Trapped between two big climate polluters, Myanmar is already being battered by the worst impacts of global warming. But it has limited capacity to adapt
The tree of life is supposed to be a metaphor, a research tool to explore how life evolves and how living creatures are related. But for U Mya Tan Aung the metaphor is quite literal. Nearly washed away when Cyclone Nargis ravaged his home in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, the 76-year-old farmer owes his life to a tree.
“Everything was flooded. I am alive because I climbed a tree,” U Mya Tan Aung explains to me when I visit him in the Hlaing Thar Yar Township on the outskirts of the capital city of Yangon. The township is heavily populated by people who, like Tan Aung, fled the delta in the aftermath of Nargis. Before Nargis there were 11 people in his household. Only two – Tan Aung and his son – survived what turned out to be one of Asia’s deadliest storms. The cyclone killed nearly 140,000 people and impacted another 2.4 million by hitting land at one of the lowest points in Myanmar and setting off a storm surge that reached 25 miles inland. (The human toll was more than 17 times that caused Super Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013.)
Intense tropical cyclones have increased by 25 percent in the past 50 years.
If on maps Italy resembles a boot, and Norway, Sweden, and Finland resemble fingers, then the Irrawaddy Delta looks like the toes on a bare foot. Not a human foot, more like a foot belonging to one of Pixar’s cuddly monsters. The toes gnarled, but sturdily carved out of the land by rivers, streams, and rivulets, and dipped into the confluence of tropical waters that make up the surrounding Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
In 2008, Cyclone Nargis barreled through that confluence. It began developing in late April from a low-pressure system in the Bay of Bengal. From there, the storm tacked east, strengthening as it went. But instead of heading north towards Bangladesh or towards Myanmar’s mountainous northwest, the typical cyclone track for the region, it swept across the Irrawaddy Delta – Myanmar’s most populous region, which tops out at around 15 feet above sea level – bringing crushing winds moving upwards of 120 miles an hour. The resulting devastation has been called the worst natural disaster the small nation has ever witnessed. Weather experts, hoping to bring its scale some relevance to American audiences, would later call it, “Myanmar’s Katrina.”
“When you look at the satellite picture of before and after the storm, the effects look eerily similar to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in how it inundated low-lying areas,” Ken Reeves, director of forecasting for AccuWeather.com told the Associated Press in 2008.
Unlike Hurricane Katrina, though, delta residents here say they received little to no warning, contending that they only knew a cyclone was coming because they could feel the heavy winds. Unlike the United States, Myanmar has no radar network to help predict the location and height of surges. Given that the storm waters barreled 25 miles inland, people like U Mya Tan Aung and his family would likely not have evacuated far enough even if they had known what was coming.
U Mya Tan Aung used to be a farmer, but in the 1970s Myanmar’s military government seized his fields, and he switched to working on fishing boats in an attempt to buy more farmland. When Nargis struck, it turned most of the fields he would have wanted to buy saline. His son headed north to Yangon and found work as a fisherman with a crew that goes out to sea every two weeks. After a while U Mya Tan Aung followed. His son supports him now. U Mya Tan Aun isn’t really happy living as he is, but he doesn’t know what else he can do.
“I can’t return home – there’s no space for me because everything was destroyed by the storm,” he says.
These days it’s almost impossible to hear about a cyclone or a hurricane and not at least wonder if it’s linked to climate change. But it’s not yet possible to say whether or not climate change caused Nargis. The growing field of climate attribution research – in which scientists assess the impact, if any, of climate change on an individual extreme weather event – still struggles with certain types of extreme events. The science is strongest when it comes to heat and drought – not hurricanes and cyclones.
Despite that, Nargis fits within the predicted climate change triggered trends for the region. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc) has predicted an increase in weather events like tropical cyclones in Southeast Asia. Similarly, a 2014 study in the journal Nature has shown that as the ocean warms the intensity of tropical cyclones increases, including in the Pacific Basin where Myanmar lies. It’s not that there are more storms, but rather that storms, as measured by wind speed, have gotten stronger. As the temperatures have increased, the number of tropical storms of weak or normal strength has declined while the number of intense tropical cyclones has increased globally by 25 to 30 percent over the past half century.
And it’s not just Myanmar’s coastal areas that are affected. Roughly 600 miles northwest of Yangon lies Chin state. The remote region, home to the ethnic Chin people, rests at 6,500 feet above sea level, but is not out of harm’s way. Like Myanmar’s Delta region and the nation overall, Chin too, has to contend with more severe weather.
“We have looked into the pattern of rainfall over the past 25 years in Chin state and have found that the season has become a bit shorter with the same amount of rain,” says Joern Kristensen, the founder and executive director at Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development (miid). “The rain has been more intense.”
The increased intensity was felt perhaps most acutely in 2015 when Tropical Storm Komen struck the region. Swirling through the Bay of Bengal, Cyclone Komen made landfall in Myanmar towards the end of July in 2015, an unusual time for cyclones. It was smack in the middle of monsoon season, deepening existing flooding. By the time Komen finally fizzled out, it had dumped over 30 inches of rain and left the region in shambles. Like Nargis, it’s impossible to link Komen definitively to climate change, but climate scientists say the unusual nature of the storm, and the increasing rainfall in the region overall, indicate some correlation.
To the north, near Tonzang, the rains triggered a massive landslide that lasted 160 seconds and managed to reach speeds of 110 miles per hour. Not only was it longer and faster than most landslides, but according to NASA Earth, which recorded the landslide via an Earth-observing satellite, it’s one of the largest recorded landslides not caused by an earthquake in more than a decade. The landslide – which Columbia University researchers measured as about 3.6 miles long – covered terraced fields of the mostly subsistence farmers when they were at their thickest with crops, just weeks before they were to be harvested.
“Some of the fields were covered, some were washed away, and some of the fields had their irrigation ditches filled in so when the dry season came in the fall they didn’t have any water to irrigate them,” says Sui Hnem Cuai from the Choklei Organization for Rural and Agricultural Development (corad), a nonprofit based in Chin’s capital city Hakha, that’s been tasked with helping some of the farmers recover from the devastation. In total, over 1.1 million acres of farmland were inundated, with more than 872,000 acres destroyed, according to Myanmar’s Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation. The landslides killed 41 and displaced 17,000 in a state with 478,000 people.
In Hakha, Komen completely wiped out the lone road into and out of the city for a month. Basic supplies had to be flown in on tiny prop planes. The cost of rice rose from $30 dollars to $100 for the equivalent of a 100-pound bag – a price increase of more than 200 percent in an area where 73 percent of people live below the poverty line.
In 2015, a team of German archeologists concluded that the combination of geology, deforestation, and increasing rains had rendered most of the city geologically unstable. But their findings seem mired in controversy.
“There are four [separate] geologists’ reports and they conflict,” says Flora Bawa Wei, who works with the Chin Committee for Emergency Response and Rehabilitation. The committee is currently focused on helping people rebuild their homes outside vulnerable zones with the help of foreign aid. But the reconstruction efforts aren’t well planned. Many of these new homes are being built on the outskirts of Hakha, in the manner that dominates the region – wooden structures on stilts, some of them dangling precariously off cliff sides. At least two of these new houses collapsed after the earth slid out from beneath them during recent rains.
The situation isn’t much better in central Myanmar. Between 1981 and 2010, temperatures in Myanmar overall have risen by 0.25° Celsius but the inland areas have warmed faster than the coast, according to a report released in April by Colombia University, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, and the UN Human Settlements Program. The report, which was based on data from 19 weather stations across the country operating since 1981, says temperatures across Myanmar will rise by between 1.3°C and 2.7°C by the middle of the century, with the most dramatic changes during the hot season, especially in the east and north of the country.
Access to freshwater has already become an issue in the low-lying delta regions, which have been repeatedly inundated with sea water. People sometimes have to dig down nearly 125 feet for freshwater. These changes are going to make it harder for the country’s tens of millions of subsistence farmers to make a living.
Central Myanmar is already beginning to suffer longer periods of drought interspersed with short periods of intense rainfall. Rainfall has increased slightly, mostly during the monsoons, but the monsoon season itself has shortened by a week. The net result is more intense rainfall over a shorter period of time, causing flooding. And – as much of the interior is to some degree hilly or mountainous – landslides. The report also predicts that the country will likely see more heat waves and flooding in the future.
In 2010, an unusually severe heat wave and drought hit the region, with temperatures topping 40°C. One could see the effects, perhaps most vividly in the central Myanmar community of Inle Lake. Inle Lake is a fishing and agricultural region popular with tourists because instead of building around the lake, residents built their communities – from homes, to temples, to restaurants – on stilts above the water so they almost seem to float ethereally in the lake. In 2010 the lake dried up, leaving spindly structures perched awkwardly atop cracked earth.
“In the central dry zone area, there is climate driven migration because of the loss of agricultural productivity because of climate change,” says Pasquale Capizzi, the chief technical advisor of the Myanmar Climate Change Alliance, a finance program run by the United Nations Human Settlements Program and the United Nations Environment Program. Capizzi notes that 33 percent of the nation’s gdp depends on agriculture. “When the rainfall patterns change you have a potential vulnerability,” he says, in a bit of a understatement. “It appears quite clear that there’s been a trend in increasing temperature, decreased production, [and] increase in some pest and disease which makes it difficult for [farmers’] children to live on the same piece of land,” he says.
The nonprofit Germanwatch ranks Myanmar – which is locked between two major climate polluters, India and China – second for long term climate risk in its Global Climate Index, behind Honduras and ahead of Haiti, with a death toll from severe weather events that dwarfs both. In fact, the top 10 countries on Germanwatch’s list are all developing countries, reflecting not only their exposure risk – the likelihood that they will be battered by the worst of climate change’s offerings – but also their limited capacity to adapt to them, unlike developed nations that face similar risks.
The United States, for example, actually has significant climate exposure risks – 40 percent of its population lives in coastal areas that will face increasing storms, flooding, and precipitation; the already hot southern states will get warmer and dryer, as will much of the Midwest, threatening agriculture and groundwater supplies. But because the US is wealthy and has strong existing infrastructure, its exposure impact – that is, how much people living in the country will feel the impact of climate change – is much lower.
“Myanmar, even without climate change, is geographically exposed to a number of potentially severe negative effects of natural phenomenon,” Capizzi says. “It becomes a disaster when you have a vulnerability, which is this intersection between the sensitivity of the people – as to where they are and how they live, such as their housing construction – and the intensity of the event.”
Given the country’s lack of resources, and given that it’s also in the midst of economic change and social turmoil, many observers fear that Myanmar simply doesn’t have the capacity to tackle what’s coming down the climate pipeline.
Until 2011, the military junta, which had controlled Myanmar since 1962, ruled the nation with an iron fist. (When Nargis hit in 2008, the military rulers blocked international humanitarian organizations from delivering much-needed aid to the affected communities for three weeks before finally relenting.) The junta began loosening the reins in 2010, in part because it was worried about being too economically reliant on China. In 2011, when a quasi-civilian government came to power on the heels of the Southeast Asian country’s first general elections in 20 years, the nation began attracting international attention and development aid.
Myanmar isn’t quite free yet – out of 180 countries, Reporters without Borders gives it a freedom ranking of 143, ahead of Russia and Mexico, but behind Afghanistan and South Sudan – but it is opening up. The country’s process of political reform and liberalization led to Myanmar’s first democratic election in decades in November 2015, and the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi , swept into power. However, the military still controls key ministries, such as home affairs and defense, as well as one-fourth of the parliamentary seats, and the country continues to be besieged by ethnic conflicts that it has failed to resolve.
Despite these drawbacks, Myanmar has the fastest growing economy in Asia today, according to the Asian Development Bank. Employment is growing and living standards are improving. Cheap Chinese cell phones have flooded the country, there’s widespread cellular and Internet access, and an upswing in commercial airplane travel. Foreign aid workers and development agencies are flocking to the nation’s cities, as are used cars from Japan.
The growth, however, has been rather chaotic. To me, nothing seemed to represent the pace and coordination of change in Myanmar more than the imported Japanese cars. Japan drives on the left side of the road and its cars are designed to be driven accordingly, with the steering wheel on the right. But Myanmar, like most of the world, drives on the right: The people here are moving around in cars designed for a place with different driving rules.
As in other parts of the country, the capital city of Yangon too, is struggling with the dual pressures of finding a way to develop while balancing the pressures of increased climate-induced rainfall. During the monsoon season it rains so much that city’s debris-choked sewage systems overflow. The streets turn into rivulets and everyone who can stay put does so, rather than trudge through the confluence of water and human detritus. Much of the city lacks basic infrastructure, sidewalks begin and end abruptly, and current water supplies are sufficient for only 40 percent of the population.
With Yangon’s population expected to double by 2050 as job seekers and climate refugees from other parts of the country move into the capital city and nearby settlements, the pressure on the limited resources in Yangon and its surrounding great metropolitan area is only going to get worse.
When Daw Tin Llang and her husband, who live just down the road from U Mya Tan Aung in Hlaing Thar Yar township, first arrived in Yangon following Nargis, they were paying $30 a month in rent. That might not seem like much by the standards of most major American cities, but her husband makes $80 a month working security at a factory, and she makes a fraction of that cleaning prawns at a local fish market. It left them maybe $70 a month to cover food and all other expenses. But then, Daw Tin Llang was hit by a car. The settlement money bought her what should have been peace of mind, but turned out to be just a patch of insecurity: She owns a house – she purchased it from its previous occupant – but not the land it sits on. None of those living here do, and that’s a problem.
Many fear that Myanmar doesn’t have the capacity to tackle what’s coming down the climate pipeline.
Officially, the land is owned by the government, but in many cases “government” actually means Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, a vast conglomerate owned by the military junta that ruled the country for over 50 years. In 2015, they seized land in a nearby township called Mingaladon and removed 2,500 residents.
Everyone in Hlaing Thar Yar lives in fear that their new homes will be taken away. They worry that after finding a way to eke out an existence, and rebuilding a sense of community, they will be pushed out under the guise of development. Last year, Aung san Suu Kyi’s party unveiled plans to clear the township out completely. According to the government the legitimately landless would be moved to “rehabilitation camps” while those found to be “anarchic” settlers would be simply evicted. How they could tell one from the other remains unclear.
As with the rebuilding efforts up in Chin state, the uncertain plight of the climate refugees in Hlaing Thar Yar shows how the administration in this country, as is common in many least-developed nations, is yet to gather the political will and knowhow needed to protect its people from the worst impacts of climate change. It’s as if New Orleans experienced Hurricane Katrina but received no aid, however problematic, from the Federal Emergency Management Association or the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That said, Myanmar is finally starting to recognize that it needs to prioritize climate action. In January, the nation finalized its first-ever national climate change strategy and action plan that was created in consultation with local governments and communities, civil society organizations, and the private sector. The plan identifies priority actions in key development sectors to build the adaptive capacity of communities, such as climate smart agriculture, fisheries and livestock management, sustainable management of natural resources, and climate resilient cities.
Capizzi says that the strength of the plan lies in the detailed action plans that will allow stakeholders to start working on climate adaptation strategies right away. “Climate change is not a thing that can be sorted out by governments or by communities or by civil society [alone],” Capizzi says. “You have to get many partners together to accomplish much.”
There’s a new committee on climate change as well, led by Vice President U Htin Kyaw. Myanmar also sent a sizable delegation to the 2015 Paris climate conference and signed onto the resulting agreement. And nonprofits, like Kristensen’s Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development, are already working directly with people in high-risk areas, helping them build climate resilience via trainings on low water use farming practices, rainwater harvesting, and soil management.
The question now is whether Myanmar can adapt its infrastructure fast enough, not only to deal with its economic necessities but also the changing climate. Kristensen worries that it might be a tough challenge to meet. He estimates that to survive the worst impacts of climate change Myanmar needs to quickly train its people – 75 percent of whom live off the land – to put adaptation measures into practice within the next 15 years.
Unfortunately, even that short timeline might be too late for many subsistence fisherfolk and farmers like U Mya Tan Aung who have already lost their homes due to extreme weather events. “Even if we were to rebuild [back home], I would worry about the cyclones,” U Mya Tan Aung says. “No one knows when it will come back and I’m getting old. If the cyclone comes again … I can’t run.”
Kendra Pierre-Louis is a New York- based journalist whose work focuses on the intersection between people and the environment.