Inle Lake, Myanmar: A Fragile Resource

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inle lake

Inle Lake, Myanmar: A Fragile Resource

What are we to conclude from the fact that Inle Lake was enlisted into the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves as recently as June 2015, a full five years after the Network had been established at the UN’s cultural HQ in Paris?

The country was opening, but this was before Aung San Suu Kyi’s election victory in November of that year. Thein Sein’s rule, less fascistic, more ‘generals lite’, was still the law. At least Than Shwe was sinecured out of the government. But tourism figures were rising. The date of Inle Lake’s UNESCO investiture merely reflected a couple-year timelag since it had registered on the tourist map.

Sure, people had always been going to Inle Lake. Backpackers and dedicated aficionados of travel had it on their radar. But the tourism industry is all about the numbers, and up to recently Inle Lake chuntered along happily with good, but not stampeding-herd or Visigoth-horde visitor figures. Myanmar has everything Thailand has and more (there are no Himalayan mountains in Thailand, for example), but in 2012 the former British colony netted just 1m visitors. Thailand had 22m that year. Myanmar also hasn’t been warped by association with the Vietnam War, which has disfigured Thailand and all of former French Indochina save Laos. No bored bikini-clad women gyrate to Maroon 5 on a mirrored stage in Myanmar, as they do in Pattaya, Bangkok, or Phnom Penh (of which more in a future post). Dress codes are uniformly conservative, even demure, with ankle-length longyis in female patterns worn everywhere. By 2015, visits to Myanmar had risen by a factor of more than four, though to only 4.68m, according to official figures.

inle lake

Intha fisherman at dawn. Master mariners of their 2m-long dug-outs, they can row and maneuver with a single leg, the paddle crooked behind the knee joint. They drop their nets onto the shallow bed of the lake then spear any fish inside. These days, they also make sure to hang out where the long canal from Nyaung Shwe gives on to the lake proper. Solid cash can be made from posing for a few pictures for passing tourist long-tails. Even so, they still spend most of their day fishing. PIC: JC, 2016.

Myanmar, bigger and more diverse than Thailand, will keep on adding numbers, especially since it’s now on the radar of Chinese tour operators, whose clients join packages that feature Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake, and Yangon. What the UNESCO designation recognizes is the particular vulnerability of Inle Lake and its immediate biosphere.

Fragile and Disappearing

First, the lake is shrinking. At an average depth of just over 2m, it’s particularly badly hit by silting. Blame the mythical king who magically created the lake as a barrier against hostile pursuers. Any more than ‘deep enough to drown someone who can’t swim’ would have taken wasted magical effort, or spellability, or whatever. So, deforestation in the lake’s watershed has led to faster and more severe silting, because without root systems to hinder weathering more silt is picked up and carried in to the lake each year. The most immediate impression of this is gained from the situation of Nyaung Shwe, the lake’s main town, which lies at the head of a 5km canal, the distance now required to travel to reach the shore of the lake proper.

inle lake

Google Earth screenshot of the situation of Nyaung Shwe. At bottom left is the current lake shoreline, while a former shoreline is visible at left and from top left to center (just follow the clear, snaking line). The lake’s Lilliputian average depth of little more than 2m makes it far more than usually susceptible to silting, clearly visible here to the left of the yellow line. Brown areas are high marsh grasses. Green areas are leafy shrubs or cultivated, but silted nonetheless. Thanks to Google Earth, image date and sourcing clearly visible. Accessed on 20.5.17.

Add cultivation to silting, and you’ve got a very fragile resource. An ever-larger proportion of the lake is taken up by floating gardens, which are good agribusiness (tomatoes abound, among other crops) but, being built on rafts of floating loam, they too add to silting and impede water circulation around the lake’s entire perimeter. They also happen to be very photogenic, and quite a marvel, which tends to militate against any reduction in the acreage given to this rare and apparently benign form of market gardening.

inle lake

Inle Lake’s famed floating gardens, pictured here just after a gargantuan tomato crop. Matted loam with attached soil make up the beds of this highly productive form of aqueous strip farming. But each extra hectare of the lake sporting these farms means a concomitantly smaller area of open water. PIC: JC 2016.

‘Apparently’ is an important qualification for the floating farms. Growers use pesticides which of course pass straight into the water. All local run-off into the lake is similarly tainted by pesticide as well as by fertilizer residues and even mining by-products.

Here’s what a Public Radio International piece from July 2013 had to say about the situation, which sums up the academic report found here:

‘The latest scientific study of the lake’s water quality, conducted in 2007 by Yangon University’s Department of Zoology, concluded that Inle Lake was undergoing eutrophication, the presence of excessively rich nutrients from runoffs which cause dense growth of plant life and death of animal life from lack of oxygen. The levels of phosphates and nitrates, prime components of chemical fertilizers, was found to be above acceptable World Health Organization levels — 20 milligrams of phosphate per one liter of water or four times the standard for safe drinking water. Arsenic was detected in one of the streams, named Tale-U, flowing into the lake.’

Public Radio International

For Inle Lake, the third and final horseman of the Apocalypse (the other three being silting, chemical residues, and farming, you’ll recall) is touristificaiton itself. Rampant corruption enables those with capital to build guest houses and stilted lakeside resorts right around the lake, despite its ‘biosystem reserve’ status. Chinese concerns gain coal-mining rights within Inle Lake’s watershed. Nyaung Shwe itself, even though it’s five clicks from the lake, is expanding rapidly with new hotels going up everywhere.

There’s pressure on local services (sewage especially). There are big shifts in the area’s employment profile from fisherman to hotel worker or tourist boatman. The shortness of the season (November to April, and that’s generous) and the vulnerability of tourism to international forces that otherwise would not dent local lives (say if the RMB weakened significantly or a Chinese housing bubble deflated) also add anxieties, but for now the figures continue to rise.

inle lake

The lake soon after dawn, facing south-east. The scarp of the Shan Plateau can be seen in the lowering mists. Roughly lozenge-shaped, 110 km sq, and at an elevation of 880m (2900 ft), Inle lake is a vital winter destination for hundreds of thousands of birds from all over east and north Asia (to Siberia even). The bird life alone makes the trip worthwhile in December or January. PIC: JC, 2016.

There remain glories at Inle Lake, however. But a separate post will cover them. I didn’t want to mix this and that.

[i] This report represented the latest hard-sourced figures I could find about pesticides and fertilizers in Inle Lake. If any readers know of a more recent study, please leave details in the comments section.

John Clamp

John Clamp

John Clamp has lived, worked, and scuba dived in Asia for ten years. An incorrigible traveler, he knows Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, China, and South America. His favorite places are Rio de Janeiro, Borneo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Phnom Penh, and the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea. He is currently an editor for Maqshosh English.


  • Erika

    Top notch reporting!

    May 20, 2017 at 4:42 pm
    • John

      Thanks Erika, I have another post about the real glories of Inle coming up, make sure you catch that one too!

      May 23, 2017 at 9:28 pm