a speech in nearby Falam that her party would address the issue.
The activists said a formal complaint concerning the project was submitted to Parliament and more complaints were on the way.
“We are trying to do more research concerning the conservation of Rih Lake. We are trying to collect the evidence and will submit another complaint to Naypyidaw to make the previous complaint more concrete,” Ko Dawla said.
Local lore abounds regarding the uniquely heart-shaped Rih Lake, located near the border town of Rihkhawdar. People living in the region widely believe that spirits of the dead make their way to Rih Lake to quench their thirst, and upon drinking its waters are purged of all living memory. After that, the spirits are said to pluck flowers, known locally as hawilo par (the flower of no return), and submerge themselves in the lake, where they find eternal rest.
According to locals, tourism to the area has been on the rise since early 2013. Indians form a large portion of visitors, crossing the India-Burma border, which lies less than 3 kms north of the lake.
“Tourists will visit the lake more and more in future. We need to think about promoting transportation and accommodation, and we have to maintain the nature and culture at the same time. We will try our best to protect this lake because this is our only treasure,” Ko Dawla said.