Residents raise environmental, health concerns

Concerns about air and water pollution from the Thilawa Special Economic Zone have been raised at a meeting held by its management committee to give residents an opportunity to discuss concerns about the project’s environmental impact.

About 100 residents attended the stakeholders’ meeting, held as part of the Strategic Environmental Assessment process for the project, at the office of the Department of Relief and Resettlement in Yangon’s outer southeastern Thanlyn Township on June 30.

The process, launched last December, involves 2,000 hectares (about 4,940 acres) of the total 2,400-hectares of the SEZ, which covers both Thanlyn and Kyauktan townships.

Among the residents at the meeting was U Mya Hlaing, 68, who asked about air and water pollution restrictions on factories after they begin operating in the SEZ and the procedure for imposing fines on those that exceed the limits.

U Mya Hlaing, a resident of Alwan Sut village, said another concern was the treatment of waste water produced by factories in the SEZ.

“Will it be able to flow directly via waterways into the Yangon River or will it be treated before it is released into the environment?” he said.

Another resident affected by the project, Ko Aye Htay, from Thida Myaing village, was concerned about how the authorities will respond to any negative effects on the environment once factories start operating at the SEZ.

“Will the government take full responsibility and accountability for any negative environmental consequences?” said Ko Aye Htay, who also raised a concern about industrial pollution causing health problems among residents in the project area.

“Are there any back-up plans to solve health issues if residents face health problems?” he said.

The joint secretary of the management committee, Dr Than Than Thwe, acknowledged in an opening address at the meeting that residents living in and around the project area had a better knowledge of its environment than those involved in the zone’s management.

“We want to know residents’ concerns about environmental issues and hear their suggestions [before the project is developed],” Dr Than Than Thwe said.

She told the meeting that environmental assessments were a mandatory step before the development phase of projects throughout the world.

“The implementation of the SEA process has a direct link to residents, decision-makers, investors and local and international watchdog non-government organisations,” she said.

“The SEA framework will support the planning backbone for developing the project and ensure that likely impacts are considered before and after the project is running.”

Dr Than Than Thwe said the objective of the meeting was to provide residents, environmental services companies and senior members of the SEZ management committee with an opportunity to discuss the implementation of the SEA process.

“Today is very important,” Mr Kyle DuPont, a consultant with Japan-based Environmental Resources Management ? one of two companies together with Myanmar’s E Guard Environmental Services that began work on the SEA last December ? told the meeting.

“You, the stakeholders can help us and give us an idea about what kind of balance you want and what kind of future you want at the Thilawa SEZ,” Mr DuPont said.

“We also want to know residents’ suggestions; what impacts are anticipated by the development, how to protect the natural environment and how to reduce impacts on you, the stakeholders,” he said.

Mr DuPont said ERM and its local partner E Guard had been focusing on identifying sensitive issues involving the natural environment and the “socio environment”.

“For the natural environment, the main issues are water habitats ? mangroves, streams, ponds, rivers ? and also protected species. Socio environment are the main concerns about fisheries and agriculture and the sensitive areas around the project sites,” he said.

Mr DuPont said the development of the project involved five concepts.

The first was that it was economically driven and would contribute to Myanmar’s economic development, lead to increased incomes and provide stable employment.

“The second concept is to provide safe and secure livelihoods and the third is to be environmentally friendly,” he said.

The fourth involved efficient infrastructure with low impact on the environment and the fifth was to use eco-smart technology to achieve the project’s development goals, said Mr DuPont.

The project raised internally conflicting issues, he said, “between the economically driven and environmentally friendly [and], economically driven and safe and secure livelihood”.

“So what kind of environment should be created and retained for the future?” he said.

Attendance at the meeting suggests that residents will be taking a close interest in the development of the project. It will also be monitored by non-government organisations with an interest in development issues, including Yangon-based Paung Ku.

“Our organisation will work together with the Japan-based Mekong Watch NGO to monitor how environmental services companies and the Thilawa SEZ management committee implement the project to international standards and run it sustainably,” Paung Ku senior program coordinator U Kyaw Myint told Mizzima Business Weekly in a telephone interview on July 2.

U Kyaw Myint said when the environmental services companies complete the final environmental impact report it will be essential that it be provided simultaneously to residents and the relevant authorities.

“If those companies provide the report to government officials before it is provided to residents, the final report will be edited by the government officials,” he said.