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Testing the waters

A story from the Chindwin River, Myanmar

Story by Stockholm Environment Institute August 4th, 2016


Since 2015, SEI Asia, in partnership with Myanmar Environment Institute (MEI) and other concerned agencies, has been monitoring the water quality in the Chindwin River. The Chindwin River, a tributary of the Ayeyarwady River, is vital for the lives and livelihoods of people in Myanmar. But the river is facing serious environmental problems such as pollution, riverbank erosion and sedimentation. An urgent concern is the impact of upstream mining activities and discharge of untreated chemical and heavy metal waste into the river and waterways .This work is being undertaken under the Chindwin Futures program, Phase 2 of the Ayeyarwady Futures (AF) program.


The Chindwin River winds its way down from Hukawng Valley in northern Myanmar passing the rugged Nagaland Hills. At the small, riverside town of Homalin, it journeys southward until it converges with Myanmar’s most important river, the Ayeyarwady River near the ancient city of Bagan. The Chindwin is a river of stories. All along its course are the stories of those who rely on its existence for their lives and livelihoods. The Chindwin provides farmers with water for irrigating their crops, fish for fishers and freshwater for drinking, bathing and washing as well as for raising livestock.

Aerial view of the Chindwin Bridge and Monywa township.
Commuters disembark at the pier in Homalin township.
Pumps draw water from the Chindwin River for the villages nearby.
Women washing clothes near Homalin township.
Water buffaloes swim in one of the many streams from the Chindwin River.

an ancient landscape

The area around Sagaing Region is dotted with ancient Buddhist temples mostly built around the 9th to 13th centuries in the Kingdom of Pagan (whose capital was Bagan). Palm trees are found most nearly everywhere in the plains of central Myanmar.

An old temple near the confluence of the Ya Mar and Chindwin Rivers in the Sagaing region.
Toddy palm trees and small huts are a characteristic feature of rural landscapes in the central plains of Myanmar.

water pollution

An urgent concern is the impact of mining activities on water quality, soils and forests. A large number of jade, copper and gold mining pits around the valley discharge untreated wastewater containing toxic chemicals including cyanide into the river and waterways.

A typical open pit gold mine near Monywa township.
Mining operations along the Chindwin River not far from Homalin township.
An aerial view of the mining pits spread around the upper basin of the Chindwin.

critical health concern

Water quality is a critical issue in Myanmar given most people in rural areas use the water in rivers, streams and open waterways. Contaminated drinking water together with insufficient hygiene and sanitation is a serious health issue, causing life-threatening diseases like diarrhoea and cholera. According to official figures from the Myanmar Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation (WHO), around 20% of Myanmar children dying under the age of five die from diarrhoea – twice as much as the global average and around the same as in Sub-Saharan Africa where water is often scarce. The Government of Myanmar set water quality guidelines in 2015 but is still in the process of establishing more detailed water quality standards. Data on water quality is also lacking to make informed water governance decisions.

Children playing in the Chindwin River near Monywa township.


The Ayeyarwady Futures and Chindwin Futures programs under SEI Asia are striving to fill these knowledge and capacity gaps to improve water governance. SEI Asia along with its partner MEI, a Myanmar non-governmental organization, is collaborating with the Myanmar government, non-governmental groups, the private sector and universities to provide scientific evidence using Water Evaluation and Planning System (WEAP), HEC-RAS model, remote sensing and water quality sampling to support river basin management. Throughout 2015, SEI Asia and MEI conducted a series of stakeholder consultations at the local and national levels to identify the key river basin issues and challenges in the Chindwin Basin. The consultations identified water quality as a priority area of work. Pictures below show some of the consultations and technical workshops held by SEI Asia and partners in Myanmar.

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LOCAL perspectives

In 2015, the Chindwin Futures program conducted 600 household surveys, gathering information from local people living along the Chindwin River about their water use and their perceptions of environmental changes. Ms. Thein Thein, a member of the Maternal and Infant Care group in Homalin Township said, “The Chindwin River is mainly used for transportation and gold mining…. it is shallower now than it was 10 years ago… the water has also changed completely and is now muddy from the gold mining.”

AF has held a series of local level meetings.
Dr. Bernadette Resurrección (SEI Asia) and Thiri Htet Naing (MEI) interviewing people in Homalin township for AF’s household survey.


Since 2015, SEI Asia and MEI have been monitoring water quality in the Chindwin River by sampling once during each wet and dry season. For the dry season monitoring trip during May-June 2016, the SEI-MEI team was guided by an expert from Thailand’s Pollution Control Department (PCD) under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Prior to the trip in Myanmar, the MEI team also received an intensive water quality sampling training on methods and field techniques jointly organized by the PCD and SEI Asia in Bangkok. A special feature of MEI’s work is that they have many talented young professionals working in their team.

Water quality1.jpg

testing the waters of the chindwin

During our field work in May-June 2016, we collected water samples from 17 points along the river. The points were selected based on the point sources of pollutants and as representative of conditions along the entire length of the Chindwin River and critical locations in the Uru and Ya Mar Rivers, the tributaries of Chindwin. During the sampling, each site was marked on the GPS and the map. Samples collected from the field were sent to laboratories in Yangon and Bangkok to test for different parameters: arsenic, mercury, lead, cyanide, iron, hardness, Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), Total Suspended Solids (TSS), copper, oil and grease, Total Nitrogen, Total Phosphorus and Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD). Preliminary findings from this year’s trip found that in some locations in the Chindwin River and its tributaries, several physical, chemical parameters tested higher than thresholds set by WHO drinking water standards.

Water sampling along the Chindwin River.
Marking and storing the collected water samples.

Sharing knowledge

The Chindwin Futures program will complete the water monitoring and analysis for the wet season in November 2016. We will present our findings to the Chief Minister of the Sagaing Region, the Union Minister of Transport and Communications and the Chairman of Parliamentary Committee for Resource and Environmental Conservation. We also plan to share the findings with the local communities to increase their awareness about the water quality issues. Htun Aung, a young geologist on the MEI team said: “It is important to share the knowledge of sampling techniques with other researchers in Myanmar so they can also learn about water quality monitoring methods.”

Footnote: Photos: SEI. Story: May Thazin Aung and Rajesh Daniel, SEI Asia.
Chindwin River