NGA PU TAW TOWNSHIP — Farmer Kan Aye appears despondent as he talks about the layer of red mud that has built up under his wooden stilt house as a result of the waste produced by nearby pebble mining firm.
There was a time when he could keep cattle underneath his home in The Chaung village in the Irrawaddy Delta’s Nga Pu Taw Township, but these days he can’t even keep piglets there as the 2-meter-high space has almost completely been filled with mud.
“When the muddy water from the pebble mining fields flows into the village it deposit sludge under the houses. The mud layer has become higher and higher,” Kan Aye said. “Now it’s slowly burying our homes.”
The villages of Chaung, Hmawbi and Gyan Kap all suffer from the heavy environmental impacts of the nearby operation of firms that are mining for pebbles, a valuable construction material. Dozens of families in the villages have seen their farmland disappear under the mud-filed waste water and now, even their homes are no longer safe.
The firms use high-pressure jets of water to blast away the sand in order to expose the pebbles below, creating a constant flow of sludge that floods the villages and deposits mud along its way.
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“They buy the land first and mine for pebbles, causing sludge to flow into our areas. We have to raise our floors every year and now we are left with a very low ceiling,” said a 50-year-old resident of Hmawbi village, while looking gloomily at her small wooden-thatched roof house.
About 30 houses in The Chaung village and 15 houses in Hmawbi village are facing a similar fate.
Pointing at her house, which is close to tumbling down amidst the encroaching layer of mud, Hmawbi resident Lae Lae Ye said, “Look at my house, only one room is left. I have nowhere else to go. Can’t anybody help us?”
Most of the residents can no longer bear the burden of constantly fixing their homes and have moved out into the open fields away from their villages.
Wet Ma, a victim of such misery, said, “About 10 households, including ours, were forced to move out although we want to remain in the village.”
The constant sludge flow has permanently damaged surrounding paddy fields, disrupted the local ecosystem, caused landslides and filled up small waterways, which function as transport links through the Delta area.
“Hmawbi River used to be big enough for motorized boats to travel on, but now it is no longer,” said villager Htay Lwin.
A 60-year-old resident woman told The Irrawaddy that her village used to have large trees providing ample shade before mining waste water began to flood the area. “The main street of our village used to have lines of mango trees and cashew nut trees. Now, they’re all gone and we can’t grow anything there anymore,” she said.
At the site of mining area, the environmental damage is even more extensive, as nothing will grow on the land that has been blasted clear of sand and pebbles. A 200-acre area near the villages has been turned into a permanent wasteland.
“It is like a desert and during the rainy season there are mudslides,” said Pyu Lay from Gyan Kap village. “Nothing like this ever happened before during the last 30 years when we mined pebbles manually,” he said. “But when they began mining with machines and deposited the muddy water on a massive scale, we faced the overflow of sludge in the rainy season.”
An official with the Nga Pu Taw Township department of general administration said 13 mining firms received 1-year licenses to mine an area of around 100 acres in Karinwarchaung Village Tract, adding that the Forestry Department controls the area and granted permission for the mining operations.
“The mining business was under the control of the army before and we changed the system to grant the mining license to the civilian entities,” said the official, who declined to be named.
The mining operations, he said, did not only have negative impacts, as dozens of laborers worked there, earning between US $1 to $5 per day. “The industry also brings job opportunities for the local population, so if we stop it I am afraid the livelihoods of the locals might be affected,” he said.
Myint Aung, of the Irrawaddy Division-based environmental NGO Beautiful Land, said the mining was permanently destroying farmlands and the ecosystem in the area, while leaving no long-term benefits.
“For the short term, the locals can earn a living by working at the mines, but when the resources run out the whole area will be left in a desert-like condition where nothing can be grown,” he said. “Then, the people will suffer the consequence of such a reckless action.”
He said the mining operations should be stopped, while authorities and the firms should address the compensation demands of local villagers
“We have to raise our floors and roofs every year, we can’t afford to build a whole new house as we are living hand-to-mouth and we still have to send our children to schools,” said Thein Shwe from Hmawbi village. “So in this situation, we want the pebble mining companies to support us.”
Another farmer named Puy Lay said, “These pebble mining industries caused environmental degradation, they have to be banned. Only then, will there still be hope for the livelihoods of our future generations.”