On the water with Myanmar’s ‘river cleaners’

On the water with Myanmar's 'river cleaners'


On a good day a picker can find trash worth 30,000 kyat (US$10), but more often the take-home pay is around US$3.

“Before we started working there was lots of plastic, cans and bottles on the creek,” says 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, says 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 Ma Yu.

“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 says there are 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’.”