Climate danger grows in ‘vulnerable’ Myanmar after military coup

Myanmar is among the countries most at risk from the climate crisis, according to the Global Climate Risk Index [File: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters]

Yangon/Taipei – There is increasing concern that Myanmar is at risk of a serious environmental crisis, as the generals who seized power in a coup on February 1 focus on cementing their control and shoring up their position by stepping up lucrative but devastating policies of exploiting the country’s vast natural wealth.

The Global Climate Risk Index puts Myanmar among the countries most at risk from the climate crisis, frequently experiencing devastating floods and landslides as well as drought, exacerbated by decades of uncontrolled deforestation and mining of minerals and gems.

Over the past 20 years, the Southeast Asian country has experienced the highest weather-related losses alongside Puerto Rico and Haiti.

But tentative efforts to pursue more renewable energy projects and develop climate resilience under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government have been derailed since the military overthrew her National League for Democracy’s elected administration on February 1, suspending aid programmes and leading to the departure of private investors.

Developers who were awarded a solar power tender last year — totalling more than 1GW or one-third of Myanmar’s current dry season available capacity of 3.1GW — were unable to deliver, partly because of the coup.

The military in May launched its own solar power tender but was forced to extend the bidding deadline three times due to a lack of bidders. The latest deadline passed in mid-October but no official results have been announced to date.

Difficulties facing solar power companies mirror the broader risk of Myanmar missing out on climate finance opportunities post-coup.

“There are good investable projects in Myanmar which would build climate resilience such as natural reforestation and renewable energy projects,” said Vicky Bowman, director of Yangon-based Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business and former British ambassador to Myanmar. “But development partners seem frozen since the coup, and private sector investors instinctively now view Myanmar as high risk and look to alternatives in Southeast Asia, even though climate investments there may have as many problems in practice as Myanmar.”

Investors should see that there are still opportunities to work with local communities and companies to invest in natural capital and climate resilience, Bowman told Al Jazeera. “Otherwise the Myanmar people are hit with a double whammy of military rule and international neglect.”

Myanmar’s absence from the world’s top climate negotiations at COP26 in Glasgow this month reflected the country’s coup-induced international isolation, and the ongoing battle for recognition between the coup leaders and the National Unity Government (NUG), the parallel administration including officials from the elected government that was overthrown.

Isolation

COP26 hosts, the UK, left Armed Forces Chief Min Aung Hlaing off the summit guestlist, while the event organisers, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), disinvited Myanmar military government representatives, according to two sources involved in the matter.

Chit Win, the military-appointed chief diplomat in London who had evicted the removed government’s ambassador from the embassy after the February 1 coup, did manage to register temporarily on the event page with three associates. But they were denied entry and were subsequently taken off the system following a backlash from people in Myanmar.

Al Jazeera has seen copies of both nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — climate action plans and policy commitments — submitted by the NUG and the State Administration Council, as the coup leaders have dubbed their ruling body.

Both NDCs estimate the business-as-usual (BAU) scenario for coal to be about 30 percent of the country’s total power generation, which was what the NLD deputy energy minister Tun Naing reaffirmed in 2019.

The NUG claimed that they plan to decrease the share of coal from 33 percent (about 7940MW) to between 20 percent (3620MW) and 11 percent (2120MW) by 2030. The SAC gave the same figures.

But coal’s share of power generation is currently less than 1 percent, 30 times less than the higher-end estimates provided by the NUG and SAC. Sources attributed the discrepancy to efforts by some producers to encourage Myanmar to use more coal.

“The NLD government’s deputy minister [Tun Naing] at the time was being egged on by Japanese, Chinese and Indian coal interests, which no longer would be interested both for policy reasons and because it’s Myanmar post-coup,” an industry source in Yangon told Al Jazeera.

The NUG said it stuck with the overthrown NLD administration’s NDC for COP26 because they felt it had legitimacy from being drawn up by the government elected by the people, according to two senior officials at the NUG’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation who requested anonymity due to security reasons.

“Considering the legitimacy provided by the Myanmar people to the ousted administration, we [NUG] submitted the NLD government’s NDC to COP26,” said a senior official at the NUG’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.

Another senior NUG official said that there had not been enough time for them to redraft the NDC.

“We have received some comments from Indigenous groups and will take their input into account as we revise the NDC,” the official said when asked about the role of ethnic communities in protecting forests.

NUG Deputy Electricity and Energy Minister Maw Htun Aung acknowledged the criticisms and said that the coal policy would be “reconsidered” and the energy master plan reviewed, although it is currently the SAC rather than the NUG which is in the capital, Naypyidaw.

“It does not make sense to focus on coal power. Even China is phasing out coal financing. We do not plan to scale up coal projects, and will work with ethnic communities to draft an energy policy on a federal level,” Maw Htun Aung told Al Jazeera.

According to government estimates last year, electricity in Myanmar comes from 20 gas-fired power stations, 62 hydropower facilities and a single coal-fired plant.

Resource exploitation

In addition to the slowdown in climate-related action and investments, environmental activists and analysts fear that the military will scale up logging, the teak trade, palm oil plantations and the exploitation of natural resources, such as jade, which supported the long-term survival of previous military regimes even under international sanctions.

The generals have also long profited from gem sales, and local media report a gem fair is due to take place in Naypyidaw this month.

Military-appointed agriculture minister Tin Htut Oo in November spoke about expanding palm oil plantations, according to the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar. The official paper said “implementations are underway” to make Tanintharyi Region, a major region in southern Myanmar bordering the Andaman Sea and Thailand, “a big oil pot based on palm oil”.

Mary Callahan, a Myanmar expert at the University of Washington in the United States, says the proposal is “disastrous for fragile ecosystems and endangered species”. Promoting palm oil plantations could lead to a new wave of land confiscation and more deforestation, she told Al Jazeera.

Weeks after seizing power and detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies, Min Aung Hlaing also talked about developing hydropower dams.

This has sparked fears that the military might decide to restart the controversial China-backed Myitsone Dam in northern Myanmar, a pet project of former strongman Than Shwe that was halted by then-president Thein Sein in 2011 in the face of significant public protests. The generals have not mentioned Myitsone directly.

“We are very concerned that the military will fall back on old policies like large-scale hydropower, which could spell disaster for the country’s two major rivers – the Ayeyarwady and Thanlwin – the last two remaining large free-flowing rivers in tropical Asia,” said a senior staff member at an environmental NGO working on Myanmar, who declined to be named for security reasons.

Ethnic communities along the borders, coasts and hilly regions are also concerned about the climate risks.

“Of course we are worried about climate change. We are working on forest management and climate issues,” said a senior official of an ethnic armed group in northern Myanmar, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. Even though most of the territories controlled by his group are mountainous and protected from flooding, other climate-induced disasters such as cyclones, drought and landslides remain a threat to the local population. Since the coup, his group, which has long sought autonomy, has renewed fighting against the armed forces.

“Because of the coup and political crisis, it has become more difficult to address environmental challenges. For one, more and more international investors and partners have withdrawn from Burma,” he said. A key reason, he added, is that “the Burmese military leader will rely on natural resources to resolve their finances problem. Not only this junta but also successive regimes in the previous State Peace and Development Council [SPDC] era.”

The SPDC was the official name for the military government that seized power in 1988.

“Forests in the border areas controlled by ethnic groups are more secure than those in government-held regions,” the staff member from the environmental NGO said. “To help protect these forests, we need neighbouring countries and economic blocs like ASEAN and the EU to be on high alert for illegally-traded timber. Tackling demand is key.”

Still, in his written remarks submitted to COP26, the military-appointed Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Minister Khin Maung Yi pledged to achieve 50 percent net emissions reductions by 2030 “if adequate international assistance is received”.

“Similarly, by 2030, the share of new renewable energy targets (solar, wind) will be increased from 2000MW to 3070MW,” Khin Maung Yi wrote.

But as long as the political crisis continues its downward spiral, neither the foreign assistance nor the energy investments on which the military is banking — with the possible exception of China — is likely to be forthcoming, according to diplomats and investors in Yangon.

Experts say environmental exploitation risks pushing more into poverty and increasing food insecurity, but as the generals focus on crushing any resistance to their rule, few have any confidence they will have the will to address Myanmar’s impending climate nightmare.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/1/myanmar-climate

One in eight children found at risk of becoming child soldiers

A unit of child soldiers march February 6 through the streets of Goma. Some 5,000 newly trained rebels from the Democratic Alliance for the Liberation of Congo Zaire participated in the exercise before being deployed to one of four active fronts.

One in eight of the world’s children – more than 300 million – live in conflict zones where they are at risk of becoming child soldiers, a charity warned on Tuesday, saying boosting school access was vital in fighting forced recruitment.

The United Nations called for a global ceasefire last year to help fight COVID-19, but armed groups have continued fighting in countries including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Yemen.

Tuesday’s report by charity Save the Children said that during 2020 some 337 million children were living near armed groups and government forces that recruit children.

Nearly 200 million of them live in the world’s deadliest war zones, up 20% from 2019, the report said.

“It’s simply horrifying that in the shadow of COVID-19 and the U.N.’s call for a global ceasefire, more children than ever before are caught in the crosshairs of the deadliest war zones … and more likely to be injured, recruited or killed,” said Inger Ashing, Save the Children International’s chief executive.

The exact number of child soldiers is unknown, but in 2020 more than 8,500 children were recruited and used as fighters or in other roles by mostly non-state armed groups, according to U.N. data, a 10% increase from the previous year.

That number is likely to be only a fraction of actual cases, the charity’s report said.

“Millions of children have known nothing but war with appalling consequences for their mental health, ability to go to school, or access to life-saving services. This is a stain on the international community,” Ashing added in a statement.

The forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict is considered one of the worst forms of child labour, alongside abuses such as trafficking for sexual exploitation, according to the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO).

Children are more vulnerable to recruitment as fighters or in roles such as cooks or for sexual exploitation if they are poor or not able to attend school.

Girls, who made up 15% of U.N.-reported cases of recruitment in 2020, often act as spies or suicide bombers and are especially at risk of abuse, according to Save the Children.

The report laid out recommendations for stopping “this war on children” including holding perpetrators of grave violations to account and ensuring access to education to protect children from forced recruitment.

U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba said earlier this month in a joint statement with the ILO and charity War Child UK that governments must put the needs of children at the centre of COVID-19 recovery plans.

She highlighted the need to put in place child reintegration programmes and support community-led initiatives and organizations working at the frontline.

But Sandra Olsson, reintegration adviser at War Child UK, which works to help children affected by war, said funding remained a major hurdle.

“Many reintegration programmes today only receive funding for 12 months or even less, a period far too short when it comes to building resilience and community action,” Olsson said, urging states and donors to “prioritise this critical work”.

https://news.trust.org/item/20211129235858-hoaa0/

Brazil faces economic pain as Amazon forest destruction dries up water supplies

A crushed bottle is seen on the dry ground of the Jaguari dam, which is part of the Cantareira reservoir system, during a drought in Joanopolis, near Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 8, 2021. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

AO PAULO, – Recurring drought, regular power outages and a devastated farming industry – these are the problems scientists say Brazil could face as research suggests the rainforest-rich country is drying out at an alarming rate.

Several studies in recent months have pointed to deforestation, a warming climate and weak governance as the main drivers of drier conditions in Brazil’s midwest and southeast, leaving farms parched and hydro-power plants struggling to meet electricity demand.

According to research released in August by deforestation mapping initiative MapBiomas, Brazil has lost nearly 16% of its surface water over the past three decades.

Using historical satellite images, researchers identified parts of the country that have changed from water areas to soil or vegetation and vice versa, said Carlos Souza Jr., a geologist at Imazon (the Amazon Institute of Man and Environment).

“I expected some (images) would show impacts on the environment, but I didn’t think they would be this clear and evident,” said Souza, whose 2018 research on aquatic ecosystems in the Amazon rainforest provided data for the MapBiomas study.

“This means we will have less water for basic activities, such as industrial needs, energy production, (supplying) urban centers and traditional communities, and more,” he said.

The National Electric System Operator has said Brazil, which holds 12% of the planet’s freshwater reserves, is experiencing its worst drought in more than 90 years.

With reservoir water levels dropping fast, especially in the southeast where big cities Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are located, the nation’s electricity supplier said in August it would add a “water scarcity flag” to the power tariff system.

National electricity rates are determined by colored flags representing water levels at hydropower plants.

Green means they are running at sufficient capacity, while yellow, red and the new “scarcity” flag signal low or critical levels, triggering a price rise to cover the costs of activating thermal energy plants and other measures to avoid blackouts.

DOUBLE-CROPPING TROUBLE

Climate change is already cutting into the volume and variety of crops Brazil’s farmers can grow, according to a September report by Planet Tracker, a nonprofit financial think-tank.

Its researchers said increasingly erratic weather is hitting the double-cropping system Brazil relies on to maintain its status as a major soy and corn exporter.

Double-cropping is when farmers use the same land twice in one year – and to do that successfully, they need stable rainfall patterns to know what to plant and when.

The report predicted that by 2050, the net loss to Brazil’s export revenue could be $701 million-$2.1 billion per year.

Brazil’s farmers are now caught in what Planet Tracker calls a “negative feedback loop” – changing rainfall patterns result in lower crop yields, leading farmers to clear forest to grow more crops, which further impacts rainfall patterns.

From August 2019 to July 2020, the Amazon lost more than 10,850 sq km (4,190 sq miles) of trees, a jump of more than 7% compared to the previous 12 months, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Forests in the Amazon basin play an important role in generating rainfall – about 20 billion tons of vapor evaporate from the region every day, later coming down as rain in the rainforest and other parts of Brazil.

But climate change is shifting rains that have historically fallen in central Brazil to the south, said physicist Paulo Artaxo, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and a lead author on its last three assessment reports.

At the same time, as global temperatures rise, the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold increases, meaning less is released as rainfall, he explained.

“All IPCC climate models show that central and northeast Brazil will become drier and the south will have more precipitation. It’s already happening today,” Artaxo said.

LESSONS NOT LEARNED

Lack of governance and environmental oversight are exacerbating Brazil’s water troubles, said Angelo Lima, executive secretary of the Water Governance Observatory, a network of researchers, public institutions, private sector and civil society groups.

Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has been weakening the environment ministry’s authority over forestry and water agency services, while promoting development of the Amazon.

“The dismantling of environmental management in Brazil … has a direct impact on the water and on the climate,” Lima said.

Brazil should have learned lessons from past water crises, he said, such as the rain shortage in 2001 that resulted in planned blackouts across the country, and the severe drought that hit Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state, in 2014.

Lima would like to see the government apply an existing law that allows it to charge residents and businesses to use untreated water.

Officials also should focus on ending deforestation across Brazil and invest more in rehabilitating water basins and riverbanks, which would stop – or at least ease – its water crisis, he added.

Simone Santana, owner of the Pontal do Lago inn at the edge of a lake created by the Furnas hydropower dam in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, said she had been feeling the impacts of Brazil’s water crisis for the past 10 years.

Last month, the water level in Furnas reached its lowest point in two decades, leaving the dam with less than 15% of its usable volume.

Once a popular spot for water activities and fishing, the fast-emptying dam no longer attracts the same number of tourists. Between 2014 and 2019, just before the pandemic, the inn saw bookings dive, said Santana.

“Our business was very affected. We used to have 11 employees, now we have only four. We have gone through a very rough time,” she said.

A private well ensures a steady water supply to the inn even in times of drought, and Santana protects her business from fluctuating electricity prices with a mini solar-power system she installed two years ago.

“Companies have to invest in (solar) to have more tranquility and be less affected by the water crisis,” she said.

https://news.trust.org/item/20211125105805-eb6ha/

Vietnam sisters offer scholarships to keep students in school during pandemic 

Children and their parents play in a park in Nha Trang, Vietnam, after a COVID-19 lockdown was lifted on Oct. 17. (Joachim Pham)

Nguyen Duy Phuong, a 12th-grader, thought he could not afford to go to school this year as his father, who used to work as a day wage earner in Ho Chi Minh City and became jobless during the delta variant phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, returned home and still has no work.

His mother died years ago at a young age.

Phuong said he received 1.5 million dong ($66) in early October from Sr. Mary Nguyen Thi Hong Hoa to get books and other basic supplies for his studies.

Phuong lives with his grandparents, one of whom has leprosy.

“I am walking on air about the generous gift. My family is deeply grateful to the nun and benefactors,” Phuong said, adding that he is trying to overcome difficulties to finish high school.

Hoa, a member of the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Cai Mon Congregation based in Ben Tre Province, said, “We offered scholarships to 33 students, including Phuong, so that they could buy school uniforms and books, and share Internet service fees with one another as they gather in groups to learn online lessons.”

She said scholarship students are in third through 12th grades in the two southern provinces of Ben Tre and Tra Vinh. They receive 500,000-2 million dong ($22-88) each, depending on their situations.

Hoa said she also offered her own laptop to a group of students so they could attend online classes together. 

Their parents have been left unemployed by the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months and could not afford to get computers and other supplies for their studies.

As of Nov. 5, Vietnam’s Ministry of Health had recorded 953,547 infections that include 22,412 deaths since the coronavirus hit in early 2020.

As of Oct. 26, 25 out of the country’s 63 cities and provinces had to hold remote classes through the Internet and television so as to limit COVID-19 infection among students.

All schools in Tra Vinh still provided online courses while in Ben Tre some have reopened and others still held online classes due to the coronavirus since the new school year started in September.

Hoa said most of the scholarship recipients have relatives who work in industrial zones in Ho Chi Minh City and the provinces of Dong Nai and Binh Duong.

“Those students will surely drop out of school or perform poorly at school if they are not given financial support. They will take manual jobs with low wages to support their families and be caught in the poverty trap like their parents,” Hoa said.

The nun said she tries to support students in need regardless of their backgrounds as all people are God’s children. Most of the scholarship children are from families of other faiths who have been badly affected by the contagion.

She donated 6 million dong ($265) to Khmer ethnic Venerable Thach Da Ra, who leads Kachakkarama Thlot, a Buddhist pagoda based in Hiep Hoa Commune, to provide drinking water, disinfectants, food and other basic needs for 200 migrant workers at an isolated center in Cau Ngang District of Tra Vinh Province. The province is home to the Khmer ethnic group and Buddhists.

The workers and their children returned from Ho Chi Minh City and neighboring provinces of Binh Duong and Dong Nai, which are the country’s COVID-19 epicenters.

Hoa, who has been vaccinated with one dose, asked volunteers to deliver gifts to beneficiaries as she could not go out of her convent due to social distancing measures.

The nun said benefactors of Vietnamese origin abroad make donations to her to forward to those in need.

As of Nov. 5 in Vietnam, 59.4 million people aged 18 and above have been administered COVID-19 vaccines, but only 27 million of them were given two doses since mass inoculation was rolled out on March 8.

The Southeast Asian country has so far used eight brands of COVID-19 vaccines — Comirnaty, AstraZeneca, Moderna, Janssen, Vero Cell, Hayat-Vax, Sputnik V and Abdala.

Lovers of the Holy Cross of Cho Quan Sr. Therese Nguyen Thi Kim Dung said this year more than 100 students from Ho Chi Minh City and four other provinces have been given financial support by sisters. They are offered school fees, clothes, books, school supplies, bikes and food.

Dung, who is in charge of scholarships for poor students, said their families are badly affected by the pandemic due to loss of jobs and incomes. Parents of some have died of COVID-19, while many others had to bring their children home from Ho Chi Minh City because they could not support their studies.

On Oct. 4, Archbishop Joseph Nguyen Nang of Ho Chi Minh City, called on local congregations, parishes and associations to provide material and emotional support to 1,500 students who were orphaned during the COVID-19 pandemic in the city.

Ho Chi Minh City started to administer COVID-19 vaccines to children aged 12-17 on Oct. 27. An estimated 8 million children of the same age will be vaccinated nationwide.

The Ministry of Education and Training reported that some 1.2 million students from poor families need computers and Internet services to attend online classes.

A Dominican sister from a convent based in Bien Hoa, the capital of Dong Nai Province, said the nuns work with benefactors in the country and abroad to provide students in second to 10th grades 500,000 dong ($22) each so that they can buy textbooks and other supplies.

They are children in more than 100 migrant families who are from the southern provinces of Ca Mau, Bac Lieu, Soc Trang and Can Tho. Families have one to three children each.

The nun, who asked not to be named, said those families, followers of other faiths, are given 120,000 dong each to cover one month’s cost of Internet services for their children’s studies. Students use computers and smartphones to attend online lessons.

She said their parents work at local markets and construction sites, sell lottery tickets and food on the streets, and drive motorbike taxis for a living but they have become jobless since June because of the coronavirus outbreak. They were not given financial support by the government because they have no personal papers.

She said the nuns regularly provide them with rice, instant noodles, cooking oil and other basic food. They are also offered money to pay their rent and fees for running water and power.

“Many people are moved to tears when they receive food from us. They are really depressed about being in small rooms, having no jobs, and lacking food for months,” she said, adding that many told her that they had thought of attempting suicide.

The nun said local people were injected with one dose of vaccines from Europe, North America and China.

Filles de Marie Immaculée Sr. Mary Nguyen Thi Ha from Thua Luu convent in Thua Thien Hue Province said the nuns provide 40 bicycles for students whose families are stricken by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ha said parents of many students suffer from the coronavirus and lost their jobs so they could not afford their children’s school fees and bicycles to go to school. Many students had to collect used items at dump sites, work at bakeries and do other work to save money to support their families and pay for their studies last summer.

She said many students have to drop out of schools due to financial problems caused by the pandemic.

A female teacher from Dien An Elementary School in Phong Dien District said 182 of the school’s 700 students have had to drop out for financial reasons.

Nuns from St. Paul de Chartres and Daughters of Our Lady of the Visitation in Hue also have given scholarships to hundreds of students from first grade to college age whose parents were left unemployed in recent months. Without the scholarship help, college students were staying home to support their families and unable to stay in school.

“We go to great lengths to create favorable conditions for students to pursue their studies under the circumstances and encourage their families to overcome this hard time. We all have to hope for the best,” Ha said.