BAGO, Myanmar (Reuters) – Three years ago, the villagers watched as the Sittaung River on Myanmar’s southeast coast crept closer to them, swollen by powerful tidal surges from the Gulf of Mottama that eroded its banks.
A boy from Ta Dar U village pets a dog after villagers relocated their houses inland in Bago, Myanmar, February 6, 2020. Photo taken on February 6, 2020. REUTERS/Ann Wang
Eventually, the 1,500 residents of Ta Dar U had to accept the inevitable: move or be washed away.
Dismantling their wooden homes, they relocated several kilometers inland, away from the fertile fields they had cultivated for decades.
“Where we now see water, our farming land used to be,” said farmer Tint Khaing. “It was very big, nearly three hours’ walking distance. We all lost our farmland to the sea.”
Ta Dar U is among hundreds of villages at the frontline of Myanmar’s climate crisis, where extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels have amplified and accelerated natural erosion.
Environmentalists consider Myanmar to be particularly vulnerable. It was among the top three countries affected by extreme weather between 1998 and 2018 on the Global Climate Risk Index, published by environmental think tank Germanwatch.
Sea levels are projected to rise about 13 cm (5 inches) by 2020, putting at risk about 2.5 million coastal residents, said Myint Thein, a U.S.-based groundwater consultant and member of Myanmar’s natural water resources committee.
“Flooding will be worst during the rainy season and high tide, dragging salty water up into the land,” he said.
Rapid erosion has already devoured 10 villages in the past four years, said Jos van der Zanden, chief technical adviser to the Gulf of Mottama Project, a Swiss-based organization that provides assistance to displaced villagers.
After their homes fell into the sea, the people of Ta Dar U, mostly rice farmers, scattered across the delta.
Saltwater contaminated their lands and they were forced to take up new occupations, with little success.
Nearly 200 students now travel hours every day to attend school after their own, which once stood near the town center, was reduced to a crumbling pile of rubble on the riverbank.
“If the erosion continues at this rate, the future of the students will fade as well,” said Myo Min Thein, the sole teacher at a makeshift school, who said he is struggling to teach the 26 students, ages 4 to 14, by himself.
Myanmar’s climate change department has drafted plans to address rising waters but is not involved in resettling those displaced, deputy director Thin Thuzar Win told Reuters.
An official from the disaster management department said it did not have specific programs for those displaced by riverbank erosion. Regional government officials did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.
Low-lying villages should be moved immediately to areas at least 7 meters (23 feet) above sea level, said Myint Thein.
“It will be costly but it must be done,” he said. “The environment has changed, so the people must learn to adapt.”
Additional reporting by Sam Aung Moon and Shoon Naing; Editing by Karishma Singh and Gerry Doyle