Preserving our Water Resources: Lessons from Inle Lake

25 March 2014 | Article

Nong Haan Lake in Sakon Nakhon Province is the largest natural lake in Northeast Thailand, and is facing a set of challenges including water pollution and declining fishery resources. Recently two community leaders from Nong Haan, accompanied by representatives from Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University and IUCN Thailand, visited Inle Lake in Myanmar to draw lessons and inspiration from the way Inle communities use their water resources.

Sharing regional knowledge and experiences is a key component in IUCN’s Mekong Water Dialogues (MWD) project. The aim of this study tour was to connect communities from the two neighbouring countries, Thailand and Myanmar, to share lessons and experiences about managing water – their most precious natural asset. In particular, the study group from Thailand sought to identify practices of floating agriculture that might potentially be replicable in Nong Haan Lake.

In Inle Lake, floating gardens are a traditional form of agriculture practiced by the Intha ethnic group since the early 1960s. The Intha live in stilt houses on the water. Along with fishing, the floating gardens are their main source of income. The tomatoes grown on the lake are famous in the country and beyond, and the floating gardens are a major tourist attraction.

In Nong Haan, floating agriculture is being explored as a way to get rid of the over-abundant freshwater algae and water hyacinth present in the lake by using them to build the floating garden beds. Floating agriculture might also help deal with issues related to irrigation and access to water, and create opportunities to develop tourism.

During the exchange visit, it quickly became clear to the group that the floating gardens in Inle Lake involve many challenges, mainly related to the use of pesticides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers that affect the lake and wetland. In addition, the water surface area has decreased drastically in recent decades due to sedimentation. Market prices for tomatoes and other crops are highly volatile and the communities depend on credit from the traders who sell the seeds and chemicals.

“There are many lessons that we can learn from Inle Lake,” said Dr Chamniern Vorratnchaiphan, Country Representative, IUCN Thailand. “Firstly, the communities need to be given the means to identify suitable local varieties that don’t require pesticides and chemical fertilizers. They need to understand that the use of chemicals is detrimental to the lake, and especially to the fishery resources. Secondly, if the lake is to be preserved, sustainable tourism management is of utmost importance. There is also a need to better understand the entire wetland ecosystem.”

“There needs to be a wise balance between the benefits and the issues of floating agriculture,” added the Park Warden of Inle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary. “The water resources have to be used sustainably, and there needs to be a proper management process in place that also takes into account fishery resources, as many people depend on fishery.” Friends of Wildlife, an IUCN member in Myanmar, is implementing a project on fishing-free zones in the lake as a conservation measure.

These valuable lessons will be shared with the communities in Nong Haan. In collaboration with MWD, the Nong Haan Study Centre of Rajabhat University in Sakon Nakhon will apply an “action-research” approach with the communities around Nong Haan Lake to develop potential activities, meaning that any floating agriculture pilot sites will be closely monitored by researchers. The Study Centre will also conduct research on the different issues being faced at Nong Haan Lake, with support from the local government.

In parallel, MWD and Nong Haan Study Centre will implement conservation measures to improve water management practices and wetland governance to address the livelihood concerns of the people living around the lake. Nong Haan Lake connects to the Mekong River through Nam Kam River, an important tributary of the Mekong. Improving water management and providing sustainable options to local communities is therefore key to preserving this important ecosystem, and preserving people’s livelihoods for future generations.