Drought depletes Burma’s second-largest lake

Water levels have fallen by half in Burma’s second largest lake following a severe drought this year that affected much of the country, with temperatures hitting a record high.

Locals around Inle Lake, in Burma’s northeastern Shan state, fear that an annual 18-day pagoda festival, that includes popular boat races, may have to be cancelled this year unless the water level rises by some 1.5 metres in the next two months.

The Phaung Daw Oo festival is southern Shan state’s most important religious celebration, usually held in October each year, but with the average water level now at 1.2 metres, instead of the normal 2.7 metres, many of events may not take place.

The warning comes after a summer of intense heat and drought, in which temperatures in some parts of the country reached 47C, causing hundreds of deaths. Severe water shortages also hit major towns across the country.

Burma is also suffering the effects of intense damming of its major rivers, some of which begin in China. The Mekong River, which separates Shan state from neighbouring Laos, is a lifeline for around 60 million people in Southeast Asia, but is being heavily dammed by China.

The Mekong is at its lowest levels in nearly half a century, but China has strenuously denied any link between this and its hydropower projects along the river. The same concerns have surrounded the Salween River, which also begins in China but cuts through the centre of Shan state and forms one of Burma’s major waterways.

Environmental groups have warned that rare species could be lost if Inle Lake continues to dry up. The expanse of water is home to a number of endemic species of fish and snail, which are not found anywhere else in the world. Four urban areas also border the lake, and are home to some 70,000 people, many of whom rely on the lake for commercial fishing.

The recent drop in water levels feeds into wider concern about the health of the lake, which has lost 32 percent of its water volume over the past 80 years. The effects of this have been compounded by increasing local populations and an intensification of tourism and agriculture on and around the lake, with slash and burn farming practices causing silting of tributary rivers.

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