On the water with Myanmar’s ‘river cleaners’

MA YU launches her makeshift polystyrene boat into a Yangon creek for another day of trawling the filthy waters for plastic and tin cans with her team of “river cleaners”. 

Around 10 others join her in the dawn light, driven to work the foetid grey-brown murk of Pazundaung creek by the economic crisis that has gripped Myanmar since the 2021 military coup. 

They gather recyclable materials to sell to traders, their only source of income since losing their jobs after the putsch that upended the economy and sparked widespread unrest. 

“There was no job for me on the land and I’m responsible for my children and my husband’s healthcare,” the 36-year-old Ma Yu told AFP, her cheeks and forehead daubed with the sandalwood “thanakha” paste popularly used in Myanmar to ward off the blazing sun. 

“So, I rented some polystyrene sheets and I went onto the creek with my neighbour. On the first day we managed to collect some plastic and cans to sell. We were happy,” she said. 

Myanmar’s economy has been battered by the fallout of the coup, with more than a million people losing their jobs, according to the International Labour Organisation. 

Ma Ngal, 41, came to the river after losing her job selling vegetables and fish at a Yangon stall, with her carpenter husband also unable to find regular work.

“I didn’t tell my parents and family members that we are doing this work,” said Ma Ngal. “But they found out, and I had to explain to them that I’m doing this for my family.”

On a good day a picker can find trash worth 30,000 kyat (RM43.80), but more often the take-home pay is around US$3 (RM13.14). 

“Before we started working there was lots of plastic, cans and bottles on the creek,” said Kyu Kyu Khine, 39, who used to collect trash from Yangon’s streets. 

The pickers try to time their working days with the tides — floating downstream in search of more trash when it ebbs and riding it back upstream at the end of a shift. 

But the tidal surges can be treacherous, said Ma Yu, who was knocked off her boat on one of her early forays onto the water. 

“Sometimes I think that if something happens to me, I’m all alone here and I can’t do anything,” she said. 

The waters also carry regular reminders of the breakdown of order in Yangon, where residents say crime is surging in the aftermath of the coup. 

The pickers regularly see dead bodies floating on the water, said MaYu. 

“It’s not an easy job but…the important thing for me is that my children don’t starve,” she said. 

Her fellow picker Ma Ngal said there were some lighter moments. 

“Some people joke with us when they see us working. They say ‘here come the municipal team, they know how to clean up the river’.” AFP 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition