Can Myanmar Hold on to Being Green?

December 2013

When I recently went to the Myanmar Embassy to apply for a visa, it was so crowded that the lobby was full. I counted about forty people waiting. So it seems that there is still a healthy number of Japanese people wanting to visit Myanmar. The first time I visited Myanmar was in November 2012 when I participated in the second Myanmar Green Economy Green Growth (GEGG) Forum. The third of these forums took place on 20-22 November 2013. Over the three days of the Forum, there were twelve five-hour parallel sessions, a move of location from Nay Pyi Taw to Yangon between days one and two, and to cap it all, it was extremely difficult to grasp the agenda. Because of this situation, it is almost impossible to follow the details discussed at the Forum.

However, the great feature of the GEGG conference is participation by the top echelons of power in Myanmar, with the attendance of Myanmar's President and Cabinet ministers. In fact the conference started with an inaugural address from President U Thein Sein, which was attended by fourteen ministers. The strong military presence within Myanmar's government means that the decisions made at the top levels of government have a profound influence. The most important purpose of this Forum was not to draw any particular conclusions from the discussions but to drive home the idea of being "green" to Myanmar's leadership.

The theme for the third GEGG forum was the "water-food-energy nexus". For example, energy is needed to produce food, water is needed to maintain energy, energy is needed to maintain water and so on and so forth. These three resources, water, food and energy, form an inseparable tripartite. We could say that using the globally recognised word "Nexus" is like sounding a warning bell against thinking about these concepts as separate entities.

However it is not clear what this nexus means in the context of Myanmar. There are four large rivers that flow through the country, and it also has more abundant water resources than its neighbours. There are also rich gas fields which provide a lot of foreign income. Although one cannot go so far as to say that food is plentiful, rice production is thriving and the land is fertile. In other words, Myanmar does not have any problems in terms of resources. This is very different from the situation in China and India where they have insufficient energy and water resources for their huge populations.

So why exactly was nexus chosen as the theme of the conference? I think the intention here was to give a warning to the vertically structured administration in Myanmar. For example, the country does not have centralised management of energy, but rather it is fragmented across several ministries such as the "Ministry of Energy", "Ministry of Power", "Ministry of Industry" and the "Ministry of Science and Technology". There is the National Water Resources Committee to deal with water, however its influence in decision making is weak. The concept of a nexus includes the message that in order for there to be a green economy, the government really needs to break down the barriers between ministries.

Even in the face of challenges like these, Myanmar has shown that it can make progress in terms of the environmentrelated systems. We can see prime examples of this in the establishment of the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry, the enactment of the Environmental Conservation Law and the creation of Environmental Impact Assessment rules (work in progress). On the other hand, there is an overwhelming lack of financial and human resources as well as insufficient technical capabilities for the departments that deal with the environment so this is an area which needs to be strengthened. And of course, there also needs to be reforms to the tax and education systems which support such resources.

In 2014 Myanmar will take up the chair of ASEAN, and will hold general elections in 2015. The outcomes of any reforms will certainly be tested over the next couple of years.

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