Water Supply Problems Are Overlooked in Yangon City

Yay Chann argues that water supply related problems urgently need to be addressed in Yangon.

The well-being of urban dwellers and the social and economic development of a city rest on water, especially the water service provision, as it is a basic need for each and every citizen. Cities, especially in developing countries, however, are facing water-related challenges such as water shortages and scarcity, coupled with mega-trends including a rapid rate of urbanization, population growth, and climate change. As a city in a developing country, the same can be seen in Yangon – the city has been experiencing water-related problems including water shortages. However, while water supply problems are too often overlooked in Yangon – they urgently need to be addressed. This article explains the water-related needs of the city and outlines possible policy options to undertake to solve water-related issues.

Yangon is facing pressing challenges related to rapid urbanization and industrialization; these include a growing population and the need to sustain economic growth. As the country’s largest urban area, Yangon contributes around 23% of the country’ GDP. At the same time, the population of the city is increasingly growing: from about 3.1 million in 1993 to 5.2 million in 2014, and it is expected that the city will have a population of more than 10 million in 2040. Given the population growth, urban expansion is also increasing rapidly – the total area of the city has reached 947 km2 in 2014 from 578 km2 in 1993. As a coastal city, on the other hand, Yangon is highly vulnerable to sea level rise, floods and climate change-related impacts. The city has experienced, for example, frequent floods along with record-breaking rainfall and sea water intrusion plus, the impacts of natural disasters such as Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

The role of public participation is for the most part excluded from the urban planning process of the city, and the lack of it has created an ineffective top-down urban planning regime. Plus, thanks to technocratic and elite-led planning processes, the gap between the city government and the public is widening, and public participation can barely be seen in water-related planning and management of the city. Given these combined challenges, the city’s water provision is under pressure.

Sustainability Problems with Yangon’s Water Supply

Distribution and Service Provision

The water service provision of the city cannot cover the whole city: 58% of the city’s total population can be supplied, of which more than 85% of the municipal total provision comes from reservoirs while the rest is supplemented by tube wells. At the same time, 66% of total daily water is lost as non-revenue water (NRW), and 30% of total water service connections are also not equipped with water meters. Further, the quality of the city’s water service is also questionable: two out of four reservoirs – Hlawga & Phyu Gyi – do not have water treatment plants.

On the other hand, service provision is not equally distributed among townships: the water service connections can cover the downtown area, especially the central business area (CBD), while coverage is significantly lower for the peri-urban areas – 3% of the population can be supplied with the municipal water in Hlaing Thayar Township, for example. In addition to limited pipeline networks, the service provision to some communities is less prioritized. In particular, migrants or informal settlers are excluded from YCDC’s plan of “providing potable water for all citizens”; the result is that informal settlers spend most of their daily incomes on water uses.

Financial Performance

Lack of financial resources is one of the main challenges for the city’s water supply and has resulted in long-term underinvestment in the sector. High non-revenue water, low water service charges, and ineffective tariff collection are, on the other hand, creating a negative loop – underinvestment in water supply results in low service coverage as well as high non-revenue water and water leakages. At the same time, the expenditure for water service provision exceeds the revenue of the sector and the gap between them is widening. When it comes to the charged rates of water service, the rates of the city for residents – 88 MMK per unit – are relatively low compared to other cities: 200 MMK per unit in Mandalay and 110MMK in Nay Pyi Taw, for instance. What is more, the existing tariff collection process is resource-consuming in terms of time, money and human resources.

Water Resource Viability and Renewability

The water resources of the city’s service provision have been stressed from different driving forces. Yangon city generally benefits from its annual rainfall of 2500-2700 mm as the rainwater is provided to fill the existing four reservoirs and to recharge the groundwater. However, the city is facing rainfall variability and intensity along with a decreasing number of rainy days since 1970. Furthermore, the city was at the top of the lists among the different regions of Myanmar in terms of average daily maximum temperature from 1980 to 2005, and it is expected to increase over the coming years. In other words, these have implications for the viability of water in the reservoirs, and replenishment of groundwater resources in the underground water layers of the city.

Moreover, the forest cover of Yangon Region – which can generally absorb and maintain rain water and gradually release it into the reservoirs in summer – is shrinking, with the second highest deforestation rate of 1.96% annually, after Ayeyarwady region’s 1.99%, in 30-years period. This can be translated into low refill of water and high sedimentation of reservoirs – thanks to reservoirs’ shrinking watershed areas – leading to high variability in viability of supplied water from reservoirs. Nga Moe Yeik Reservoir, for example, is facing sedimentation which can reduce the water storage capacity of the reservoir, affecting the sustainable provision of the city.

As there is inadequate water supply from the reservoirs, groundwater becomes an important source not only for municipal water provision but for use by those unserved by the municipal supply. It is estimated that 53.5% of the city’s total water use comes from groundwater, mostly through tube wells. On the other hand, there are concerns due to the concreting over of the city through an increase in the amount of impervious surfaces such as roads, sidewalks, parking lots and ports, and a 40% decrease in green areas over the course of 25 years. As a result, groundwater reserves – especially aquifers – are depleting and degrading. There are 14 townships with a negative balance – where the groundwater extraction exceeds the recharge. Additionally, this ground water extraction, and the resulting depletion of aquifers, has been leading to land subsidence in Yangon. While there is a  correlation between ground exploitation and land subsidence in the city, there are no existing regulations regarding this issue.

Way Forward

These problems need to be addressed; frequent water shortages and other related problems are otherwise likely to be seen in Yangon City. Four policy opportunities can be considered by the Yangon City Development Committee, to improve the sustainability of the city’s water provision.

a) Redesign the existing water service provision scheme to provide for all communities regardless of their social and economic status

This would need short-term and long-term approaches. In the short term, the municipality could set up a communal tap water supply system, or small water provision; these can be done through collaboration with the community and should be governed by the community; there could also be cooperation with informal water vendors. In the long-term, a coordinated, multi-sectoral effort is needed, which includes both top-down and bottom-up approaches. The former would be inclusive urban development policies, including effective coordination of different agencies to address the informal settlements and related problems including land ownership. The bottom-up approaches would involve community mobilization and advocacy.

b) Increase the service coverage – while focusing on non-revenue water reduction – to reduce groundwater use, plus carefully invest in the water (supply) sector

There are two areas that warrant special attention: reducing non-revenue water and water leakages, and designing a service charge collection process. First, non-revenue water (NRW) should be addressed by controlling physical losses, ensuring customers’ meter accuracy and making all efforts to keep the number of illegal connections within limits. As the NRW rate is high, taking these measures could boost revenue as well as make more water available while increasing the service coverage and reinvestment at the same time. Therefore, YCDC should invest more in NRW reduction and water network expansion. Second, integrating (and replacing) the existing door-to-door water tariff collection system with an ICT-based payment system would definitely play a key role. It will have positive implications, for example, by reducing the workload of the department as well as saving the water – these kinds of benefits are already seen in Taunggyi through its application of ICT in water utility payments.

c) Develop a comprehensive water supply policy that reflects the sustainability concept through a participatory deliberative process

A comprehensive water supply policy should be developed through a participatory deliberative process. Policy development can come from the application of futures thinking while reflecting the sustainability concept – considering social, economic, environmental and political dimensions – at the same time. The Urban Planning Department & Water Supply Department of YCDC and JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency), for example, should lead such a deliberation process, which, generally speaking, involves a wide range of actors – decision-makers, experts, different interest groups and citizens – in the deliberative decision-making process at various stages. For example, a given deliberative process could include decision-makers such as union, regional, and city agencies; experts including JICA, ADB (Asia Development Bank), UN Habitat; interested groups from the private sector and civil society, think tanks, as well as research and academic institutions; the public who are interested and affected as well as marginalized stakeholders including women and youth, etc.

d) Improve water-related governance, from national to the local levels, to enhance the sustainability of water service provision

Two tasks must be done to improve water governance. First, the current water governance performance should be assessed by using, for example, the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) Indicators on Water Governance framework, in which NWRC (National Water Resource Committee), JICA & ADB can play leading roles to make this task happen. As leading actors, they could focus on three main parts: assessing the existing performance related to the water sector; setting up the designated goals; and creating an action plan to reach the goals, which could be short term, mid-term & long term. In addition, the OECD Principles on Water Governance could be used to improve water governance-related policy and strategies. Second, the city should adopt a collaborative and/or coordinated multi-level governance approach along with setting up a stronger institutional setting for water-related management. Generally speaking, in this case, there would be four levels: union level; regional level; city level; and local level. Additionally, there should be both vertical and horizontal coordination or collaboration among and within levels, as they would have different roles and responsibilities – for example, strategy and planning; policy implementation; financing; monitoring; stakeholder engagement; service provision; operational management; and information sharing.

In conclusion, water supply problems need to be addressed for sustainable water provision for all. More importantly, however, the approach should be broader than a purely technical perspective: the expansion of more water resources, building more water treatment plants, and so forth. As much as possible, different dimensions including social, economic, environmental, and political considerations should be taken into account. Public participation has been hardly seen amongst policy-making circles in Myanmar for quite some time. It is, therefore, time to nurture this kind of practice starting from the city’s policy-making process to the country’s, and Yangon should play a leading role in encouraging public participation on policy issues.

(Featured image courtesy of Yay Chann, including background image from Wikimedia Commons)

Yay Chann works at Another Development, a local policy think tank in Yangon, Myanmar.