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Abstract, Land Degradation & Development, 2019

This study takes stock of the confusion that exists around the environmental state of Lake Inle, a flagship destination for tourism in Myanmar. Reports on the dynamics of its iconic floating gardens and on the evolution of the Lake's dimensions in response to land-use change in the watershed are inconsistent and provide a poor basis for policymaking. Here, we (a) present a critical overview of the literature concerning land degradation around Lake Inle; (b) provide an independent and quantitative reexamination of the Lake's size; (c) carry out a methodic assessment of the history of floating gardens based on written sources, interviews, and high-resolution imagery from 1967, 1983, 2002, and 2014; and (d) produce the first comprehensive and biseasonal bathymetric survey of the Lake, thereby providing a baseline water volume estimate fit for future monitoring purposes. Results challenge previous reports and show that floating agriculture boomed in the 1970s (11 km2 in 1967 and 29 km2 in 1983), peaked in 2002 (35 km2), then declined slightly (33 km2 in 2014). Our bathymetric survey reveals that the Lake volume at the peak of the 2015 rainy season was 122.6 × 106 m3, with maximum water depths having diminished substantially from 6 m (as reported in 1918) to just 3 m today as a combined result of sediment aggradation and waterlevel decline (−1 m in 25 years). Those dynamics have critical implications for the sustainability of floating agriculture, fishing, and the local tourist economy.