MINDAT, Chin State — It’s been another bad year of flooding in Burma. This year, however, the monsoon season’s heavy downpours and swelling rivers didn’t just take a toll on people, animals and crops — it also claimed one casualty in the form of a golden pagoda in Magwe Division. Shocking video of the sacred Buddhist monument sliding into flooded river waters circulated widely on the internet last month, with the cries of distraught local residents clearly audible as it sank from view.
But just west of this region, communities in the far-flung hills of Chin State were settled in for a silent battle with the annual, intense seasonal rains.
Over the past few years, Chin State has suffered particularly erratic rainfall.
A throw-away comment by my translator as we drove through the mountains in between Mount Victoria and Mindat in southern Chin State alerted me to the seriousness of this climate variability. In a clearing not far from the road, sawdust peppered the ground under the stilts of a cluster of new homes.
“A new village?” I asked. Naing Kee Shin shook his head. “No, a relocated village. It’s being rebuilt after most of the houses were lost two years ago in the big landslide.”
What struck me was how 26-year-old Naing Kee Shin spoke about the incident with such nonchalance: “It happens a lot now, in the last few years.”
Having grown up his whole life in Chin State, Naing Kee Shin is reminded daily of the effects of food insecurity and climate change. He’s seen neighbours in his town grapple with famine-like hardship during a rodent infestation in 2006 and families losing all their grain reserves in monsoon season landslides two years ago, and he regularly listens to farmers discussing crop damage due to erratic rainy season weather.
The negative agricultural impacts of heavy rains can often leave families here hungry, eating only one or two meals a day if their crops fail.
“We need to let people know that this is extremely serious but without going into the doom and despair, because that isn’t really helpful,” Pascuale Capizzi, the chief technical adviser for the Myanmar Climate Change Alliance (MCCA), tells DVB.
Burma is already feeling the extremes, from severe flooding and drought to exposure to strong coastal typhoons like the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which killed an estimated 140,000 people. Out of 183 countries assessed, Burma was ranked second-most affected by extreme weather events between 1996 and 2015 in the Global Climate Risk Index, and things don’t seem to be easing up.
“In the last six decades, you already had changes in the climate that affected Myanmar, so we have to be clear on this,” explains Capizzi. The challenge, he said, is communicating these climatic realities.
While some changes are easily apparent — such as increasingly frequent bursts of intense rainfall over short periods of time, and tropical storms that morph into cyclones — other invisible changes are more difficult to communicate, such as temperature rise coupled with high humidity, which can pose severe health risks.
Using census data identifying the poorest parts of the country, MCCA will conduct climate change vulnerability assessments in these regions. This week the alliance will begin a three-month study in Chin State.
In the government’s strategic roadmap for dealing with the effects of a warming planet, the “Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan 2016-2030,” experts predict an increase in the occurrence of intense rains in Burma’s upland regions. This likelihood will cause crop-yield losses and other livelihood stresses that disproportionately affect poor and otherwise marginalised people’s lives, explains Capizzi.
But there is some good news.
As the country is still at the nascent stages of a social and economic transformation, early planning for climate disaster risk management presents an opportunity, says Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT) Programme Officer Zaw Naing Oo. For example, addressing extant technical gaps is key to mitigating the negative impacts of climate change, says Zaw Naing Oo: “Chin farmers need simple technology, such as elevated storage and quality seeds.”
Zaw Naing Oo is soberly aware of the impacts of climate change after speaking to farmers in northern Chin State. Pointing to the past few years, he states, “Landslides have totally ruined food reserves and crops, particularly hurting small farmers.”
Local solutions support farmers facing brunt of food insecurity