Monday, February 20, 2012

My swan song for the Chronicle

I wrote a story about my recent trip to Myanmar. My last story for the Nanyang Chronicle before I graduate. Released on the stands today, 20 Feb, 2012. 

Some parts were edited away though. Publishing my original draft here:

Water everywhere, but not a drop safe to drink 

So clear are the waters of Myanmar’s Inle Lake that a parallel universe seemed to exist
underneath, mirroring the floating bamboo villages, drifting islands, and fishing boats on its
still surface. But a hidden danger lurks beneath: Pollution seeping into lake waters, a source
of life for its 20,000 inhabitants.

Arriving on the lake on January 2 is a NTU team bringing technology and water-testing
expertise from Singapore, a country once almost completely reliant on imported water but
renowned for water technologies in the region today.

Leading the project is Dr Khin Lay Swe from Myanmar’s Yezin Agricultural University
(YAU). Under the guidance of associate professor Tan Soon Keat , she had spent six
months at the Nanyang Environmental and Water Research Institute (NEWRI) under the
Lien Environmental Fellowship to improve water conditions at the lake.

"People lack access to safe water and sanitation,” said Dr Khin. “The lake has been polluted
by human waste, agrochemicals and other contaminants.”

The trip was organised by The Lien Foundation - NTU Environmental Endeavour (EE2). A
brainchild of Lien Foundation and NTU, EE2 is strategically located within NEWRI and seeks
to improve the living conditions of Asia’s developing communities in the areas of water,
sanitation and renewable energy.

Their task is an urgent one as many developing countries today face water problems. A
United Nations resolution in 2010 expressed concern that 884 million people lack access to
safe drinking water. In addition, more than 2.6 billion do not have access to basic sanitation

EE2’s projects cover six countries: India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Unlike most overseas volunteer trips, EE2 focuses on helping developing communities
help themselves. Instead of ad-hoc visits, technological knowledge is transferred to local
communities over the long-term to ensure ownership, viability, and pride.

One of the students, 23-year-old Lam Wan Yee, said: “The projects are all run and driven by
the local experts, who come to Singapore under the fellowship programme to develop their
solutions under the guidance of NTU professors.”

Lam, a fourth-year student from the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE),
was joined by three other schoolmates. Among them were Kaung Set Zaw and Khin Pyay
Thu, both Myanmar students, helping to bridge the language and cultural barrier between
the EE2 team and the local people.

For seven days, students from NTU conducted field tests, inspected pipes and taught YAU
students to use water testing equipment. Moving around villages on Inle Lake is similar to
travelling in Venice – the entire team travels by boat as it is impossible to walk from house to

“The lake is so huge, I have nearly mistaken it as a sea,” said Loy Yoongshin, final-year
student at CEE. “Villagers depend on the lake for a living. They fish, they plant tomatoes on
floating agriculture farm, and they row boats to travel around.”

The lake, nearly 50 square kilometres in size, makes building a supply of clean water an

uphill task. Over time, agricultural fertilisers from the thriving tomato farms have seeped
into lake waters. Coupled with poor sanitation, this means that raw lake wate is unsafe for

“The water are everywhere around people in the lake but not a drop is safe to drink,”
said team member Pyay Thu, third-year student at the School of Civil and Environmental

Villagers turn to water sources on the mountains surrounding the lake. However, the pipes
often leak and are unprotected from contamination. Water tanks, already limited in number,
are not safe for drinking too.

Thye Yoke Pean, the project manager from EE2, hopes that their efforts can “restore the
quality of the lake and preserve its beauty.”

“It’s easier said than done,” she said. “We need to build proper toilets, introducing a waste
management system and reduce the use of fertiliser and pesticides.”

Working with local authorities is key to success, according to Pyay Thu.

“Dr Khin arranged meetings with the community leaders and minister to garner support for
project,” said the 24-year-old. “The response was overwhelming.”

For Loy, the trip was “empowering, enriching and an eye opener.”

Even after returning from Myanmar, she still helping EE2 with the Inle lake project.

“We are living in good conditions but many people out there are struggling to have clean
drinking water,” the 22-year-old said. “The world is never fair, but we can play our part to
care and lend a hand for others.”

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