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Building resilience in Myanmar

  • by David Wastell
  • 12 Sep 17

Setting up a fish conservation zone Credit: KESAN

Case study

For decades villagers in a remote community deep in the forests of Myanmar’s Kayin state had to endure the damage done to their livelihoods – not just by natural hazards such as pests and floods, but also by civil war. 

They were regularly forced to abandon their homes and farms in Hpa-an district as two anti-government militia fought over the territory with the national army.  “We constantly had to flee,” said Naw Yee Moo, a community leader in the village of Mae La Ah Hta. “The Burmese army came to our village and burnt down our houses.”

When they returned to rebuild their homes and their lives, they would at first fall back on the fish of the Yi Mu Lo Klo river for survival – traditionally an important source of food and protein during both good and tough times. But in recent years fish stocks had plummeted, posing a threat to the resilience of whole communities. Without the back-up of a once-reliable source of sustenance, it would be harder to bounce back from a natural disaster that had destroyed rice crops, or from damage done by any resurgence of fighting.

Saw Po Kaw, a 51-year-old farmer from Kaw Mu Pwa Der village in neighbouring Hpa-Pun district, said: “We get a lot of nutrition from the river and when there weren’t any fish, we didn’t know what to do.”

Now, however, all that has changed - through a local project made possible under the Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP), a three-year effort financed by UK aid.  The programme aims to strengthen local communities, organisations and individuals in disaster-prone regions of the world so that they themselves are better able to respond next time a crisis strikes.

The Watershed Management by Karen People from Karen News on Vimeo.

The first step in this region of Myanmar was to conduct a disaster risk reduction assessment. Food insecurity emerged as a continuing issue  – and as community members discussed what would best help them to withstand a future crisis, including a breakdown in the 2012 ceasefire that has brought a semblance of peace to the region, they agreed that rebuilding fish stocks was crucial.

Guided by one of the DEPP’s local partners, the non-profit organisation KESAN - which works alongside communities in Kayin State to ensure sustainable livelihoods – Saw Po Kaw and other villagers decided to learn not only about fish conservation but also more generally about how watersheds work.

They realised that not only the fish had been depleted, but the years of fighting had also damaged the environment more widely, including the forest and the wildlife it sustained.

The first step was for KESAN to train community members in how to create fish conservation zones in the river, through village meetings and workshops. Villagers discussed the role the river played in community life and what was needed to keep the fish population healthy; and they worked together to create rules and regulations for the conservation zone.

They decided to set aside stretches of the river where fishing of any kind would not be allowed and trees were not to be cut. This would create a safer habitat for the fish to lay their eggs and breed – a vital step to restoring the fish population. They also focused on the need to preserve trees, which make the river banks less vulnerable to erosion. More trees means less silt carried by the river, creating a better environment for the fish, and also less danger of flooding during the wet season, so that nearby rice fields were less likely to suffer damage. Trees also provide shade so that water evaporates more slowly and the river can sustain fish life better during the dry season. 

Using its DEPP funding, the organisation then gave villagers financial support to make this a reality. They declared stretches of the river as conservation zones, and put up large signs along the banks to warn that fishing of any kind was banned.

To make doubly sure that this was respected, including by outsiders who might otherwise be tempted to fish illegally, villagers held religious ceremonies that underscored its importance. In the first, Christians blessed the conservation zone and prayed that fisherman would be stopped from fishing within it. In the second, held next day, followers of local animist traditions used string to mark it and a ritual - using pig and chicken blood, whisky and turmeric water - intended to protect it. “We were advised to perform religious rituals,” said Naw Yee Moo.

“Then no one dared to fish in the area.”

People also began planting trees along the banks where they had previously been cut down.

Village committee and fish conservation committee, Saw Po Kaw is second from right. Image credit: KESAN

The results are better than anyone dared to hope in such a short time. The fish population has rapidly recovered; the river lasts longer into the dry season; the water quality is improving and, with it, the quantity of other aquatic life.

“Even though we can’t fish in the conservation zone, there are more and bigger fish in other parts of the river,” said Saw Po Kaw. “Now fishing is even better than when you could fish along the whole river. We’ve seen more water animals like crabs, shrimp and so on since we started the fish conservation zone. There were barely any before we started this project.”

The success has increased community cohesion and encouraged villagers to press on with tree planting in the longer term. “Our whole community worked on the fish conservation together,” Saw Po Kaw added. “Now we enjoy the river more and want to keep improving the forest along it.”

It has also led other communities across Kayin state to emulate the project’s success. KESAN has had approaches for help from 10 villages, and visitors from as far afield as Canada and the USA. Residents of Kaw Mu Pwa Der want to build a special viewing hut where people can feed the fish and see for themselves how they are now flourishing in the river.

“We won’t survive unless we conserve our watersheds,” said Saw Yo Moo, secretary of the Wa Mi Kla group of villages that includes Mae La Ah Hta.

“If our water ecosystem is degraded, our aquatic species such as frogs, fish, crabs and shrimps will become extinct…(and) children in the next generations will not be able to see them except in photos. And if we don’t conserve our forest there will be serious problems.”

About Strengthening Emergency Preparedness Systems in Myanmar

The Strengthening Emergency Preparedness Systems in Myanmar project aims to strengthen the links among national, subnational and local level preparedness in Myanmar. The primary focus is on strengthening the capacity of local communities and structures to access information and link with the preparedness and early warning systems in the country.

It empowers communities by enabling their access to forecast and early warning information, improving their capacity to utilise such information for crisis response and making decisions about their livelihoods. It also empowers them by supporting stronger ownership of and participation in local contingency planning, and better positioning their frontline emergency response.

By working in partnership, coordinating and collaborating with multiple stakeholders, the project will carry-out multi-hazard risk assessments and technical inputs. And by creating an appropriate institutional and policy environment the project will ensure the sustainability of the outcomes.

Read more about Strengthening Emergency Preparedness Systems in Myanmar.

Read more about DEPP.

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  • by David Wastell