Van Cung Lian presents new perspectives on water issues and the future of water supply in Hakha.
Hakha, a hilly region without adequate access to water, faces water shortages irrespective of the season. Some visible indicators of water shortage in Hakha include (1) increased number of laundry services since there is not enough water for washing for many households (2) increased number of people selling water – the majority of people who sell water are, perhaps, well owners and private small pipeline owners (3) increased tanks carrying water in the city during dry seasons (4) hundreds of privately and community owned within and outside of the city and (5) hundreds of households using rain for food and wash.
People in Hakha depend mainly on three different sources of water: natural springs or surface runoff water, wells about 2 feet to 6 feet deep, and rainwater collected from household roofs. During the rainy season, many people in Hakha depend on the sky for water – for food, drinking and agriculture uses. Rainwater is collected from household roofs that run through the roof gutter to relatively small water tanks via downspouts. During the dry season, people mostly depend on spring surface runoff water. Although there is no precise data, it is believed that surface runoff water is the main source of water supply for the vast majority of people in Hakha. Most of the surface runoff water comes from Mt Rung. Mt. Rung (in Chin “Rung Tlang”) is one of the most famous mountains in Chin State. Hakha lies at its foot. It is approximately 1400 feet higher than sea level. However, some of these surface water sources dry out during the dry season.
This has led to higher demand for groundwater. In addition, the demand for groundwater may have grown due to urbanization and population growth along with inefficiencies in water use and lack of a proper municipal water supply, leading to the desire to make concrete policies for groundwater governance in Hakha among local policy-makers. According to Ngun Vung, Chairman of the Hakha Municipal Committee, about 14 households attempted groundwater drilling but only 3 households successfully utilized groundwater in recent years. Despite such unsuccessful attempts, it is possible that more and more people will dig for groundwater if the government is not successful in implementing the large Timit dam project. If this is the case, the government would need to have a groundwater policy that seriously considers the fact that Hakha is vulnerable to landslides.
What is the Issue: Poor Access to Water and Varieties of Water Supplies?
Water shortage in Chin State is often the cause for relocating villages. For instance, Tluangram (B) village in Thantlang Township was shifted to a different location because they could not afford to bring water up to their village, among other reasons. Likewise, farmers are facing a lot of difficulties due to water shortage. Hospital staff and patients are facing similar problems. Medical doctors are often reluctant to come to the State due to inadequate water supply at hospitals and accommodation. Like other villages, Hakha is also facing water shortages throughout the year, even in the rainy season. In search of alternatives for improved water supply, people in Hakha use various methods in order to produce adequate water supply. The most common ways of getting water in Hakha can be classified as follows:
First, rather than using the municipal water supply, local communities such as faith-based communities and a member of a ward join together and construct their own pipelines that connect directly to small natural springs nearby or within Hakha city. A household using such locally owned water supplies normally receives water via these pipes for about one to two hours per day. One person is usually given charge of pipeline and water distribution management, who earns a small amount of monthly salary contributed by users of such water supplies. Secondly, a number of people have their own individual wells in their respective gardens or their own pipeline that brings water from natural springs. Thirdly, many people do not have either their own pipeline nor community water supplies. This group of people buys water from neighboring households who have their own pipelines or wells. The pipeline owners supply water to such users.
As there is no municipal water treatment and proper municipal water distribution system, neither of the above ways of getting water has passed through the municipal water treatment. The vast majority of people in Hakha use pipe systems or wells, which are either owned by the community, ward or private households. Relatively few people use the municipal water supply along with other sources of water supply.
The most visible indicator of water shortage in Hakha is an increased number of people selling and buying water. However, legally speaking, unless people get licenses from the municipal committee, they are not allowed to sell water. In contrast, except for bottled drinking water sellers, people who sell water in Hakha apparently did not get permission from the municipal committee, according to the Hakha Municipal Law. This means that people do not have the right to sell water unless they have a commercial license– even if it is water from their own well,
In addition, during the dry season, some wells and springs quickly dry up. People reported spending more than 4 hours to get enough water for food and wash. This leads to increased bottled water use in the dry season. Some pay between Ks.250 to Ks.500 for a 25-litre container that won’t be enough for a day for food and wash, not to mention vegetation. The price may seem low but still, for many people, it is unaffordable. For many new urban settlers, it is unreasonable to pay for water as it is not usual to buy water in villages in Chin State.
However, having a private well or pipeline does not always solve the inadequacy of water. According to one source, with more than 30,000 people estimated to be living in Hakha, Hakha’s total domestic water requirement is believed to be more than 513,000 gallons per day. According to the former Chin State Municipal Director, Hakha needs about 900,000 gallons per day to fulfil its water supply demands whereas the current Hakha water supply is about 300,000 gallons per day during the rainy season, and about 200,000 gallons per day during summer. Thla Hre also stated that the majority of water sources managed by Hakha Municipality supply water to government offices and government quarters.
Spring Water Pipeline Supply System and Vulnerability to Contamination of Water
In addition, Hakha city’s water supplies are believed to be highly vulnerable to contamination because there is neither water treatment nor proper solid and liquid waste management in Hakha. Therefore, this research argues that if wastewater discharges by household use have considerable detrimental effects on water quality and hence on public health, any kind of current water supply in Hakha urgently needs to be checked against minimal water quality standards. The majority of water sources are located in easily contaminable areas.
Based on this line of argument, the issues around water quality can be framed in two ways. The first is the fact that there is no water treatment system. When it comes to water from the wells, people have reported that the water contained levels of lime. Likewise, spring water supplies are also located in places highly vulnerable to contamination. Users created a small storage basin at the gorge or ravine – the course of a stream – and brought it through the pipes to home. It is unlikely that the majority of water storage basins of this type are deeper than 4 feet and that household wastes can be seen around the spring river. The second way to frame issues around water quality in Hakha is a lack of waste management practices. Hakha Municipal is entrusted with the city’s waste management and water supply. However, until now, the Hakha Municipal doesn’t collect household wastes from the vast majority of Hakha households. In addition to solid waste management, being in a hilly place means that Hakha water supplies are much more vulnerable to contamination come non-solid waste along with the fact that there is no drainage system at all in most parts of Hakha.
In addition to the need for water treatment and proper waste management to control water quality in Hakha, plans and policies would probably have to be adjusted accordingly to make them more responsive to the situation of Hakha. One municipal government official argues that Chin Municipal Law is like a copy of the Yangon or Mandalay Municipal Law; it does not reflect the situation of Chin State. Such an argument suggests the need to review the current municipal law related to waste management and water governance. Another municipal officer pointed out that they are aware of the lack of comprehensive water governance legal framework in Chin State, including that of groundwater governance.
Lack of a Legal Framework on Water Governance in Hakha
The 2008 Myanmar Constitution states that “the Union is the ultimate owner of all lands and all natural resources above and below the ground, above and beneath the water and in the atmosphere in the Union.” However, the Myanmar National Water Policy has also acknowledged the need for a comprehensive water policy to secure and enable safe, equitable, efficient and affordable access to water.
Since regulating water became a priority for the Myanmar National Water Policy, which was approved in 2014, State and Regional Governments are entrusted with the rights to formulate water policies, laws and regulations based on the respective regional and state context, culture and traditions. This, however, is not yet implemented in Chin State. According to Hakha Municipal Law (Article 82), all water resources within or outside of municipal authorized areas belong to the municipality with the municipal committee having the right to manage it for the benefit of the people. However, nothing about groundwater is mentioned in the law. There is, therefore, no legal framework or policy with regards to the use of groundwater or to maintain a sustainable use of groundwater in Hakha.
There are a number of reasons as to why the Hakha Municipal Committee has not yet adopted a groundwater policy. The first possible reason is that despite inadequate water supply and increased interest in groundwater, there are still very few people who use groundwater in Hakha. Secondly, legislatures or municipal officials think that even if groundwater is used, it would be rare for people to use groundwater for commercial purposes, meaning that since groundwater will not be used extensively, it would pose little threat to the city and the people. Thirdly, people may not be aware of the link between using groundwater in highland areas like Hakha and vulnerability to landslides, thereby thinking that groundwater policy is unnecessary.
Whereas many of the interviewees understood water, including groundwater, as individual property, Hakha Municipal Law clearly states that all water resources within or outside of municipal authorized areas belong to the municipality, and said that the municipal committee has the right to manage it for the benefit of the people. The law also requires people to obtain permission from the Municipal Committee before taking/acquiring water– this applies to both household and commercial use. In addition, individual or other users – of both groundwater and stream water – have to pay taxes even if water supplies are privately discovered and maintained.
Additional Challenges: the Timit Dam Project, Persistent Corruption
It is often argued that with an average annual rainfall of 74 inches (1880 mm), Chin State should not be short of water, but due to the seasonability of rainfall and a lack of basic water infrastructure, shortages do occur. The people of Hakha mainly depend on natural springs and surface runoff water into natural streams around and within the city whereas it is believed that majority of the water sources come from Rung Mountain.
Although the municipal committee is responsible for supplying water, the vast majority of people in Hakha do not use the municipal water supply; even if they use it, they are likely to have other additional sources of water supply in order to meet their needs. There is no detailed data on how many households in Hakha are getting water supply from Hakha municipality and how adequate those supplies are for the households using it.
In both rural and urban areas in Chin State, the lack of water supply is normally understood as lack of proper water infrastructure. Therefore, in order to fulfil the water demands in Hakha, the Chin State Government initiated the three-year-long Timit river dam project in 2016 to supply water to Hakha. This was previously set to be finished by 31st July 2019, but it remains unfinished today as the government is still working on a distribution system. It is important to note that the Timit water supply project, worth 11 billion kyat, was managed by the Chin State Government, not the Hakha Municipality, until June 2019. The Chin State government has faced criticism for unsuccessful implementation of the Timit Dam project, for not completing an environmental impact assessment and other studies, poor engineering design, poor water treatment system, lack of consultation with residents, including on water pricing and the construction of large water storage tanks, and lack of accountability and transparency. The government is now attempting to renew its efforts to bring Timit water to fulfill Hakha city’s water demand. Of 11 billion kyats, 2.9 billion kyats is set aside for water distribution within the city and the Chin State government contracted with two companies for this 2.9 billion project but the water distribution contracts are unsuccessful. A recent Chin State Parliament meeting held on 28 June 2019 signalled that the government is transferring the Timit water distribution project to Hakha Municipality.
The Timit water supply project must be debated because it was meant to be the main source of water supply for Hakha city, with a capacity of supplying 500,000 gallons per day through 10 water storage tanks, covering 56% of Hakha water supply demands along with an existing 200,000 (22%) gallons of daily water supply in the city. This means if the Timit dam water supply is successful and completed on the new timeline (now December 2019), it still would not meet the city’s water demand. The city would still need about another 200,000 gallons of water per day. Former Chin State Municipal Director Thla Hre highlighted during an interview with the author that many people would not be able to afford water from the Timit dam, since this water source would require an expensive pumping system. Thla Hre further argued in a recent news article that it is unlikely that the Timit water supply project will be successful. Therefore it is very plausible to state that the discourse over water scarcity will be changed in the future where water issues will be framed in the form of inequity and unequal access to water which will be escalated by, if any in the future, privatization of water supply.
Hakha Municipality once proposed supplying water from four nearby springs: Sacuan, Fadeu, Haucheuva and Kiarva springs. The government allocated 2.9 billion kyats for this project but the government entrusted the General Administration Department instead of Hakha Municipality for the project. The project remains unfinished. These four springs are located in a higher location than the city, meaning that Hakha could possibly get more than 200,000 gallons per day from these springs through gravity flow water supply system. If successful, they would have fulfilled more than 22% of water demand in the city.
The government has been questioned for lack of transparency and accountability over water supply projects in Hakha. This is not a new issue. The author once argued that “it is highly likely that giving bribe carries more weight than either skills or experiences to get employed in the public sector in Chin State.” Independent research conducted by Chinbridge Institute also found out it is almost impossible to get tender contracts without bribing high-ranking government officials. Access to basic public services and quality control of the government project are very likely to be harmfully affected by corruption in Chin State. This is how, I assume, many of government projects including this Timit project and other attempts to bring water supply to Hakha has failed.
Privatization Will Bring Additional Challenges
Lack of adequate water supply has pushed people to turn to groundwater, the more expensive and vulnerable way of getting water supply in Hakha. In recent years, about 15 to 20 people tried to pump groundwater, digging as deep as 300 feet beneath the ground using groundwater drilling machine. Groundwater is perceived as a cleaner and healthier supple. However, only a few people, reportedly three households, are successfully utilizing groundwater supply system in Hakha. It costs a family about 60 lakhs to get their own groundwater, according to Ngun Vung, Chairman of Hakha Municipal Committee. In terms of legal procedures, although people are required to obtain permission from the municipal committee when getting their own household water supply, people do not usually do it. According to Chairman of Hakha Municipal Committee, the municipal committee also doesn’t take any legal action against users who don’t obtain permission because the committee thinks that they also can’t supply adequate water to the citizens. However, it is widely understood that groundwater is not a sustainable way of getting water supply in Hakha, and it is also recommended that Hakha Municipal Committee should come up with a new legal framework that reflects the situation of Hakha, and its groundwater issue, taking more serious consideration of the fact that Hakha is a place very vulnerable to landslide.
It is unlikely that, except for large private land owners and investors, many people would be able to afford to access groundwater. So, with rapid increases in the urban population, more and more people will face an inadequate water supply, while existing water supplies are more likely to be much more vulnerable to contamination than ever before, as a result of increased solid and liquid wastes due to population growth.
Although water is now seen by the government and the civil society as public property, this concept will soon shift and water will soon be seen as a source of profit for a few people. Moving water from the realm of provision by the municipal government to a private entity, through which water supply will be commercialized with the possible result of increase in living expenses. In other words, while water scarcity is now mainly framed as lack of basic infrastructure and low water quality, the future will be different, because water issues will be framed in the form of inequity and unequal access to water if the commercialization or privatization of water supply gains ground. This means, in the near future, there could be a shift in the ownership of water as well as a shift in how people experience water scarcity.
If groundwater and the Timit dam project are not the solution to Hakha’s water supply, it is highly likely that the concern over water issues will be immensely increased in the near future which will probably lead to the privatization of water in Hakha. It is equally unlikely that the Timit dam water supply will successfully supply long-term demands for water in Hakha. Additionally, the author foresees that the Timit dam project itself could be privatized in the near future or substituted with other large private entity’s water supply in the near future which will certainly change the discourse and debate over water and how people deal with water scarcity in Hakha.
In order to explain the current water crisis in Hakha, different forms of water supply in Hakha have been explored along with different issues around water quality, lack of water treatment and proper waste management to control water quality, and efforts that have s been made to improve access to water in the city. As noted, it is unlikely that the vast majority of households in Hakha use municipal water supplies since they mostly depend on wells and natural springs to bring water to their homes via pipes (whether privately owned by the respective household or community owned ones). In addition, issues around water quality have also been highlighted. The researcher argues that if wastewater discharges by households have considerable detrimental effects on water quality and hence on public health, it is important that water quality is controlled through water treatment and responsive water policies along with proper waste management to control water quality. It is also argued that with rapid urbanization in Hakha, issues of water supply will also immensely increase, possibly resulting in the commercialization of water. Consequently, the concept of water ownership will dramatically change: from water provided by municipal government to water provided by large private entities. If this happens, a lack of basic water infrastructure will be no longer an issue, but new concerns will arise out of the privatization or commercialization of water.
(Image courtesy of Van Cung Lian)
Van Cung Lian is a researcher based in Hakha, Chin State and is a founding Strategic Partnership Officer of Chinbridge Institute (Center for Research and Social Studies). He is also serving as Coordinator/Principal of Victoria Academy (A member of Myint-mo Education Foundation, formerly known as Myanmar Community Academies Program). This post is part of a series of articles produced in the context of a fellowship program developed by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in partnership with Urbanize: Policy Institute for Urban and Regional Planning.