Photo Essay: Hidden dangers in the waters of Inle Lake, Myanmar

This is a photo story commissioned by The Lien Foundation – NTU Environmental Endeavour (EE2). A brainchild of Lien Foundation and NTU, EE2 is strategically located within NEWRI and seeks to improve the living conditions of Asia’s developing communities in the areas of water, sanitation and renewable energy.

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So clear are the waters of Myanmar’s Inle Lake that a parallel universe seemed to exist underneath, mirroring the floating bamboo villages, drifting islands, and fishing boats on it still surface. But a hidden danger lurks beneath: Pollution seeping into lake waters, a source of life for its 20,000 inhabitants.

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Arriving on the lake on January 2 is a NTU team bringing technology and water-testing expertise from Singapore, a country once almost completely reliant on imported water but renowned for water technologies in the region today.

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Leading the project is Dr Khin Lay Swe from Myanmar’s Yezin Agricultural University (YAU). Under the guidance of associate professor Tan Soon Keat , she had spent six months at the Nanyang Environmental and Water Research Institute (NEWRI) under the Lien Environmental Fellowship to improve water conditions at the lake.

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“People lack access to safe water and sanitation,” said Dr Khin. “The lake has been polluted by human waste, agrochemicals and other contaminants.”

Their task is an urgent one as many developing countries today face water problems. A United Nations resolution in 2010 expressed concern that 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water. In addition, more than 2.6 billion do not have access to basic sanitation too. EE2’s projects cover six countries: India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.

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Unlike most overseas volunteer trips, EE2 focuses on helping developing communities help themselves. Instead of ad-hoc visits, technological knowledge is transferred to local communities over the long-term to ensure ownership, viability, and pride.

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One of the students, 23-year-old Lam Wan Yee (right), said: “The projects are all run and driven by the local experts, who come to Singapore under the fellowship programme to develop their solutions under the guidance of NTU professors.”

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Lam (second from right), a fourth-year student from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), was joined by three other schoolmates. Among them were Kaung Set Zaw (2nd from left) and Khin Pyay Thu (1st from right), both Myanmar students, helping to bridge the language and cultural barrier between the EE2 team and the local people.

For seven days, students from NTU conducted field tests, inspected pipes and taught YAU students to use water testing equipment.

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Moving around villages on Inle Lake is similar to travelling in Venice – the entire team travels by boat as it is impossible to walk from house to house.

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“The lake is so huge, I have nearly mistaken it as a sea,” said Loy Yoongshin, final-year student at CEE. “Villagers depend on the lake for a living. They fish, they plant tomatoes on floating agriculture farm, and they row boats to travel around.” The lake, nearly 50 square kilometres in size, makes building a supply of clean water an uphill task.

Over time, agricultural fertilisers from the thriving tomato farms have seeped into lake waters. Coupled with poor sanitation, this means that raw lake water is unsafe for drinking.

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“The water are everywhere around people in the lake but not a drop is safe to drink,” said team member Pyay Thu, third-year student at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Villagers turn to water sources on the mountains surrounding the lake. However, the pipes often leak and are unprotected from contamination. Water tanks, already limited in number, are not safe for drinking too.

Thye Yoke Pean, the project manager from EE2, hopes that their efforts can “restore the quality of the lake and preserve its beauty.” “It’s easier said than done,” she said. “We need to build proper toilets, introducing a waste management system and reduce the use of fertiliser and pesticides.”

The EE2 team and some students:

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Working with local authorities is key to success, according to Pyay Thu (1st from left). “Dr Khin arranged meetings with the community leaders and minister to garner support for project,” said the 24-year-old. “The response was overwhelming.”

For Loy Yoongshin (2nd from left), the trip was “empowering, enriching and an eye opener.” Even after returning from Myanmar, she still helping EE2 with the Inle lake project.

“We are living in good conditions but many people out there are struggling to have clean drinking water,” the 22-year-old said. “The world is never fair, but we can play our part to care and lend a hand for others.”

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