Myanmar’s Inle Lake: an ecosystem fighting to survive

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Myint Soe and his son use centuries-old methods to catch fish on Inle Lake.
Photo: Stephen Starr

Chemicals, silt and climate change threaten fish species and a way of life.

Since 6am Myint Soe and his son have been fishing aboard their long-tail boat. It looks as though it’s been a good morning – between their feet lie about 30 fish of a kilo or less in weight, valued, he says, at about 30,000 kyat or €18. Soe is using net traps to catch Inle and common carp and says he will stay out on the lake until one o’clock in the afternoon.

At 22km long from north to south, Inle lake is the main life source for communities in this part of Myanmar’s rural Shan plateau region. For residents of the 200 villages in the lake’s watershed, the majority of whom belong to the Intha ethnic group, it provides fish to eat and sell. Its renowned hydroponic floating gardens – tomatoes, squash and aubergine plants growing on beds of soil interwoven with water hyacinth tubers – known locally as ye-chan, run across thousands of acres of the lake’s fringes.

At an altitude of 900m and surrounded by the famed Shan hills, Inle Lake’s ecosystem is isolated from neighbouring aquatic areas, a factor that contributes to its individual importance (remarkably, almost nothing is known about the lake’s indigenous species). It appears a serene setting for fishermen such as Soe to quietly go about their work.

But today, the lake is threatened like never before. A growing population, upwards of 200,000 people, and the use of chemicals and fertilisers in the floating gardens, as well as silt accumulations and climate change events have put huge pressure on its ecosystem.

Myint Soe says some concerns have temporarily eased: “People used to use battery and shock methods (to catch fish) but have stopped; the water level is a bit better, higher than before.” Serious problems are, however, emerging. “The floating garden agriculture used to be better before. The weather used to be more suitable,” he says, “Before, winter used to be longer. But now (in February) we are already in summer.”

Changing hinterland

As a destination to escape the oppressive heat and crowds of cities such as Yangon and Mandalay, Inle Lake has attracted tourists since the 1970s, and pilgrims to its monasteries for centuries. But it wasn’t until Myanmar’s military government embarked on democratic political reforms over the past decade that real change engulfed the lake and its hinterland.

“In 2012, the town was asleep,” says Mike Haynes, a heritage management and tourism consultant based in Nyaungshwe, a dusty town connected to Inle Lake by a traffic-busy canal. “Then, there were 17 hotels and overnighting facilities in Nyaungshwe; now, there’s around 100.” International chains such as Novotel and Best Western have descended on the lake region, with a five-star Sofitel resort opening on the eastern lakeshore this month. The violence unleashed by government forces on Rohingya Muslims 475km to the west in Rakhine state is believed to have led to a 20 per cent fall in foreigners visiting Inle Lake last year, though local tourist numbers rose.

The past two decades have seen Myanmar slammed by climate-related events on an almost unparalleled scale. A cyclone in 2008 that swept in from the Bay of Bengal in the south killed at least 138,000 people and caused €8 billion worth of damage. From the north, major waterways such as the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers are struggling with millions of tonnes of silt build-up caused, in part, by increasing glacier melt in the Tibetan Plateau. Germanwatch, a Bonn-based NGO, ranked Myanmar among the three countries worst-affected by weather events (along with Haiti and Honduras) between 1997 and 2016.

During the dry season, which runs from November to May, Inle Lake is, at just 10 feet deep, already shallow, making it extremely susceptible to high temperatures. Record temperatures caused parts of the lake to disappear in 2010. An 18-month drought in 2016, exacerbated by the El Niño climate event, caused several canals to dry up, leaving villages reachable only by boat stranded.

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