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Myanmar’s Environmental Assets in Need Of Sustainable Growth

Myanmar is a country with rich natural assets and biodiversity, endowed with large forest areas, unspoiled coastline, abundant fisheries and other marine resources. Over the years, the country has relied heavily on natural resources to boost its economy, and to provide energy and livelihoods for its population. Agriculture, fisheries, forestry and mining have played important roles in the development and economic reforms of the country. Consequently, serious environmental problems have emerged including deforestation, accelerated loss of rich biological diversity, and increased pollution. Many of the country’s natural assets remain relatively undamaged, despite of having no effective environmental regulations. Even so, as the country enters into the global economy and its economic development accelerates, resource degradation is still rising rapidly.

Deforestation in recent years has taken place at the fastest rate among major Southeast Asian countries. The main reasons behind deforestation are concessions for plantations and other large-scale projects. Fisheries have increased rapidly, and the sustainability of catches is largely unknown. Water and air pollution levels are also escalating. Thus policies to emphasize overall sustainability need to be developed to address these issues. Environmental impact assessment procedures, environmental quality standards, emissions regulations, and penalties for environmental violations remain under development. Prevention of resource destruction is still in the dark and efforts to create incentives for sustainable practices are at an initial stage. To ensure long-run, sustainable economic development, these issues need to be addressed more quickly and comprehensively. Myanmar has yet to take broader steps to protect its natural resources. The country struggles to implement environmental protection and conservation guidelines that meet international standards. The lack of a comprehensive and coordinated environmental framework remains a challenge for institutional and legal structures, expertise, and natural resource management and funding. Conservation of ecological wealth will depend on incentives for environmental degradation and ensuring that environmental policies, laws, and regulations are applied and enforced.

Policies and regulations that ensure the sustainable growth and reservation of natural resources could be effectively developed. If necessary actions are not taken as soon as possible, the future capacity of Myanmar’s environment to sustain critical services will be reduced, threatening economic growth over longer periods

Forested areas in the state are important in maintaining Myanmar’s ecological balance. They prevent land degradation and also help as the country’s water resources, and thus, supply water for domestic uses, agriculture, and power. And for many ethnic communities, forests have cultural and spiritual values. In the past, the country relied heavily on the extraction of forest and mineral resources to generate funds for political and military undertakings. Forest logging, both legal and illegal, was massive and largely pursued under the control of the military during the 1990s and 2000s. Therefore, Myanmar’s forest area has declined with a rate which is considered the fastest rate among major countries in South and Southeast Asia. Not only are Myanmar’s forests being rapidly lost, but this loss has been concentrated in the most dense and biologically important forest areas.

The country is also blessed with abundant water resources but water demands are rising and hydropower development may restrict future water availability. With the development of irrigation infrastructure, consumption by agriculture, the major source of withdrawals, is also expected to increase. A primary constraint to future water resources availability is dam development. It may physically restrict downstream water availability and it can reduce the environmental services offered by rivers. Currently, there are limited considerations in Myanmar’s dam designs to reduce damages caused as environmental impact assessment procedures are not yet approved.

In the case of fisheries, fisheries catches have risen dramatically since the late 1990s. A major reason for the boom in the fishery industry is the increase in foreign demand for Myanmar’s fish products. It is unknown whether Myanmar’s fisheries can sustain such massive growth in catches, as there are no official sustainable catch estimates.

According to University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre and the PEW Charitable Trusts, as of 2006, 30% of species in Myanmar’s terrestrial seas and exclusive economic zones are overexploited or have collapsed due to fishing, which is lower than many other countries in the sub region. Marine protection in Myanmar’s territorial water is exceptionally low, compared to its neighbours. As long as fishing pressure remains low, the low level of marine protection may not be a major concern to the sustainability of marine resources and fish stocks. However, as Myanmar opens its markets, advanced fishing equipment becomes more readily available, and more market opportunities for fisheries products develop, fishing pressure may become much stronger. Hence, improved marine protection may become much more important in the future. Investment in institutions, regulations, and implementation capacity should be urgently considered for sustainable environmental development. Environmental assessment regulations and procedures for projects with the potential for large impacts should be finalized. Key analytical capacities within regulatory bodies for determination of sustainable forestry and fisheries harvesting levels should be built.

There is a considerable opportunity for the country to take advantage of its international attention and remaining environmental assets to attract support for measures that lead to effective protection and preservation of its ecological resources. With the right actions taken, Myanmar will become a country with sustainable environmental development.