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Aung San Suu Kyi’s climate change crisis
Central Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi’s climate change crisis

In 2008, Myanmar suffered its worst natural disaster on record when Cyclone Nargis swept through and the military regime hampered relief efforts. Now, the new government is struggling to find the resources needed to help protect its people from the ravages of global warming 

Last April, Tin Thein was sitting at home thinking about what he would cook for dinner when hail the size of tennis balls fell from the sky. The initial joy the 54-year-old experienced at seeing such a rare occurrence in this small village in central Myanmar quickly turned to fear as the hail grew bigger and stronger; ripping holes through his tin roof. Then a strong gust of wind swept through, killing all of the farmer’s papaya and bean sprouts – all of this on top of years of crushing heat and scant rainfall.

Thein (left) holding up the corrugated tin that used to form his roof. It was destroyed by a freak hailstorm last year. Climate change is increasing the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events like the hailstorm.

Sitting inside his living room in Mandalay division’s Kyaw Se district, surrounded by photos of his wife and their four children, Thein explains how some days it gets so hot inside that they are forced to seek shelter under the trees by a nearby canal. If the weather is good, Thein says he’ll make about 15% profit from his crops, but if the weather is bad, he’ll lose money. Lately, the weather’s been bad.

“It’s been getting worse and worse each year,” he says. The government offers him loans: In 2015 he was entitled to roughly $198 for every hectare he owns; the following year, he received $321 for every hectare. But with higher loans came higher interest rates, which jumped from 0.42% in 2015 to 0.72% in 2016.

Thein is one of tens of millions of people across Myanmar quietly struggling to adapt to the realities of a warmer and more unpredictable world. Over the past two decades or so, low-lying Myanmar has experienced some of the worst impacts of extreme weather events globally, second only to Haiti, according to the non-profit Germanwatch.

According to Thein, the hail damaged over 50 houses. A handful of villagers got scrapes and bruises. Months after the storm, several families are still trying to rebuild.

If current trends persist, Myanmar’s future prospects look bleak. Global warming is causing ocean water to expand and sea level rise to accelerate. Without large investments to help Myanmar adapt to these changes, the latest climate models show that millions of people each year are expected to grapple with flooding due to continued high emissions. Warmer ocean temperatures could also increase the destructive potential of cyclones and storm surges to which the country’s coastal areas are already prone.

Meanwhile, in central Myanmar, longer periods of drought are expected to alternate with shorter periods of excessive rainfall, making it even more difficult for the tens of millions of poor farmers living there to support their families. Food and water security are likely to worsen. And some scientists and development experts say that the country’s heavy reliance on hydropower for energy is starting to be compromised due to changing weather patterns.

Even by regional standards, Myanmar severely lacks the resources to effectively deal with these problems, but the government is finally starting to pay attention. In meetings from Washington to Marrakesh, Hla Maung Thein, a director-general in Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, is appealing to richer countries for help. “We have very limited capacity in terms of human resources and institutions and very limited finance and an almost lack of technology for adaptation and mitigation,” he says. “We are very much encouraging the global community to cooperate with us in tackling climate change.”

That comment stands in stark contrast to 2008. Back then, the military government shocked the world when it hampered international relief efforts after Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in the country’s recorded history. Winds over 200 km per hour helped create a storm surge over six meters high that swept in and killed almost 140,000 people. That’s almost 16 times the number of people killed by the Nepalese earthquake in 2015. And over 17 times the number of people killed by super typhoon Haiyan, which ripped through the central Philippines in 2013.

After the cyclone hit, most aid worker visas were delayed; safe passageway to affected areas was compromised; and the media was largely barred from freely reporting on the disaster. “I want to register my deep concern – and immense frustration – at the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis,” then-UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said. The regime also committed abuses against survivors that researchers from John Hopkins University said might amount to “crimes against humanity”.

In 2015, unusually heavy monsoon rains and a tropical cyclone led to the worst flooding and landslides Myanmar has experienced in recent decades. Agricultural land was badly damaged causing food prices to increase. 12 of the country’s 14 states and regions were affected. Myanmar has yet to fully recover from damages, yet it still managed to become Asia’s fastest growing economy in 2016. But, the government is not just interested in economic development. They want sustainable development. And national officials are increasingly aware that climate change is on the way to achieving that, says Pasquale Capizzi, from the Myanmar Climate Change Alliance, a European Union funded project that is implemented by U.N. agencies in partnership with the Myanmar government.

A woman resting on the Irrawaddy river. It is the country’s largest river and cuts through the heart of Myanmar. The eroding bank of the river has forced some communities to relocate.

After more than a half a century of forced hibernation, the National League for Democracy party took charge of Myanmar in March 2016. They have inherited a country ill prepared for and vulnerable to the realities of an increasingly warming world. To cope with this huge task, they are forced to seek help from some of the very organisations that their military predecessors once shunned.

Global warming is a “very high” priority for the government, says Capizzi. Recently, the national government, with the help of the UN, finalised a detailed action plan for how the country will handle climate change-related risks and opportunities over the next 15 years. It shows that the government wants to focus on helping its people adapt to the punishing effects of climate change by promoting critical areas, such as education and the safeguarding of natural resources. What Myanmar lacks is adequate funding, says Maung Thein.

Securing money can be challenging. Billions of dollars are committed each year to the international fight against climate change, but the majority of these funds focus on mitigation initiatives, mainly renewable energy, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Initiatives designed to help poor countries like Myanmar adapt to a changing climate are critical, but have long been underfunded. According to the 2015 Global Landscape of Climate Finance, mitigation accounted for 93% of total climate finance in 2014 while adaptation only accounted for 17% of all public climate finance.

Heavy traffic on the streets of Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon. According to the Asian Development Bank, the battle against climate change will likely be won or lost in Asia’s expanding megacities.

That figure doesn’t include private investment in adaptation, which is difficult to track due to persistent data gaps. Businesses operating at or that have a stake in developing countries are highly likely to invest in adaptation because it affects their bottom line. And the report notes that development finance institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank have increased the number of private sector oriented adaptation projects in their portfolio since 2011. But engaging the private sector can be difficult. Companies are not responsible for the well being of people in the way governments are. And many adaptation projects like building sea walls are essential to the continued existence of climate vulnerable countries, but don’t necessarily turn a profit.

Most of the public funds available for adaptation are given to developing countries as loans that must eventually be paid back with interest. Grants are limited and dwindling. According to Oxfam, in 2013, grant funding for adaptation comprised only 12% of total climate finance then dropped to less than 10% in 2014, the most recent years for which statistics are available. Industrialized nations bear the greatest responsibility for climate change yet it is poor countries that are disproportionately feeling its impacts. These cash-strapped countries are already facing their own development challenges. Now they will likely go deeper into debt to adapt to a warming world that they did little to cause.

In some ways, however, Myanmar is in a fortunate position. As a result of increasing democratization and the lifting of international sanctions, foreign money is pouring in. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, official development assistance to Myanmar has increased tenfold since 2009, reaching $3.8 billion in 2013. With debt relief factored in, that figure surpassed $7.6 billion. It’s hard to tell how much of those funds are going toward climate projects. But, several international development organisations are already in Myanmar and taking action on climate change.

In 2015, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) started working in Myanmar’s central “dry zone” with the support of a roughly $8m grant from the Adaptation Fund. Chronic poverty here has been directly linked to the impacts of drought and dry spells that are expected to get worse. Karma Rapten, a technical specialist at the UNDP overseeing the project on the ground, says they plan to develop effective irrigation systems and distribute select species of cattle and chickens that can survive the extreme heat.“We’re trying to develop all of the benefit sharing mechanisms then give it up to the farmers to manage themselves so once the project is done it’s sustainable,” says Rapten.

Meanwhile Mercy Corps is helping farmers in Labutta township, which was heavily damaged by Cyclone Nargis, to rebuild their lives and increase their income. Mark Munoz, a programme manager at Mercy Corps, says one of the ways they’re doing this is by linking farmers to local and international companies that can offer much needed supplies, such as good-quality fertilizers and rental equipment. But time is a huge challenge. It takes hours to travel by boat from the main town of Labutta to just one of the surrounding villages, which makes the journey financially unfeasible for many businessmen. “Labutta is one of the last places they’re coming,” says Munoz. “They’re going to the dry zone because there they can hit more villages faster.”

Other climate change initiatives are being implemented in the country, and Maung Thein encourages more of them. But despite his talk of openness and cooperation with the international community, relationships between some government departments and foreign aid organisations still have their challenges. When the MMCA first started working in Myanmar about four years ago, staff quickly learned that the government is “still very cautious when dealing with international agencies,” according to the Global Climate Change Alliance’s website. This sentiment is echoed by several of the foreign aid organisations working in Myanmar today. None would go on the record about the difficulties they face in working with the government and operating in the country out of fear that it might compromise their relationship with national officials. But common complaints include some government departments’ excessive criticism of how projects are being implemented, which results in unnecessary delays; language barriers that prevent essential communication with local colleagues; and heavy bureaucratic red tape.

Women watching TV at a local tea shop in rural Myanmar. Most people get climate related weather information from national news.

Meanwhile the effects of climate change are already being felt throughout the world. And while the Myanmar government continues to appeal to world powers for much-needed resources, Tin Thein and his fellow farmers are grappling with the fallout.

Thein says he doesn’t know what the term ‘climate change’ means, although he has noticed the weather getting worse. Like many in the country, he’s a devout Buddhist and attributes these changes to karma and selfish human behaviour. “As humans’ physical appearance has gotten better, their mind has gotten worse,” he says. “That’s related to the weather.”

Thein didn’t graduate from high school, but he worked hard and helped put his three adult children through university. Now they’re all working as teachers in other villages and his youngest, Soe Soe, will start university soon. “I’m happy that my children are not farmers,” he says with a long hearty laugh. “There will be no problem for them like there is for me.”