THE AYEYARWADY RIVER BASIN
Beginning at the confluence of the Mali Hka and Mai Hka rivers in the north and flowing through the delta into the Andaman Sea, the Ayeyarwady River bisects most of Myanmar and plays an important cultural role in the country. More commonly known internationally as the Irrawaddy, the Ayeyarwady has as many names amongst the people who live on its banks.
Despite its important role in Myanmar’s history and culture, there are no sustainable management policies in place for the Ayeyarwady River Basin (ARB). Although it still remains the longest free-flowing river in Southeast Asia, the ecosystems that prevail in the Ayeyarwady—and those who depend on them—are under threat from climate change and industrial developments such as hydropower dams, blocked waterways, mining projects, and a major gas/oil pipeline.
Pressure for the national government to open up the country’s natural resources—including the abundant water resources—has been increasing since the economy opened up. In response, in 2011 the government confirmed plans for 92 large-scale development projects to be implemented throughout the country. As the impacts of destructive developments in the ARB have become increasingly apparent, the communities have risen to the challenge, coming forward to protect their rights.
THE COMMUNITY-CENTERED STRATEGIC ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT
As a response to the need for better management of the Ayeyarwady, various local and international members of civil society have begun conducting research activities related to its conservation. Sien Yaung So (SYS, also known as Green Activities), a community organisation from Myanmar, requested the aid of MEE Net in facilitating a community-centered strategic environmental assessment (C-SEA) for the Ayeyarwady.
A Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) aims to assess the socio-economic, cultural, and environmental impacts of a variety of development projects. Environmental impact assessments and strategic planning are internationally recommended tools, essential for securing sustainable development in the ARB. With this framework, local research facilitators conduct a C-SEA in order to give often marginalised communities a voice in the planning and decision-making of long-term conservation strategies of the ARB. Conducting a C-SEA will connect stakeholders from local, regional, national and international levels to help ensure the sustainable management of the ARB.
The foremost goals of the C-SEA is to reform strategic decision-making mechanisms through participatory action and comprehensive assessment, and to move the current natural resource governance structure and related policies towards a more sustainable and environmentally sound era. With a unique emphasis on “timely” and “early” public participation, the C-SEA plays a significant role in empowering local communities. So far, 27 communities along the Ayeyarwady river have participated in the data collection and C-SEA process.