In the early morning hours on Myanmar’s Inle Lake the quiet is broken by small tourist boats rumbling across the water to catch some of the lake’s famous performing fishermen.
The motorboats slow to an idle to watch as a father and his young son step onto the prows of their canoes, balance on one foot, wrap the other around a long paddle and slowly push forward. It looks like they could tip at any moment, but they’re fully in control. It’s almost like ballet on the water.
Eventually the father dips a huge, cone-shaped net into the water, pulls it out, holds up a fish, and flashes a big smile.
Then, he waits to get paid.
On this particular morning the performers make about $40 from four tour boats. That’s way more than the $5 the father used to make actually fishing. But there’s a sad irony in the performance. The fish he showed off was already dead. There just aren’t many left to catch in Inle Lake any more.
The fisherman uses his paddle to show one reason why. In the past, he says, he could completely submerge the paddle. But when he eases it into the water now, it thumps against the lake’s floor only about halfway down. Inle is filling up with sediment, because the forests around it are being cut down, and without trees to hold it in place, the soil is washing into the lake.
That’s a big problem for a lake that’s the second biggest in Myanmar, has huge cultural and economic importance for the country, and is a big tourist attraction.
But it’s not the only problem.
“Before, the water here is blue and clean,” explains local activist Kyaw Soe. Now, thanks to all the run-off, it’s a murky red. The lake is also shrinking, Kyaw Soe says, because the area gets a lot less rain than it used to. And invasive water hyacinths have taken over large swaths of the lake’s surface.
Kyaw Soe, 34, has witnessed a lot of these changes first-hand.
“When I was young, we’d go fishing and pick lotus roots to eat,” Kyaw Soe remembers, “But these days, kids can’t do these things.” He fears that local traditions are dying out.
And the causes go beyond increased sedimentation and drought. There’s also been a rise in unregulated farming, and an influx of tourists since the end of military rule in 2011.
It’s almost an avalanche of challenges.
Of course, Kyaw Soe understands why people want to come here.
“There are many beautiful lakes in the world,” he says. “But what makes this one special is its strong ties to the local religion and culture.”
People live right on the lake, their houses built on high stilts. They worship on it — there’s even a floating Buddhist temple right in the middle.
All of that is why a few years ago, Kyaw Soe decided to dedicate his life to trying to preserve Inle. He runs two youth groups focused on getting the area’s younger generations to take the lead in protecting the lake’s future.
“We explain deforestation to local communities,” he says, “and we encourage them to plant more trees instead of cutting them down.” The youngsters lead by example, he says, and often their parents and neighbors join them in their conservation work.
Kyaw Soe also works with local farmers, including some who work vast swaths of floating tomato farms right on the lake.
“Most of us tomato farmers use chemical fertilizers,” explains a 23-year-old man who uses the single name Newta. At a workshop run by one of Kyaw Soe’s groups, Newta says he learned about organic fertilizers, and now uses fewer chemicals.
Newta says he feels good about that, but that there’s also another benefit: “I got more tomatoes” this year, he says.
That kind of response is encouraging for Kyaw Soe. But for every small victory, there’s another big challenge.
For instance in 2015, the United Nations added Inle to its global network of Biosphere Reserves. The move cast a big spotlight on the lake’s unique qualities and its environmental challenges, and it came with a promise of help in protecting the lake. But the designation will draw even more tourists, which may mean more deforestation to build more hotels and open up more farmland to feed more people.
Kyaw Soe says some of the protections that come with the Biosphere designation may also make it even harder for people to maintain their traditional lives and livelihoods.
That’s why his organization emphasizes working with kids, and having youth leaders engage with their elders to change some of their habits from within.
But it will be tough to keep up with the pace of change here.
You can see some of the changes most starkly in Kyaw Soe’s own village, an hour boat ride across the lake form where he works, and a quick walk up the shore. That walk itself is one of the changes.
“We used to be able to park the boat under the house,” Kyaw Soe explains. Like all the others in the village, his house is raised on stilts above the shore.
He points to a spot about two feet up one of the stilts, where he says the water used to reach. “In the past, [the village was on] water for maybe nine or 10 months,” he says. “Now, it’s maybe two or three months.”
Kyaw Soe lives in the raised house with his wife, her parents, and the couple’s two young sons, although these days he usually spends most of his week away at work, and only gets to see his family on weekends.
As soon as he arrives home his toddler, Lone Lone, asks to go out on the water with him. Kyaw Soe takes his son back down to the receding shoreline and plops him into a little boat in shallow water, where the boy takes a miniature paddle, wraps his leg around it, and begins paddling in the traditional Inle-style.
Kyaw Soe says it’s hard to be away from his family so much, but he says that the sacrifice is worth it when he thinks about what Inle Lake might be like when his kids grow up. He wants them to have a future here that’s still connected to the region’s rich past.
Dalia’s reporting for this story was funded by the International Reporting Project.