At 22km long from north to south, Inle lake is that the main life source for communities during this a part of Myanmar’s rural Shan plateau region. For residents of the 200 villages within the lake’s watershed, the bulk of whom belong to the Intha ethnos , 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 orchid tubers – known locally as ye-chan, meet 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 neighboring aquatic areas, an element that contributes to its individual importance (remarkably, almost nothing is understood about the lake’s indigenous species). It appears a serene setting for fishermen like Soe to quietly set about their work. But today, the lake is threatened like never before. A growing population, upwards of 200,000 people, and therefore the use of chemicals and fertilizers within the floating gardens, also as silt accumulations and global climate change events have put huge pressure on its ecosystem.
Myint Soe says some concerns have temporarily eased: “People wont to use battery and shock methods (to catch fish) but have stopped; the water level may be a bit better, above before.” Serious problems are, however, emerging. “The floating garden agriculture wont to be better before. The weather wont to be more suitable,” he says, “Before, winter wont to be longer. But now (in February) we are already in summer.”
As a destination to flee the oppressive heat and crowds of cities like Yangon and Mandalay, Inle Lake has attracted tourists since the 1970s, and pilgrims to its monasteries for hundreds of years . But it wasn’t until Myanmar’s military government began 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 have been 17 hotels and overnighting facilities in Nyaungshwe; now, there’s around 100.” International chains like 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 possess led to a 20 per cent fall in foreigners visiting Inle Lake last year, though local tourist numbers rose.
The past 20 years 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 within the south killed a minimum of 138,000 people and caused €8 billion worth of injury . From the north, major waterways like the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers are battling many tonnes of silt build-up caused, in part, by increasing glacier melt within 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 season , which runs from November to May, Inle Lake is, at just 10 feet deep, already shallow, making it extremely vulnerable 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.
Research conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has found that: “The resulting fall in water levels and a number of other years of poor rainfall, believed to stem from global climate change , has shrunk the originally 100sq mile lake by a 3rd . Fears are voiced that at some point it’s going to simply vanish.” This, experts suggest, could also be a reality by the top of the century. Such is that the perceived threat to the lake’s future that both the EU and UNDP are involved in separate multiyear, multidisciplined projects to assess the consequences global climate change has on the lake.
Local activities are having a harmful effect, too. Deforestation and vegetation burning within the hills surrounding Inle Lake has left soil exposed to wind and rain that sees it draining into the lake.
“A fivefold increase of floating gardens over the last 30 years (to 7,200 acres) and subsequent overuse of chemical fertiliser and pesticides has had a deteriorating impact on water quality and fish stocks,” says Joern Kristensen, founding father of the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development, a non-profit body. He says the harvesting of aquatic plants used as mulch on floating gardens has changed the lake’s ecosystem.
However, a more troubling precedent is that the “dramatic increase” within the use of imported and unregulated chemical fertiliser and pesticides, a number of which are extremely poisonous to human and animal life. “According to our survey in 2012, Cypermethrin, a particularly poisonous chemical (insecticide) was applied at 1,500 per cent of the recommended rate while Metalaxyl (a fungicide) was applied at 5,900 per cent of the recommended rate,” says Kristensen.
New efforts and research meant to guard the lake include its addition to the list of Unesco’s international biosphere reserves, the primary in Myanmar, in 2015. A conservation fund was established in 2013 while a tourism management plan developed by Kristensen’s Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development and therefore the government is hoped to guide sustainable development within the region.
The government has committed €34 million to the conservation and development of the lake, while research and training efforts part-funded by the ecu Union, the govt of Norway et al. are launched. Recent months have seen politicians working to draw up a replacement conservation law for the lake. On the bottom , local experts say a €7.50 fee charged to foreigners upon entering the lake area is put towards embanking and dredging silt from surrounding canals.
And yet for a few indigenous species it’s going to already be too late. a minimum of four fish species endemic to Inle Lake are now classified as endangered. The Inle carp, a well-liked fish so intertwined with the local culture that its binomial nomenclature shares the name of the Intha people, is threatened by cross-breeding with non-native common carp. The Inle catfish and Inle prawn haven’t been seen for years. The last scientific verification of the Puntius compressiformes, a kind of barb, was in 1994.
These species could be lost for ever. For fishermen like Myint Soe who use decades- and centuries-old methods to catch fish, change is coming fast. So too for the families who believe the lake to ferry their children to high school or transport household appliances like fridges and washing machines. The extent to which the govt , experts and locals collaborate within the coming years will decide whether Inle Lake survives.