26 Feb 19 - Source: Myanmar Times - The Chindwin River, the largest tributary of the Ayeyarwady River, is vital to the lives of thousands of communities in Myanmar. Its basin ecosystem offers ecological services and biological diversity that provide the essential needs for six million people, from drinking and irrigation water, food and fibre, to fuel. The river and its wetlands are a crucial source of fish protein for communities and often the only means of transport connecting the upper and central regions of Myanmar.
The Chindwin basin's rich natural resources face a range of threats due to unchecked development, which include mining and logging that are clearing forests, hydropower dams, expansion of crops and irrigated farmland as well as the impact of climate change. These threats directly affect the health, well-being and income of the basin's communities, and its biodiversity. The changes in the basin –water pollution, river bank erosion, and sedimentation, which causes narrowing or shallowing of the riverbed – are key environmental concerns for local communities.
The river's rich biodiversity
While Myanmar's forests have been rapidly disappearing, the Chindwin Basin is still one of the country's most densely forested areas, with nearly half (47.7 percent) covered with a variety of forest types, including montane, deciduous, temperate, subtropical, dry, and rainforest.
The basin hosts 14 of the country's "key biodiversity areas," which are considered crucial to maintaining global biodiversity. These key areas cover over 51pc of the basin, which is home to a number of rare and endemic species of flora and fauna. The endangered Burmese roofed turtle, for instance, is only found in the Ayeyarwady, Chindwin, Sittaung, and lower Thanlwin rivers.
The future of local livelihoods
Most of the basin's local communities live in rural areas with limited access to services such as water, sanitation and electricity. Most local people plant rice and other crops for food and income, and mine for gold, amber and sand, and collect non-timber forest products for food, medicine and housing as supplementary income.
The Sagaing regional government, which has jurisdiction over most of the basin, is faced with the challenge of providing sustainable development to enhance people's lives while preserving the basin's delicate ecosystem.
One solution being implemented is the Chindwin River Basin Organization, established in 2018, which brings together people and groups with a stake in conserving the basin – including government agencies, the private sector, civil society and parliamentarians – to implement a management plan to protect the basin's biodiversity and local livelihoods.
The Chindwin RBO aims to understand key environmental challenges within the basin and seek joint solutions. The RBO emphasises local initiatives in river basin planning, since the river and its ecosystems are crucial to thousands of local communities in the basin and beyond.
May Thazin Aung and Lhavanya Dharmalingam are with the Stockholm Environment Institute, Asia Centre in Thailand. SEI is working with the Myanmar Environmental Institute and Sagaing Region to support sustainable development in the Chindwin river basin.