Profiling change in Burma: Living along the banks of Myanmar's Irrawaddy River

MANDALAY, Myanmar — A five-year-old girl, her face covered with the yellow cosmetic paste called thanaka, asks for money from her mother. She wants to have noodles for her breakfast.

The girl’s mother Daw Yee finds the money in her purse and gives 200 kyats.

“Thanks a lot to the river,” says Daw Yee, 48. “We can survive because of the river. Long live the river.”

The family lives beside the Irrawaddy River, in the place where Daw Yee married her husband years ago.

People here work hard, some cutting down trees to get their income. They say changes in Myanmar’s government usually affect them little. They keep carrying, cutting, fishing, loading and unloading boats.

But when people here heard news about Myanmar’s government signing an agreement with the China government to build Myitsone Dam, they worried about damage to the river — and to their livelihoods.

President Thein Sein suspended construction of the dam in 2011 after opposition from prominent citizens including Aung San Suu Kyi, and Chinese contractor CPI said earlier this year that it hoped to resume work in 2015 once Thein Sein leaves office.

“We didn’t notice any policy of the new government,” Daw Yee said. “But we need to know the river is still alive for our life.”

Residents in this part of Mandalay drink water from the river and bathe in it. For them, environmental change is paramount. When the water level rises during the rainy season, the river destroys homes. Heavy winds can do the same.

Daw Yee said the children and grandchildren in the area are terrified when the rains and winds come.

“We have to move to the road side,” she said. “And then the water level goes down. We will build our home beside the river again. We meet with that kind of problem twice a year, mostly in monsoon season. When that is over, we live beside the river happily again.”