Water shortages in upper Myanmar

Cover A woman from Kyar Kone Te Tike village in the Sagaing Division carrying water back to her village.

08 May 2020 - Source: Myanmar Times

Kyar Kone Te Tike is a small town in Magwe division in central Myanmar, about 19 miles away from the Magwe Natmauk Road. Daw Mar Oo has lived here all of her life.

Come summertime, finding drinking water is always a struggle.

There are three small hand-dug wells for drinking water, and they are a mile away from Daw Mar Oo's house. They often dry up towards the end of the hot season.

Artesian wells donated to the village by actor Khin Hlaing currently produce 1,200 gallons per day. They initially produced 1,800 gallons, before one of the pumps broke. So the whole village has to rely on donations for its water supply.

"In summer we can't use the hand-dug wells, so we have to rely on artesian wells. Now the pump broke we have to find water elsewhere. We know it's important to wash our hands to prevent COVID-19, but we have no water to wash with," said the 35-year-old Daw Mar Oo.

Moreover, most of the Te Tike villages are not officially listed as villages according to the Ministry of Home Affairs, so they're not included on the priority list for water supplies, locals said.

"Water troubles increase year after year. Impurity is more serious than scarcity, as unclean water can be deadly. So, it's important that we have clean water," said U Khin Maung Lwin, an advisor at the Water Resource Committee.

According to WaterAid's global report The state of the World's Water 2020, climate change may put millions of lives at risk of dying from poor agricultural yields, thirst and starvation.

"The international community should support Myanmar by providing financing for sustainable access to clean water for everyone. Financing to Myanmar should not come as a loan but as a grant because it should not be a future burden for the people," Shihab Uddin Ahamad, Country Director, WaterAid Myanmar urged.

In Myanmar, the most at-risk areas are the Magwe, Mandalay and Sagaing regions, which are located in the country's dry zone.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Education Fund (UNICEF), 2.1 billion people across the world lack access to a safe and reliable supply of water.

The Myanmar Times conducted a survey in the villages within the Kyar Kan village tract and Indaw villages in Magwe, which frequently face water shortage problems every March.

"The villagers can't drink the water from the wells dug by the Department of Rural Development, as the water has turned salty. We use it just for household purposes. It is difficult to access water in April. Therefore, almost all of the people here buy drinking water," said U Than Kyaw, resident of Indaw village.

More than 120 households in Indaw village rely on donations for their drinking water, as well as purchases of water at K2,500 per 50-gallon barrel. Though the rest of the world is in fear of COVID-19, the Indaw villagers experience a more pressing concern – a lack of water.

Among the villagers who carry water, around 80 per cent are women. It takes at least an hour to collect a 5-gallon bucket of water from a nearby hand-dug well, which turns into 2 hours by the time they return home.

"Under the military government, we couldn't offer any donations for water because the village didn't have an official name. But we can donate now under the present government," said Kyae Lat Myay Parahita's Association patron U Zaw Min Htike. The Parahita Association has donated more than 400,000 gallons of water to the Te Tite villages, which are facing water shortage this year.

Government water supply programs

In previous years the Magwe Region Department of Rural Development dug out deep tube wells and rainwater storage ponds in the area.

"Among villages facing water shortages this year, some have a water supply system but it either doesn't supply enough water to last or it doesn't work. Those water systems need to be checked and repaired as necessary," said deputy director U Aung Gyi.

The department initiated this plan during the 2012-2013 fiscal year, aiming to finish by 2019. The plan covered 1,580 out of total of 4,400 villages in the region. He said the department wanted to include water supply works for a further 178 villages in the fiscal year of 2019-2020.

Transporting water back home in Kyar Kone Te Tike village tract in the Sagaing Division during the hot season, May 2020.

Due to the Magwe water shortages this year, 38 villages which have been prioritised for water supply works.

As water shortage can occur in Magwe Region in this year, there are 38 villages which have been earmarked for water supply. 19,213 people from 4219 households can face shortage of drinking water.

As Magwe Region was provided 1600 gallon two water boxers in 2018-19 fiscal year, it has been distributed water to the needed areas. It has been 171 times that the Department of Social Welfare (DSF) has distributed water using water boxers and used K21 million until the 2019-20 fiscal year.

"People couldn't do anything the whole summer as they had faced the scarcity of drinking water. As a result, they had no income," said Daw Khin Thuzar Myint, head of DSF.

Magwe Region Hluttaw MP Daw Khin Cho Latt said that 65 per cent of requests from locals related to water shortages. "We have to prioritise the water supply issue over other matters," she said.

After the new government took office, the water distribution program managed to reach up to about 60 per cent of the population via 10 tubes being constructed in the Kyar Kan village tract.

How to cope with water scarcity problem in rural areas

Currently, a number of earthen lakes have been created, including 15 in MP Daw Khin Cho Latt's constituency.

"As we lose natural environments, the climate changes and so, our deep wells might run out of underground water. Just in case, I have made a list of lakes in my Constituency and drafted a budget then maintain them," said Daw Khin Cho Lat.

The Rural Area Development Department's deputy director U Aung Gyi said the Magwe Region has experienced a more severe water shortage this year than any time in the past.

"As Magwe Region is in the tropical zone, it needs more water. Each year, the number of villages which suffer water shortages increases. We need long term plans," he said.

National Water Resource Committee's Advisory Team member U Khin Maung Lwin said, that new manual water pumps at the need to be made, alongside dams in the river to help store water. Local people should also be encouraged to install water tanks so that they can draw upon their own personal supplies during the summer.

These kinds of measure will help alleviate water shortages in the area, but also reduce the dangers associated with digging for and collecting water.

On March 20 2016, for instance, a woman was killed in a landslide when digging for water at a makeshift drinking water well in Yaygyo village, of Pakokku township. The case has since served to highlight the dangers of living in Myanmar's dry zone, particularly during the last weeks of the hot season.

Daw Mya Yin, a 45-year-old sesame and bean farmer from Kyar Gone Tay Tike, says that water shortages in the summer cause serious problems on the farm.

"If there is a drought we have to wait in line for water at the makeshift wells all day long. So, that takes time away from other tasks we need to do on the farm. But because the water is vital, we have to take care of that first," she said.

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