Myanmar’s national government and some international development groups are adopting different but complementary approaches to tackling what many in the country consider to be one of the biggest threats to achieving sustainable development: Climate change. Government officials are working on implementing a new country-wide climate action plan, while several foreign aid groups are going straight to local communities and helping them adapt to the realities of a warming world.
They face large hurdles, however — and many stakeholders fear the impact of Myanmar’s lack of resources, capacity and funds to deal with the devastating effects of climate change.
Admittedly, the Southeast Asian country is only starting to prioritize climate action after emerging from decades of self-imposed isolation. Yet if efforts currently being spearheaded by government officials, United Nations workers, aid groups and others prove effective, Myanmar could herald a model for other countries emerging from authoritarianism to grapple with climate change issues.
“Myanmar can be an excellent model,” says Ancha Srinivasan, a principal climate change specialist at the Asian Development Bank. “But it needs to be cautious and make sure that new investments being made in the country are low carbon and climate resilient.”
Myanmar has long been struggling with the direct consequences of climate change. Over the past two decades or so, the country has experienced the worst effects of extreme weather events worldwide, second only to Haiti, according to the nonprofit Germanwatch. If global emissions of greenhouse gases continue at a high level, people living in low-lying Myanmar, who have done little to cause climate change, will face an even more troubling future.
According to the latest scientific research, global warming is driving an overall increase in extreme rainfall patterns around the world. In central Myanmar, short spurts of excessive precipitation are expected to alternate with longer periods of drought. This will make it even more challenging for the country’s largely rural population to grow crops and earn a living.
Meanwhile, those residing in Myanmar’s low-lying coastal areas are vulnerable to flooding from rising sea levels. And warmer ocean temperatures could increase the intensity of cyclones and storm surges that have been devastating parts of the country year after year. The worst was in 2008, when Cyclone Nargis killed almost 140,000 people. That’s more than 17 times the number of people killed by Super Typhoon Haiyan, which cut across the central Philippines in 2013. When Nargis hit, Myanmar’s then-military rulers initially blocked humanitarian organizations from delivering much-needed aid to the affected communities.
Myanmar’s leadership eventually let them in, and two years later the country began a process of political reform and liberalization that led to the landmark November 2015 vote, Myanmar’s first democratic election in decades. Today, the country has the fastest growing economy in Asia, according to the most recent figures from the ADB. But the economic gains and the country’s path toward sustainable development are also being undermined by climate change. “With these [extreme weather events] the government realizes that climate change is really a priority issue to address,” says U Hla Maung Thein, a director general in Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, the ministry focal point for climate change.
But while the government is increasingly aware of climate issues, there’s a lot of work to do on knowledge and know-how across all sectors, says Pasquale Capizzi, from the Myanmar Climate Change Alliance, a European Union-funded project. MMCA officially launched in July 2014 and is being implemented by UN-Habitat and the U.N. Environment Program in partnership with the Myanmar government. Over the past few years, Capizzi and his colleagues have helped increase awareness of the implications of climate change, and enhanced the government’s ability to integrate climate knowledge in its policies.
More recently, MMCA provided support for a national climate change strategy and action plan, which was finalized just a few months ago. The national government created the 15-year plan in consultation with more than 600 people from local government, civil society organizations, communities and the private sector. It shows that the Myanmar government is prioritizing helping its people adapt to a warmer and more unpredictable world by supporting six key sectors. One of them is energy security. Myanmar’s heavy reliance on hydropower for its current energy needs is already starting to be compromised as a result of changing weather patterns, and the government is trying to explore alternative sources.
As the government works on implementing its climate strategy, several international development organizations are already promoting climate action in communities across the country. For instance, the BRACED Myanmar Alliance is made up of five agencies that received a grant worth 5 million pounds from the U.K. government in 2015 to implement a three-year project called Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters, or BRACED. The program is implementing a range of activities designed to strengthen the resilience of 350,000 people in Myanmar, especially women and children, who are vulnerable to climate change.
As part of this initiative, ActionAid has been teaching over 400 smallholder farmers how to do Zero Budget Farming. The method promotes sustainable agriculture and food security by teaching farmers how to utilize natural fertilizers and pesticides such as female cow urine. ActionAid adopted the method from India, where it initially evolved, and adapted it to Myanmar by adding a climate component. “We do an assessment on climate variability for at-risk farmers, most of them smallholder farmers,” says Lafir Mohamed, manager of the Myanmar Consortium for Community Resilience at ActionAid. That way farmers have access to both natural, low-cost farming inputs and the information they need to adapt to unanticipated climate shocks such as heavy flooding.
Yet people in Myanmar want more support from NGOs and their government to address climate issues, according to a 2016 study carried out by BBC Media Action, an international development charity that’s also part of the BRACED Alliance. Several development organizations and government officials told Devex that Myanmar still lacks critical resources and technical support needed to combat change.
One of the major factors that prevent people from taking climate action is a lack of information, according to the study. Half of the 3,000 people who were interviewed don’t feel knowledgeable about how to deal with environmental and weather changes. There are large regional differences in perceived knowledge about these issues: two-thirds in the Delta — where Cyclone Nargis hit — feel informed, compared with only one-third in the coastal zone. Overall, rural and low-income communities are more likely to feel uninformed.
Muk Yin Haung Nyoi, one of the authors of the study and a senior research officer at BBC Media Action Myanmar, says part of the problem is that most people in Myanmar get climate related weather information from national news networks. They also use language that many rural people have difficulty understanding. For instance, the programs report temperature increase in terms of degrees Celsius, without explaining how that could affect planting season for different crops.
“Rather than try to understand the audience first, information giving here is like a one-way channel,” she says. To improve the climate resilience of people in Myanmar, BBC Media Action has produced a series of national public service announcements that will run on Myanmar Radio and Myanmar TV Channel until 2018. The PSAs feature real life stories of survival from rural communities, and offer information on simple, low-cost ways people can respond to extreme weather events. For instance, in one PSA, a woman explains that she’s keeping her important documents, such as birth certificates, wrapped in a waterproof plastic bag in case she needs to leave the house suddenly due to severe weather.
Government agencies and NGOs in Myanmar that are interested in communicating climate change more effectively would benefit from connecting the phenomena to local people's main concerns for economic stability and good health. “Without considering the motivator for them, even if you send thousands of messages people won’t answer,” says Muk Yin.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was supported by a grant from the Earth Journalism Network. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.
Fatima Arkin is a Manila-based freelance journalist specializing in climate change, human rights and natural disasters. She has reported onsite at the 2015 Paris climate conference, the MERS outbreak in South Korea and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines for Foreign Policy, SciDev.net, Maclean’s and many others. She holds a B.A. in international development and history from McGill University and a graduate diploma in journalism from Concordia University, both located in Montreal, Canada.
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