Natural Disasters in Myanmar: Past Catastrophes and Future Risks
Myanmar is becoming a progressively sought-after tourist destination. Despite facing economic challenges and political instability, the influx of holidaymakers continues to rise. The country’s allure lies in its breathtaking landscapes, including magnificent mountains, waterfalls, jungles, beaches, and a plethora of historical monuments. Myanmar is an ideal destination for extended tours, hiking, and other adventurous holidays. Travelers are advised to research potential natural disasters or catastrophes they may encounter in advance. While natural disasters are unpredictable, awareness of their potential can aid in preparation.
Climatic Characteristics of Myanmar
Myanmar, situated in the northern part of the Indochina peninsula in Southeast Asia, boasts an extensive coastline, numerous small islands, and is bathed by the waters of the Indian Ocean.
The country’s tectonic dynamics are shaped by the intersection of the Indian lithospheric plate and the Burma microplate, along with the fault zone adjoining the Shan plate. The stress accumulated along these fault lines can result in significant earthquakes, often centered in the mountainous regions of the northeast.
Myanmar experiences a tropical and subequatorial climate with minimal temperature fluctuations throughout the year. The nation essentially encounters three distinct seasons: a rainy summer spanning from May to October, a cool winter lasting from November to February, and a dry and hot spring occurring from March to May. Coastal regions receive the highest precipitation, reaching up to 5,000 millimeters annually.
Late spring and summer often bring cyclones from the Indian Ocean to Myanmar’s coast, accompanied by storms and hurricanes.
The country’s topography is intricate, featuring central lowlands traversed by the longest rivers, surrounded by towering mountains in the north, east, and west.
Myanmar’s Natural Disaster Potential:
- Seismic Activity: Pronounced due to the collision of adjacent tectonic plates, presenting the possibility of a major earthquake.
- Mountains: The country is home to substantial mountains within the Himalayan system, with some peaks exceeding 5 kilometers.
- Long Coastline: The coastline poses potential threats from storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis.
- Heavy Rainfall: Intense rainfall can lead to severe floods, landslides, and mudslides, isolating various regions during the rainy season.
- Low Moisture and Droughts: The combination of low moisture levels and droughts often triggers natural fires in mountainous forests.
The Significance of Understanding Natural Disaster History
Before embarking on a journey to a chosen destination, acquiring knowledge about the historical occurrences of natural disasters is paramount. Understanding the potential hazards not only aids in selecting the right location but also enables travelers to plan their visits during periods when the risk of encountering a natural disaster is minimal.
For instance, awareness that the coastal areas of Myanmar experience the heaviest rainfall between June and September, often resulting in flooding, allows travelers to choose alternative times for exploration.
This article delves into the chronological sequence of past natural disasters in the country, with a focus on earthquakes.
Despite Myanmar’s location in a seismically active region, significant earthquakes occur almost annually with relatively few severe consequences. One notable historical earthquake is the Chittagong earthquake on 2 April 1762, with an estimated magnitude of 8.8. This event led to widespread destruction and casualties, accompanied by a tsunami. However, detailed information about this occurrence has not been preserved. More recent earthquakes provide a clearer picture.
5 May 1930: Swa Earthquake
Occurring at nine o’clock in the evening in the central region, this earthquake had a magnitude of 7.4. Resulting in numerous building demolitions and fires in Bago and Yangon, it also triggered a tsunami along the coast. The total estimated casualties reached 7 thousand people.
6 November 1988: Myanmar-China Border Earthquake
Striking the Myanmar-China border in the north, this earthquake measured a magnitude of 7. Despite the mountainous and sparsely populated area, around 900 people lost their lives.
13 April 2016: Northern Myanmar Earthquake
A 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit an isolated region in northern Myanmar, resulting in one fatality and 120 injuries. While no significant damage was reported, the event underscores the ongoing seismic activity in the region.
Floods in Myanmar
Catastrophic flooding is an annual and prevalent occurrence in Myanmar, woven into the fabric of the country’s climate that residents have adapted to over the years. This phenomenon routinely leads to the closure of numerous areas to tourists, as extensive regions become submerged during the country’s rainy season lasting from May to October.
July-August 2015: Deluge Devastation
In this period, torrential rains, starting on 16 July and persisting until the end of August, wreaked havoc. Agricultural lands were washed away, roads and railway tracks disappeared under the deluge, and bridges and houses succumbed to the force of the waters. Over 1 million people were affected, spanning 12 of Myanmar’s 14 states. Tragically, 103 lives were lost in the disaster.
August 2018: Waters Surge, Dam Breach
Heavy rains triggered a significant rise in water levels across numerous rivers, resulting in the breach of a reservoir dam in the central region. A vital motorway connecting the capital to other cities succumbed to flooding, with dozens of settlements submerged. The aftermath saw 12,000 houses affected, and more than 60,000 people urgently evacuated from the affected areas.
31 July 2022: Unprecedented Rainfall
On this particular day, Myanmar experienced a record-breaking rainfall, surpassing 260 millimeters within an eight-hour span. Rivers in the Mandalay region overflowed their banks, submerging villages and towns. Pyin-U-Lwin town bore the brunt, witnessing the collapse of several buildings and bridges. Fortunately, despite the severe impact, casualties were avoided.
Cyclones in Myanmar
Myanmar, situated just north and east of the primary cyclone-prone region in the Indian Ocean, experiences relatively weaker cyclones than its neighboring countries. However, approximately every 2-3 years, the country is still vulnerable to powerful cyclones that strike the coast, resulting in significant damage and casualties.
May 2008, Cyclone Nargis
On 2 May, the formidable tropical cyclone Nargis made landfall. With hurricane-force winds reaching speeds of 165 kilometers per hour, it generated a storm surge penetrating up to 40 kilometers inland in some areas. Dozens of towns and hundreds of villages were submerged, and Labutta city alone witnessed the tragic loss of over 80,000 lives. The overall casualty count exceeded 138,000 people, and the estimated damage from Cyclone Nargis reached a staggering 12 billion dollars. It stands as the most expensive and destructive cyclone in Myanmar’s modern history.
July 2015, Cyclone Komen
While primarily impacting neighboring Bangladesh, Cyclone Komen caused substantial destruction in Myanmar as well. The accompanying rains exacerbated severe flooding along the coast, displacing 1.7 million people and leading to the destruction of over 500,000 homes. Tragically, 132 lives were lost in the raging waters.
30 May 2017, Cyclone Mora
Cyclone Mora, a moderately strong cyclone originating from the Bay of Bengal, reached the northwestern states of Myanmar on this day, causing significant destruction. Despite wind speeds not exceeding 110 kilometers per hour, 4,700 houses and three bridges were destroyed. The event resulted in the loss of lives, including a child swept out to sea and another killed by a falling tree. A tornado in the city of Raqqin claimed the lives of 2 people.
May 2023, Cyclone Mocha
Cyclone Mocha made landfall on the Myanmar coast starting on 14 May. With wind speeds at its epicenter reaching 250 kilometers per hour, an early warning system played a crucial role in minimizing casualties. Approximately 10 people lost their lives, 70,000 were urgently evacuated, and another 150,000 lost their homes. The total damage amounted to 1.5 billion dollars, highlighting the ongoing vulnerability of the region to cyclonic events.
The coastal areas of Myanmar have seldom faced tsunamis, with historical records documenting occurrences in 1941, 1930, 1881, and 1762.
26 December 2004
However, one of the most impactful tsunamis in recent history unfolded on 26 December 2004. Stemming from an earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, this event marked the most powerful tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Despite Myanmar experiencing less severe devastation compared to its neighboring countries, the impact was still significant. The presence of numerous islands helped mitigate the tsunami’s force, along with the country’s rocky coastline. Nevertheless, the aftermath included the destruction of almost 800 buildings, the evacuation of 30 thousand people, and a tragic loss of about 600 lives. This event underscores the potential risk and the need for awareness even in regions where tsunamis are infrequent.
While forest fires are atypical for Myanmar due to its consistent rainfall, they do occur during the short dry season from late February to April. These fires are generally localized and do not result in significant damage. For instance, one of the more severe incidents transpired in late February 2017 in an area bordering China. Although the fire originated at an altitude of over 3 kilometers, making extinguishing challenging, it did not pose a threat to human life.
The primary threat to tourists in Myanmar is floods. The rainy season, spanning from May to October, renders many tourist destinations inaccessible during this time. Authorities take proactive measures, closing entrance to affected regions to prevent unnecessary casualties among tourists.
While there is a potential threat of earthquakes in the country, recent seismic activity has been insignificant, and no major earthquakes have occurred in recent years.
It’s essential to be mindful of the threat of tsunamis, which could arise from tremors near the coast of Myanmar or neighboring islands in Indonesia.
Forest fires in Myanmar, while occurring, generally do not pose a significant threat to tourism or the local population.
The optimal time for travel to Myanmar is from November to February, during the local winter. During this period, the weather is dry and clear, with temperatures not as high as in the spring months, offering an ideal environment for tourism.