Starting on May 24th, a three-day meeting for the High Level Roundtable on Water Security took place in Yangon, Myanmar. The talks — which received wide support from various UN agencies, regional development partners, and leaders within civil society — supplemented initiatives put forth by the Global Water Partnership (GWP), a worldwide intergovernmental network focused on creating a water-secure world built on responsible water management and sustainable government practices.
The United Nations has emphasized the issue of water security as crucial in ameliorating high poverty levels, overturning systemic violence, addressing human rights inequities, mitigating and adapting to climate change, improving agricultural and manufacturing practices, and providing for sustainable energy production — all of which, because of Myanmar’s tumultuous past, are somewhat overdue and yet, due to Myanmar’s new democratic posturing, now provide the country with the opportunity to lead in efforts to address a multitude of issues (1).
The objectives laid out at the High Level Roundtable focus on three key areas: reimagining Myanmar’s current approach with regional objectives for water security in South Asia, integrating the Sustainable Development Goals of UN Agenda 2030, and furthering cooperation with regional partners undergoing similar challenges (2). In particular, the Global Water Partnership highlights the importance of supporting the new democratic government of Myanmar in achieving water resource development. The new government has a ways to go in repairing its predecessor’s damage to water security and achieving sustainable development: As GWP member and Secretary of the Myanmar Water Think Tank Dr. Khin Ni Ni Thein stated, “The High Level Round Table meeting seeks to identify possible challenges to address the inherited impacts from past governments on the water sector. This High Level event would bridge the past with the present as well as help building a meaningful work plan for the future not only for Myanmar but also for the ASEAN members (3).”
Myanmar is at a crucial juncture where its increasing population and developing economy are looking progressively towards water resources in order to support growth. In the IMF’s latest annual assessment, Myanmar was listed as one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia; although economic advancements remain steady, the country must creatively close gaps of vulnerability in areas of industrial infrastructure and confidently press forward with further development of resource structures (4). According to the Water Environment Partnership in Asia (WEPA), 90% of Myanmar’s current water consumption goes towards agriculture while the remaining 10% is allocated for industry and domestic use. Even so, Myanmar is only utilizing 5% of potential water resource usage, indicating a vast possibility for consequential water resource development through capacity building and thoughtful governance — both of which international, regional, and civil society actors are willing to provide guidance on (5).
Although Myanmar has an abundance of water resources, the upwards pressure of surface water utilization and groundwater extraction to provide for its demand have created an overwhelming environment for the new democracy. Any approach to ensure the future of Myanmar’s water security and overall sustainability as a country calls for thoughtful, holistic planning and careful implementation based on strong transboundary collaboration with international bodies and regional organizations that hold the same water security interests as Myanmar. This multi-stakeholder approach to the sustainable development of Myanmar’s water infrastructure will largely impact other dimensions, some of which are more obvious — such as food security, biodiversity, health and sanitation, energy production, employment, poverty — and others which are more discreetly related such as education, ethnic conflict, and gender equality. Overall development requires an interdisciplinary understanding — a message reiterated by the Ministerial Declaration at the Third World Water Forum (WWF3), which stated that “water is a driving force for sustainable development including environmental integrity, and the eradication of poverty and hunger, indispensable for human health and welfare.”
Myanmar exemplifies how water security underpins all security. Poverty and lack of access to resources are particularly critical issues for the civilian population of Myanmar. According to the UN Development Program, almost a third of Myanmar’s population lives below the poverty level, primarily in rural areas and communities that have been historically embroiled in ethnic conflict. These same communities suffer from unsafe drinking water and lack of sanitation facilities while access to electricity is afforded to only a third of the people of Myanmar (6). In addition to this, Myanmar finds itself especially vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters such as cyclones, floods, wet periods, and droughts according to the latest Environmental Vulnerability Index (7). These exigencies are both caused by and are the causal forces behind water insecurity. As such, these vulnerabilities must be met with resilience in order to allay the risks faced by the rural poor and other groups whose fragility has been externally induced by their environment, most notably women and children.
With a fast-growing economy that is projected to become increasingly dependent on water resources, it is vital to address the insufficiencies of current infrastructure so as not to hinder Myanmar’s progress towards responsible water management and overall resilience to vulnerabilities; it is important to meet the processes of economic growth, urbanization, and development with prudence. Such future-focused, integrative approaches to water security are imperative for developing robust environments, healthy social systems, and productive economies.
The high level talks were vital in articulating a broader vision for water security across the world, and as Myanmar takes its next steps forward in realizing this long-term goal for itself, many states will be in close observance — particularly neighboring South Asian states who face similar conditions and challenges to sustainable development.
(1) UN-Water. (2014) UN-Water: Water Security. Available at: http://www.unwater.org/topics/water-security/en/. (Accessed June 14, 2016).
(2) United Nations. (2015) Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development : Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. Available at: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld. (Accessed June 14, 2016).
(3) Global Water Partnership. (2016) High Level Round Table on Water Security and the Sustainable Development Goals. Available at: http://www.gwp.org/Global/Events/Myanmar/Concept%20Note%20and%20Agenda_High%20Level%20Roundtable%20event_Myanmar.pdf (Accessed June 15, 2016).
(4) International Monetary Fund. (2015) IMF Survey : Myanmar’s Growth Momentum Strong, but Maintaining Stability Is Key. Available at: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/survey/so/2015/car091815a.htm. (Accessed June 14, 2016).
(5) Water Environment Partnership in Asia. (2003-2004) State of Water : Myanmar. Available at: http://www.wepa-db.net/policies/state/myanmar/myanmar.htm. (Accessed June 15, 2016).
(6) United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 2014. (2014) About Myanmar. Available at: http://www.mm.undp.org/content/myanmar/en/home/countryinfo.html. (Accessed June 15, 2016).
(7) South Pacific Applied Geoscience Committee, United Nations Environment Program. (2005) Environmental Vulnerability Index: Myanmar. Available at: http://gsd.spc.int/index.php/environmental-vulnerability-index. (Accessed June 15, 2016).
Image: © Noppakun | Dreamstime.com - <a href="http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-boat-inle-lake-shan-state-myanmar-traditional-image40276389#res14972580">Boat in inle lake, Shan state, Myanmar</a>