Hpa-an villagers blister after bathing with blackened groundwater

cover_photo_4 Plastic water tanks near a water well in Natkone village (Photo- Kay Zun Nwe/ Myanmar Now)

2 MAR 2020 - Source: Myanmar Now -  The 500 residents of Karen state's Yedwingone village now depend on the charity of others for clean drinking water.

Until recently, each of the 120 households in this village near the state capital Hpa-an got all the water it needed from its own well.

But in October villagers began noticing the water in their wells had turned black.

"Our skin would itch when we used it to bathe," said 67-year-old Thaung Nyein. "We won't drink it."

One resident told Myanmar Now his family broke out in blisters after using the water to bathe.

Monks and local civil service organizations arrived almost immediately with donated drinking water, but villagers say the giving has since tapered off.

"I only have drinking water if donors show up. I have to mix distilled and boiled well water to bathe the children, and I don't have money to go to the clinic if they get sick from it," said Thaung Nyein.

In mid-January Myanmar Now visited Yedwingone, Natkone, Ngapyawtaw, Kawpatine and Pankone villages in Hpa-an township, where locals said the same thing has happened in 22 nearby villages.

Officials from the state and from a nearby factory that locals accuse of polluting the groundwater insist the water is potable and safe, but cannot explain the cause of the change in colour. Meanwhile, locals refuse to drink it.

Nearly four months on, they're still left without answers.

Unknown Cause

The Myainggalay cement factory decided to switch from natural gas to cheaper coal fuel in 2016 but did not actually begin its first test run with coal until December 2019.

In late May and early June 2019 locals began seeing large, open-air piles of pulverized coal dust being stored in and around the factory; six months later, they said, wells in 27 villages within two miles turned black.

Myanmar Now saw an open-air, 20-foot-high pile of pulverized coal on factory property and another in a warehouse owned by the factory. Extensive damage to the floor and roof of the warehouse left the coal open to the elements.

Residents believe it is this coal that is contaminating their water, though several officials disagree.

Myanmar Now could not reach factory spokespersons for comment, but Karen state environmental minister Saw Pyi Thar told Myanmar Now several factors could be causing the change in colour.

"The factory doesn't store the pulverized coal properly, and it is possible that coal particles are seeping into the ground with rainwater," he said, but added: "Water levels are low in summer, and groundwater may be blackened by compost and sediment. It could also be blackened by manganese in the limestone mountain the factory excavated."

The factory, owned by the military conglomerate Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), sits one mile from Yedwingone village. It has produced cement - about 4,000 tonnes a day - under the brand name 'Rhino' since 2002.

Deputy director for the state environmental ministry Kyaw San said he has urged factory officials many times to store their coal more safely, but to no avail.

Myanmar Now saw a nearby pond that appeared contaminated with black sediment, but Kyaw San said tests of water samples in October from ponds 50 feet from the coal piles showed no coal contamination or change in colour.

Those results have done little to assuage sceptical residents.

"The water turned black six months after they began storing coal in the open. I can't imagine how much worse the problem would've been if they had actually fully switched over to coal," Ngapawtaw villager Saw Sein Myint Aung said.

The original wells were dug between 20 and 30 feet deep. In response to local concerns, the state has said it will dig eight new wells in several villages at depths of 100 feet, believing deeper wells will surface clean water.

Four of those wells have already been dug, one each in Ngapyawtaw, Natkone, Yedwingone and Kawpatine villages, according to records from Hpa-an township's rural development department.

Yedwingone villagers told Myanmar Now the water from the new wells is not discoloured, but they still refuse to drink from them without finding out what caused the colour change in the first place.

More testing needed

In December, water samples taken in Yedwingone, Ngapyawtaw and Kawpatine villages were sent to Saitama University's Environmental Science and Technology Department in Japan, where Dr Takeshi Fujino serves as an environmental expert for joint projects between the Karen state government and the non-profit Nippon Foundation.

In a January 5 email, Fujino said the samples were "very pure and suitable for drinking."

Kyaw San said Fujino's comments were made public, and Myanmar Now saw the email printed and pinned to notice boards in the villages, but 100 heads of household told Myanmar Now they're not convinced.

They have good reason. Fujino told Myanmar Now that, although the water he tested was safe to drink, none of it was the discoloured water villagers are complaining of.

He would like to see a "more detailed analysis" to determine the cause of the colour change, he said.

"They don't tell us why the water turned black, so we still won't drink it," said Pan Kyaw, 60, of Natkone village.

Karen National Democratic Party chairman Mann Aung Pyae Soe criticised the state's handling of the situation and its inability to explain the cause.

"The government must show concrete proof to gain the public's trust," he said.

Dwindling supplies

While donors were initially plentiful, few have sustained their support, locals say.

There is not enough water for Ngapyawtaw resident Saw Sein Myint Aung's family of seven. They must now buy about three 1,000-litre tanks a month from Hpa-an township.

At about 7,000 kyat per tank, many families cannot afford this. They must mix donated water with boiled well water to meet their needs, they told Myanmar Now.

Natkone villager Saw Ati said his five-year-old and seven-year-old developed itchy rashes after bathing with well water about a month before Myanmar Now visited.

Another told Myanmar Now that bathing with the blackened well water caused their relatives' skin to blister.

Kyaw San called this impossible, laying the blame elsewhere.

"They have skin problems because they don't bathe for many days at a time," he said.

Who's to blame?

The MEC in an October 27 statement denied that the change in water colour had anything to do with coal, pointing to test results from labs at the state's environmental conservation department, the ministry of health and sports' national health lab and the Development Management and Technology Company Limited—all of which showed no presence of coal particles.

Those samples were taken from wells at the factory and in Barkat, Yedwingone and Natkone villages, according to the statement.

In a somewhat cryptic statement, the MEC seemed to pin the blame on some unknown troublemaker.

"The change in the colour of water is not caused by pollution but by the alleged action of a dishonest person, and actions have been taken to punish that person according to the law," the statement said.

Myanmar NGO Advancing Life and Regenerating Motherland (ALARM) also tested water from seven wells in Yedwingone and Mayingone villages in October and found the samples met WHO standards for safe drinking water, but that pH levels were lower than average.

Fujino said this is common in well water because of the chemical makeup of the soil and is perfectly safe.

With adequate boiling and filtration, the water is potable, ALARM said in a statement.

Long-standing concerns

In October 2016, cement factory officials, including the factory's chief, met with 100 residents from 11 villages east of the factory, including Yekyaw, Thaekone, Taunghtate, Taungauk, Hlarkar and Zayatphyu.

Attendee Sein Than from Yekyaw village told Myanmar Now the officials told residents the factory was switching to coal fuel.

He said the officials avoided answering questions residents had raised over the potential environmental impacts of the change.

In November 2018 residents of 20 villages released a statement opposing coal power and accusing the factory of a lack of transparency.

They were concerned over coal powder they'd seen spilt onto roadways between the factory and a nearby pier a month prior, Sein Than said.

The statement called for an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and a halt to transporting coal pending a public hearing.

But their demands went unheard, and new piles of pulverized coal arrived at the factory in late May 2019, locals say.

During a February 10, 2017, parliamentary session, Saw Moe Myint, the MP representing the Myainggalay village group, asked the union environmental minister if the cement factory had submitted an EIA or a Social Impact Assessment regarding its switch to coal.

Ohn Win, union minister of natural resources and environmental conservation, said it had not.

The factory plans to continue using coal while an environmental management plan is being drafted, according to Saw Pyi Thar.

The factory is required to apply for a license with the ministry of natural resources and environmental conservation and to the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC), according to Saw Moe Myint.

MIC spokesperson Thant Sin Lwin told Myanmar Now the factory has not submitted an application to the commission.

It has not submitted paperwork with the environmental ministry either, according to ministry director Soe Naing.

Saw Moe Myint said the factory has plans to improve its transportation of coal, to filter its wastewater and to trap and purify airborne ash, but suggested that either residents or the factory itself organize an independent environmental watchdog group in the meantime.

He also suggested that the factory display its ash and CO2 emission on an LED screen installed at the factory's entrance and that it allow regular outside inspections.

He said the factory plans to use 20,000 tonnes of coal a month, and that four months worth must be stored there at a time.

Locals, meanwhile, have resorted to prayer.

On the morning of 17 January, 800 residents from the 27 affected villages held a prayer meeting in Natkone village, hoping to ease their worries by declaring them to their deity.

"The water has never turned black before. This will be difficult. I have nowhere to run. I can only die," Kawpatine villager Khin Sein, 61, cried.

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