From spongy function to year 2100

Yay Chann argues that it is time for Yangon City to build climate resilience.

Last June, a local policy think tank, Another Development, produced a research report related to green spaces in Yangon City. The report pointed out that green spaces in Yangon City had been reduced by nearly 40% over the course of 25 years. In addition, more green spaces in city areas have begun to face the challenges that come along with economic development, population growth, and rapid urbanization. A decline in the number of green spaces in Yangon City is bad, particularly when it comes to building a climate resilient city.

Green spaces are critical in building the environment of a climate resilient city. As a forestry term, green spaces are described as the metaphor of the “sponge” (like those used in washing dishes) because such spaces act like a sponge: they generally absorb and maintain water in rainy season, and gradually release it recharging ground water in summer. Green spaces also play a key role in regulating climate, filtering pollution, and cooling the environment. Therefore, protecting green spaces is important to building climate resilience.

Climate change and its effects in Yangon City

According to the global climate risk index 2019, Myanmar is one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world, and was the country most affected by extreme weather events between 1998 and 2017. Coastal cities like Yangon are highly vulnerable to rising sea levels, floods and other impacts of continued climate change. Yet, this is not only a future threat. With Cyclone Nargis in 2008 likely the most well-known example, Yangon has already experienced climate change and its effects such as high temperature, sea level rising, floods, water shortages, ground water depletion, frequent flooding, and unhealthy levels of pollution.

The average daily maximum temperature of Yangon was the highest, (please see annex A of the report) among different regions of Myanmar, from 1980 to 2005. Yangon has suffered record-breaking temperature in some years, including this one. In April, Kabaaye Station of the Department  of Meteorology and Hydrology, Yangon recorded a maximum of 42.2 degrees Celsius, which set a 51-year record temperature for the month of April, beating 42 degrees in the same month and 41.8 degrees in 2014. It was the second-highest record temperature of all time for Yangon after May 2010 heat wave temperature of 42.5 degrees Celsius. It was projected the annual mean temperature of Yangon will rise by between 0.6 and 1.0 degrees per year in 2011-2040 and by between 1.2 and 2.4 degrees per year in 2041-2070.

Given this projected temperature, energy demands will be high, and air pollution will become a silent threat for Yangon City. However, at present, according to the HBS (Heinrich Boll Stiftung) air quality index, Yangon’s air quality is frequently far from the World Health Organization’s recommended limits during rush hour and winter season. Moreover, Myanmar was recently ranked 171 out of 180 in the Environmental Performance Index (2018).

Flooding is found more frequently in Yangon City during this decade, and it is likely to get worse as a result of poor and old drainage systems, a rising sea level, and record-breaking rainfall. Thanks to the concreting over of the city, an increase in the amount of impervious surfaces such as roads, sidewalks, parking lots and ports also contributes to more flooding in city areas, leading to flood and ground water depletion. The old colonial drainage system is overloaded with an increasing population in downtown areas and a lack of proper drainage system is found in the rest of the city. Given this situation, we can only expect Yangon’s flooding to get much worse as a result of the sea level rising and record-breaking rainfall.

Yangon frequently faces water shortages during summer time, especially in the outskirt of the City such as Dala and Hlaing Tharyar Townships not covered by municipal services. These areas mainly rely on ponds and lakes, which are often depleted during the hot season. Water supplied by the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) covers around 40% of the city population, while the rest of the population has to rely on ground water found in tube wells, ponds and lakes, or on private water sellers. However, ground water utilization has been increasing with a growing population and with the city’s urbanization. Research states that the groundwater will be unsustainable at this rate. There are 14 townships with a negative balance (meaning the extraction of groundwater is greater than its recharging rate). Additionally, seawater intrusion, resulting from sea levels rising, becomes a threat for a low-lying Yangon City. This will be a challenge for Yangon’s water supply along with the demands of urbanization and a growing population.

Time for Yangon City to build climate resilience

Scientists from around the world agree that the global climate is changing and temperatures are rising. Cities are experiencing climate change and its effects. As such, it will be important and ever more urgent for Yangon City to improve and build climate resilience.

Last June 2019, the Financial Times reported that Singapore was preparing for climate threat. The story explained that Singapore was engaging in long-term investment planning for a jump of up to 4.6 degrees Celsius in daily mean temperature by 2100. Needless to say, Yangon City— as a coastal city like Singapore— should be improving its climate resilience across various sectors. As we all know, Yangon has experienced climate change and its effects, more and more frequently during recent years. It will be getting worse and worse, along with global warming, in coming decades. Therefore, we all should say it is time for Yangon City to improve and build climate resilience. If not, climate change will make us extinct while we are talking about others – what Singapore is doing for temperature rise, how Bangkok is preparing for sea level rising, and how Jakarta is planning for flood reduction.

(Image courtesy of Raw Pixel)

Yay Chann is a graduate student and research assistant at School of Public Policy (SPP), Chiang Mai University (CMU), Thailand. He also studied forestry and environmental management at University of Forestry and Environmental Science, Yezin.