NYAUNG SHWE TOWNSHIP, Shan State — Gazing out over the vast expanse of Inle Lake, Daw Yin Myo Su remembers the good old days for Myanmar’s second-largest body of fresh water, which is surrounded by misty mountaintops in her native southern Shan State.
As a child she paddled across the lake to visit relatives who, like the other ethnic Intha families that live in the area, resided in wooden houses perched on stilts over the water. During those trips across what is now one of Myanmar’s most famous tourist destinations, she witnessed scenes that no longer exist today.
“Believe it or not, at that time you could drink the water in the middle of the lake when you got thirsty. You could swim. Fish were abundant, and drought in the summer was unheard of,” the 42-year old says. “The situation now is as different as water to oil.”
Speaking from the veranda of the Inthar Heritage House, a center she founded on the lakeshore to preserve Intha cultural traditions, she says the situation on Inle has visibly worsened but is not yet hopeless. “We can still fix up our lake,” she says.
Situated 900 meters above sea level and nestled at the foot of the Shan Hills in Taunggyi District, Inle has long been a popular stop for international tourists, thanks to its iconic leg-rowing fishermen, floating gardens, stilt houses and biodiversity.
But activists and policymakers say the lake is on the verge of environmental disaster. Sewage and agricultural chemicals have polluted the water and poisoned the fish, while sedimentation has made the 44.9-square-mile lake shallower. Local population growth and tourism have added to the strain.
The most evident deterioration came in the summer of 2010, when an unprecedented drought in the region dried up much of the lake. The drought resulted from deforestation around the lake and several years of poor rainfall, and it led to severe sedimentation. By April, the vast area of water had shrunk by one-third, turning the vicinity of Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, a sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site usually accessible by boat, into a virtual wasteland. Villages on the lake were also affected.
“I had to take a motorbike to go to my house because there was no water,” said Buddhist monk U Vijja Nanda of his attempt that year to visit family in Hpa Kone village, where houses had previously been propped up by stilts over the water.
After the drought, the government hastily drafted a five-year conservation plan to reverse environmental degradation and assist local residents. Nearly five years later, UN agencies are offering assistance to develop a new conservation plan, with technical support from Norway.
But today the problem may be more complex.
“A drop in water quality is also a serious issue,” says environmentalist U Aung Kyaw Swar, who is also the principal of a hospitality vocational training center linked with Inthar Heritage House. For two years, the heritage house has collected water samples at five locations around the lake, sending them to laboratories for testing.
“Most of the results show the water is contaminated with a heavy metal like lead that could be cancerous if consumed,” he says, adding that farmers who grow tomatoes and other vegetables on floating gardens use excessive quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to boost yields.
The agricultural practice could devastate the ecosystem of the lake, which boasts 59 species of fish, including 16 that are endemic, according to the Inle Wetland Wildlife Sanctuary.
“They spray it directly on the plants in unregulated amounts,” the environmentalist says. “The agricultural runoff contains chemical pesticides and pollutes the water.”
Population growth has also had ill effects. Most of the more than 100,000 people currently living in homes over the lake and on its edges regularly dump sewage into the water, while small family-run weaving and silversmith businesses allow untreated wastewater to flow.
The lake’s natural filtration system may have managed this issue in the past, but the pollution is now too severe. The Department of Fisheries last year reported that pH levels, a measure of acidity, had risen to between 8.4 and 9.6 at points on the lake, endangering once-abundant native fish species such as the Inle carp (Cyprinuscarpiointha, known locally as Nga-phane).
As a result, fisherman U Myo Aung takes home a smaller load these days.
“I only catch about 3 viss [4.8 kg] after spending the entire day on the lake,” the 36-year-old says, compared with bringing in at least 4 or 5 viss on a single morning before the fish began dying out.
On the keel of his wooden boat sits his catch of the day: tilapia, a hardier species that was introduced to the lake because it can withstand the chemicals, but which is reportedly less tasty than the native Nga-phane.
“I earn just 1,000 kyat [US$1] for one viss of tilapia. They are the only fish I catch, but not in a very large amount,” says the father of four.
Another reason for fish scarcity is the popularity of electric shockers among fishermen. The technique is an effective method for stunning the fish before they are caught, but it also devastates microorganisms in the lake that can improve water quality.
“They use it because they lack other economically viable alternatives,” says U Sein Tun, the park warden of Inle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, who has helped spearhead an education campaign to deter the practice. Last year 40 fishermen were arrested for using the electric shockers.
Whether or not his campaign is successful, other environmentally harmful practices have persisted.
“Activities that negatively impact the health of the lake have not changed,” says Joern Kristensen, director of the Institute for International Development (IID), an Australia-based organization which in 2012 sent a report with recommendations for conservation and sustainable management to the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry.
“There is still considerable overuse of chemical fertilizer and pesticides negatively impacting the water quality. There is still untreated wastewater being let out into the lake from households and cottage industries, there are still trees being cut down around the lake to provide firewood for cooking, leading to soil erosion, and there is more noise from the growing number of boats on the lake.”
In the 2012 report, the IID called for the formation of a single body to oversee conservation efforts at the lake. In January this year, President U Thein Sein gave his backing to the new Inle Lake Conservation Authority, which will coordinate and monitor all conservation activities, prioritize investments and project funding, and store data about the lake into a shared database.
“Everything is connected and needs to be managed in an integrated, holistic manner,” says Mr. Kristensen.
In particular, he says it will be crucial to manage new income—generated in part by increasing tourism—toward projects that help maintain the health of the lake.
“This requires involvement and support by all interested parties, in particular the private sector, which benefits from the opening of Myanmar and has a strong interest in maintaining the lake region as an attractive destination for foreign and international visitors,” he says.
Tourism has boomed over the past three years, with nearly 100,000 visitors heading to Inle Lake in 2013.
“We expect to have more than 150,000 visitors this year,” says U Win Myint, the Intha affairs minister for the Shan State government.
Foreigners must pay a US$10 admission fee to see the lake, and half that money goes toward infrastructure development, while the rest goes to the state government. But the minister says little has been done to invest in the livelihoods of local people, who continue to use chemicals and electric shockers, while also throwing sewage into the water.
“They know what they are doing is bad, but they don’t have economically viable alternatives. This is a problem that still lacks a solution,” he says.
Construction of hotels and an increase in foreign investment could create jobs, he says, after the government approved a new hotel zone that will cover 662 acres on the lake’s eastern shore.
And if residents living at the lake can take up hospitality jobs, they may find the means to support their families, adds Mr. Kristensen of IID.
“If young people who belong to the region are trained and find employment in the tourism industry, they will be good ambassadors for the lake,” he says, while also laying out a less optimistic alternative: that new jobs go to people from Lower Myanmar who can speak English but do not understand the lake’s cultural and environmental heritage. In that case, he says, “The next generation of farmers will continue unsustainable agriculture.”
In the meantime, the hospitality training center at the Inthar Heritage House is staying busy. All 39 students at the center grew up on the lake and its surroundings. Most received scholarships to the center because they could not afford the tuition fees.
“As tourism booms and job opportunities open up, we are simply meeting the demand for qualified employees who are not only skillful, responsible and caring to guests, but also mindful about improving conditions of their family, Inle Lake and the country,” says U Aung Kyaw Swar, the principal.
Daw Yin Myo Su, founder of the Inthar Heritage House, also chairs the training center and is now working on pilot projects to promote better agriculture practices and wastewater management systems on the lake.
“I believe if everyone contributes what they can, it’s possible to make a change, no matter how bad the situation is. I just do what I can because I want to hand over the lake to the next generation in the same condition that I received it from my ancestors.”
This article was first published as the cover story of the March 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.