Myanmar must face environmental catch up challenges to stimulate growth

Published on Monday, 04 March 2013

Published by on Monday, 04 March 2013

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Written by Javed Hussain Mir, Director, Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Division

My visits to Myanmar including the last one in December amazed me at the pace with which world’s view of Myanmar had changed. Equally impressive was the impatience with which Myanmar seemed to be ready to reengage with the regional and global economy and get on with the business of economic development. The external investor interests were palpable particularly in the exponential increase in hotel rates in Yangon. Like many observers, I believe Myanmar could achieve 7-8% annual growth in the coming years and be a middle income country in a few decades.

To stimulate this growth, the country requires significant investments to build internal and regional connectivity, develop infrastructure such as transport and energy, reach the potential of productive sectors such as agro-food sector, and build institutional and human capacity and capital. 

Ultimately, Myanmar’s economic expansion will depend on utilizing the country’s rich natural resources and human capital. Its people, land, minerals, energy, forest, and water resources will definitely fuel this growth. 

As in other countries, rapid economic development brings with it extensive pressures on the natural environment – pressures that if not managed well, will lead to underperforming plans and investments, unbalanced progress, and high risk development.

Despite relatively low economic growth rates of the past, threats to Myanmar’s environment have already emerged. The latest national environmental performance report reveals the acceleration of forest destruction since 1990, averaging around 400,000 hectares annually. In less than a century, more than 72% of the country’s mangrove forests have disappeared. Land degradation, particularly in upland areas and in dry zones is a major issue, resulting from population pressures combined with inappropriate land use and cropping patterns, and shifting cultivation. Previously known as the “last frontier of biodiversity in Asia,” Myanmar’s biodiversity is presently under increasing pressure and threat.

With the country on the cusp of rapid economic expansion it is essential that Myanmar is prepared to respond effectively to an inevitable upsurge in environmental pressures. The country needs smart policies, plans, and institutions. Given the great interest of the global investors as well as the multilateral and bilateral development agencies, it will need smart efficient processes of coordination and cooperation within the environment sector, and between the environment and other sectors. The fate of the environment will not be determined by what happens in the environment sector itself, but by what happens in other sectors such as agriculture, transport, energy, and tourism. 

Consequently, the Government of Myanmar has taken significant steps in improving its environmental management capability. The formation of Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry (MOECAF) and development of the new environmental law are markers of major progress. However, both government and development community are just starting to have a common perspective of the current environmental situation, recognizing the need for legislative, regulatory and institutional framework for environmental safeguards. 

The catch up challenges are many. But the following are of immediate concern:

Developing environmental quality standards (EQS) for FDIs to undergo a rigorous environmental sustainability filter. ADB through the Greater Mekong Subregion Environment Operations Center will support MOECAF in finalizing their environment impact assessment procedures, ensuring its consistency with the Environmental Conservation Laws framework, rules and procedures. The Government itself is keen to adapt World Banks’ Environment, Health and Safety Standards and guidelines tailored to Myanmar’s needs. In the meantime, an interim EQS is urgent and necessary as FDIs continue to pour in incessantly.

Improving technical standards and capacity in implementing environment protection controls. Capacity building is urgently needed in applying, monitoring, and evaluating the applicability of standards both for the regulator and for the regulated community across all sectors and at national and subnational levels. While some support can be provided under the Core Environment Program-Biodiversity Conservation Corridors Initiative (CEP-BCI), additional funding would be required to support what is envisaged as a 4-5 year capacity development program. 

The challenge is on as the world watches Myanmar climb the development ladder armed with lessons learned and much needed safeguards in place.