Inle Lake is one of the most visited touristic sites in Myanmar and for good reason. Tourists travel to Inle Lake to see the local Intha people who have developed their own fascinating culture and lifestyle that revolves around the water. The Intha live on the lake in stilt houses while growing food in floating gardens. Living on a lake has its benefits, such as easy access to water and resilience to floods. But an increase in population and tourism means human activities like agriculture are polluting Inle Lake and negatively affecting its unique ecosystem. The fish population is dropping, as is the quality of the water – both of which are threatening the livelihoods of the people living on the lake.
Bamboo houses and comfort
Inle Lake has a tropical hot and humid climate, and in this type of climate providing enough air flow is important to make people feel more comfortable while indoors. The traditional bamboo houses of Inle Lake are built on stilts and the walls are made by weaving together strips of bamboo. These walls provide shading from the sun, but the light structure and the small gaps in the wall let air and light pass through. This way air flow and ventilation can be provided without needing to open a lot of windows which would let in the heat of sun. Since the house is raised on stilts, air can flow on all sides. Roof overhangs shade the walls and protect them from rain, while the light structure assures quick drying in the humid environment.
While this type of vernacular houses are common in tropical hot and humid climates, building the houses on a lake can provide additional benefits. When water evaporates, it cools down the air around it. Water also has a high thermal capacity and this means that water temperature varies less during the day than air temperature. Water can thus keep the houses and the villages cooler during the day and warmer during the night, creating more stable temperatures than what can be achieved on land. On the lake there are also fewer obstructions which means that wind speeds are higher, and this provides more cooling air flow and ventilation.
Some of the newer houses are built with wood and have two stories. These houses look more durable and probably have a higher status in the minds of the locals. But because the walls are more solid, less air will pass through and this can make the houses more uncomfortable. These houses also require more materials and regular wood grows much slower than bamboo. The stilts of the houses rot and have to be replaced approximately every 15 years, and using a fast-growing material like bamboo makes replacing the stilts and the houses more sustainable.
Flood protection and floating gardens
Why the Intha people decided to build villages on the lake is unclear. Protection from invasion and competition for land between ethnic groups could have been part of the reason. Regardless of the original reasons, one benefit of living on water is flood protection. Stilt houses provide flood protection even on land because they allow flooding below the house. Building a village on the lake provides additional flood protection because the society already relies on water transport. The water level varies throughout the year and the stilts need to be high in order to account for this variation.
The Intha people don’t just build houses on the lake, and Inle Lake is also known for its floating gardens. These floating gardens are essentially man-made islands composed of reeds and plants, primarily water hyacinth which is an invasive plant that grows on the lake. While the houses don’t actually float, the gardens do and this makes them even more flood resistant. As the water level drops and rises, the man-made islands move with the water level. Growing food on the lake also increases the total land available for agriculture, and there is easy access to water for irrigation, even during the dry season.
The floating gardens are used to grow vegetables and the lake is especially known for its tomato cultivation. Because of the climate and the easy access to water, tomatoes can be grown all year round on Inle Lake, unlike in the rest of Myanmar. The floating gardens are so successful that they have become a business that not only provides food for the locals but also a source of income. The food production was initially small-scale and meant for local consumption, but better market routes have increased the production, and a considerable portion of the lake area is now covered by these floating gardens.
The future of Inle Lake
While the floating villages and gardens worked well when they were only serving a small population, an increase in human activities is now a threat to the lake. The pressure to produce more has resulted in an increase in the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers which is threatening the ecosystem of the lake. This pollution not only makes the water unsafe for human consumption, it has also lead to an increase in water hyacinth growth, which in turn reduces the fish population by reducing the oxygen content of the water. The floating islands are also short-lived and the old islands are causing sedimentation of the lake. Meanwhile, an increase in deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices in the surrounding hills are causing erosion of the land, which in turn causes further sedimentation.
Other human activities are further polluting the water, such as untreated sewage and also tourism. While tourism is benefitting the local people financially, the growth of tourism is also threatening the lake through increased waste and changes in the local lifestyle and culture. When I visited Inle Lake in February 2013 it was very difficult to find a hotel room because there were more tourists than the small gateway town of Nyaung Shwe could handle, and the fast construction of new hotels and other tourist infrastructure is surely also putting a huge pressure on the region’s resources.
As the lake becomes more and more polluted by human activities, eventually it will become unlivable. This is a real shame, because if done sustainably, the floating villages and gardens of Inle Lake could provide a flood-resistant alternative way of living that would remove some of the pressure from land areas.