3.5 Causes of water pollution in Myanmar

Myanmar is a fast-developing country, growing at 6.8% in 2017 (ADB, 2018). However, rapid economic growth risks damaging the country’s environment. There are already considerable challenges to the environment and, in particular, there are major causes of water pollution in Myanmar, which we explore next.

Industrial waste and its inadequate disposal

Metals such as lead, nickel, cadmium, zinc, copper and mercury enter freshwater ecosystems from a wide range of industrial processes, and gases such as chlorine and ammonia, and anions, such as cyanides and fluorides are also considered as pollutants. Industry and domestic use combined account for about 10% of the total water use in Myanmar. Nevertheless, industry is still a major polluter. The Hlaing River for example, receives industrial wastewater discharged from the factories of Yangon to the creeks that collect in the river basin.

Improper methods of cultivation in agriculture

Water utilization for the agricultural sector accounts for 90% of total use. Agricultural pollution is the top source of contamination in rivers and streams, the second-biggest source in wetlands, and the third largest source in lakes. It is also a major contributor of contamination to estuaries and groundwater. Every time it rains, fertilizers, pesticides, and animal waste from farms and livestock operations such as cattle slurry or discharges from pig or poultry farms, wash nutrients into waterways.

Decline in the water quality of rivers flowing through the plains

Rising sea levels can lead to flooding of low-lying coastal regions, including major flood plains and river deltas that changes the salinity of surface and ground water. The Ayeyarwaddy River for example, which is the major river transportation route running the length of the country, provides water for the majority of the population as well as being the major source of irrigation water. But its water quality has been in decline for many years as a result of siltation from mining operations, deforestation, and the over exploitation of land. Sightings of the Ayeyarwaddy River dolphin, viewed as an indicator of the health of the river, are rare now in the lower part of the river (Bowles, 2013)

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Figure 5 The water quality of Myanmar’s rivers, creeks and streams is declining.

Mining and deforestation

Myanmar is a mineral rich country with the largest jade deposits in the world, and ruby deposits that account for 90 per cent of the world’s supply, with further deposits of other precious stones such as sapphire and diamonds (Myanmar Legal Services, 2019). Copper is the largest mining export, but other mineral products are also widespread throughout the country, including gold, silver, lead, zinc, tin, tungsten, nickel and antimony.

However, mining has been linked with land degradation, deteriorating water quality, disruptions to biodiversity and chemical waste build-up. In 2019, a report by a non-governmental organisation, Swedwatch, revealed how advanced mining and manufacturing activity in Myanmar has directly and irreversibly contributed to erosion, flooding, shortages, water pollution and deforestation. Such activity has also severely affected local communities through mining-related landslides and deaths (Economist, 2019).

Deforestation has led to flooding and loss of biodiversity. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that Myanmar lost approximately 20% of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010, often owing to illegal logging, land disputes and unchecked agricultural expansion (Economist, 2019). Mangroves have also been cut for firewood and clearing the land for agriculture.

Loss of forest cover increases runoff which can accelerate soil erosion and increase the sediment load (particles eroded and carried by water) and turbidity (water loses its transparency due to the presence of suspended particulates) of water sources. Sediment particles can carry toxic agricultural and industrial compounds, which decreases water quality. Forests build resilience in the natural ecosystem acting as a buffer against extreme floods and droughts. Deforestation means flash floods are more likely during heavy rainfall, leading to soil erosion.

Oil spills

Big spills or accidents at extraction sites or during transportation may dominate headlines, but consumers account for the vast majority of oil pollution in our seas, including oil and gasoline that drips from millions of cars and trucks every day as road runoff. Moreover, nearly half of the estimated 1 million tons of oil that makes its way into marine environments each year comes not from tanker spills but from land-based sources such as factories, farms, and cities (NRDC, 2018). Oil is also naturally released from under the ocean floor through fractures known as seeps.

Acid rain

Acid rain is caused by atmospheric pollution as a result of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen compounds in the air which combine with atmospheric water to form acids. It largely results from fossil fuel combustion and can have a direct effect on water ecosystems by making the waters too acidic for life. Myanmar suffers from increasing acid deposition as a transboundary issue. Whilst the country does not have the heavily polluting industries of many of its neighbours, such as China, Thailand and India, it experiences the problems because prevailing winds and rain bring the air pollution, which causes the rain to be acidic.

Eutrophication and disrupted food chains

Eutrophication is when a water body becomes enriched with nutrients, which lead to the growth of algae. These algae form a layer on top of the water. Bacteria feed on the algae and this decreases the amount of oxygen in the water, severely affecting the aquatic life. Food chains, which show how each living thing gets their energy and food webs, which are systems of interlocking and interdependent food chains, are also affected as other animals such as fish and shellfish are consumed by humans who then fall sick.

Inadequate sewage water treatment

The lack of proper sanitation measures, as well as improperly placed wells, can lead to drinking water contamination as pathogens are carried in faeces and urine. In Myanmar, investment in wastewater treatment struggles to keep pace with the growing population and resource demands. The percentage of people with access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities is still low in the country. People living in areas where there is no sanitation system, dispose of their sewage into a river or onto the ground. These insanitary discharges are particular threats to human health.

3.4 Seasonal variation in pollution

3.6 Effects of water pollution