Echoes of an eco crisis in Bangladesh and Myanmar

Pope Francis will have a chance to hear how unregulated growth and exploitation of natural resources have impacted people's lives
Echoes of an eco crisis in Bangladesh and Myanmar

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience at St Peter's Square on Nov. 15 at the Vatican. (Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP)

When Pope Francis visits Myanmar and Bangladesh he will have a chance to see firsthand the huge environmental challenges that threaten the wellbeing of tens of millions of people. Here we look at how frequent natural disasters and environmental abuses have made both Bangladesh and Myanmar vulnerable to exploitation and impacted people who live there.



The economic futures of Bangladesh and Myanmar are clouded by serious environmental issues, a topic that has been at the forefront of Pope Francis’ agenda since the release of the landmark encyclical Laudato Si’, subtitled Our Care For Our Common Home, in June 2015.

Myanmar and Bangladesh both have huge environmental challenges that threaten the wellbeing of tens of millions of people, in large part due to the abundance of water in both nations. Bangladesh is located on the floodplains of the world’s largest river delta system that empties into the Bay of Bengal, making the country vulnerable to frequent natural disasters from tidal shifts, cyclones and flooding, killing hundreds of people each year. Next door, the bulk of Myanmar’s population also lives on the Irrawaddy River Delta. The Bay of Bengal has seen 25 of the world’s 26 worst cyclones.  In 1991 cyclone Marian killed 139,00 people in Bangladesh and in 2008 Cyclone Nargis killed at least 138,000 people in Myanmar and affected 2.4 million.

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Agriculture and fishing, forestry, mining and energy are all critical sectors for Myanmar’s development and economic growth. The largely unregulated exploitation of them has led to a rapid depletion of the country’s natural resources and a worsening of environmental problems. It is worth mentioning too, that much of the blame here lies with the ruling military who ran all the nation's industries and who still control most of the major resources. Uncontrolled mining of jade in Kachin State is so rampant that large sectors of the state are off limits to foreign visitors. Indeed, the Kachin-Shan conflict is underscored by a battle for control of jade and ruby mining, as well as, forested mountain areas.

Due to logging, Myanmar’s teak forests have been devastated, causing subsequent damage to the broader ecosystem. Fish stocks have also declined significantly due to overfishing. The country’s unmanaged urbanization has brought its own problems, with the challenge of waste management evidenced on the streets. 

China’s rapid industrialization and thirst for resources is causing increasing environmental headaches for Myanmar both in food and water management. As with other nations in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Laos, Chinese firms are buying up and renting large tracts of land. To boost crop yields they use poisonous chemicals that seep into the soil, water table and rivers.

The Middle Kingdom is also building dams across the region’s rivers for hydroelectricity and two of Southeast Asia’s major waterways alongside the Mekong — the Irrawaddy and Salween — both run through Myanmar. In 2011, the Myanmar government halted construction of the US$3.6 million Myitsone Dam at the confluence of Maykha and Malikha in Kachin State.

While Myitsone remains on ice, there is a series of large concrete blocks across the river where China is also planning at least half a dozen controversial dams on the Salween.

One of the key issues with the growing international opprobrium over the Rohingya issue is that economically, it may drive Myanmar back into the arms of China, giving that country increasing leverage to institute environmentally destructive and economically questionable projects led by the dams.

"There's a widespread perception that China has taken advantage of Burma's situation over these past decades," according to Thant Myint-U, author of Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia.

"Burma can benefit enormously from Chinese trade and investment, but there is almost bound to be a backlash if Chinese projects are undertaken with zero transparency and little concern for their impact on local communities."

To be continued.

For a comprehensive understanding of Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh and to read the entire article “Myanmar and Bangladesh: Two Nations in the Heart of Asia" subscribe to La Civilta Cattolica available in both print and digital formats. UCAN publishes La Civilta Cattolica in English. The monthly is a highly popular and non-specialist review of religion and theology, culture and science, literature and art, politics and society and has a reputation for being the best barometer of thinking inside the Vatican.

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