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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.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.
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.