Myanmar on the cusp of change

IMG_1506After decades of isolation, Myanmar is welcoming investments and technical expertise from international organisations. Its water and wastewater sector needs to be built up from scratch. Will Myanmar be able to avoid the mistakes made by countries in the region?

This article has originally been published by Asian Water Magazine at

The water-stressed countries in red seemed to dominate the entire world map. But the presenter was smiling as he pointed to a small region in Southeast Asia and said, “Look, the whole world is suffering from water stress, but we have plenty of water!”

At Myanmar Water 2015 held in Yangon last September, a number of technical presentations highlighted the town water supply projects being executed in different parts of the country. There was an air of optimism that comes from the confidence of being on the cusp of change; of moving from old to new.

Coming out from isolation

After decades of military rule and isolation of its economy from the rest of the world, the country is welcoming investments and technical expertise from international organisations. The sanctions imposed by many countries in the 80s in response to the suspension of civil liberties led to Myanmar falling back in economic terms. Despite being an ASEAN member country, it lost access to funding and assistance from Asian Development Bank and World Bank. In 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated large areas of the country.

But the freeing of much-loved leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010 marked a new phase in Myanmar’s history. The US lifted its crippling sanctions and the new government in 2011 introduced sweeping reforms. Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Myanmar in 2012. Miss Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won most of the open seats in by-elections. Later, in November 2015, the NLD displaced then President Thein Sein’s government, and came with a thumping majority in both houses of parliament.

The official capital of Myanmar is Naypyidaw, while its two largest cities are Yangon, with a population of about 4.6 million, and Mandalay, with a population of about one million. The third-largest city is Mawlamyine, which has half a million people and the rest of the 31 urban centres only have smaller populations above 100,000.

Water sector realities

Myanmar is endowed with abundant natural resources including water. Rainfall is marked by seasonal and regional variability. Thus, while the mean annual rainfall is 2,100 mm, it varies from as much as 5,000 mm along the coastal areas of Rakhine and Tanintharyi states to less than 1,000 mm in the central dry zone. The country is strategically located like a bridge between South and Southeast Asia. About two-thirds of its 60 million population live in rural areas and practice subsistence agriculture. Poverty is very high in rural areas and Myanmar is near the bottom in the rankings of the United Nations Human Development Index.

There has been very little investment in urban infrastructure, which means that services such as water supply, sanitation, drainage, wastewater, and solid waste management are severely under-developed.

The low level of urban development also explains why the water resources have also not been exploited to the extent that other Southeast Asian countries have been subjected to. In today’s over-populated world, it is hard to find a country with pristine water resources. Total water withdrawal in Myanmar is less than 5% of the renewable resource available; about 89% of this is used for agriculture, 10% is for domestic use while industries use only 1%. Surface water is the main source of water and constitutes 91% of total use and groundwater merely takes up 9% of use.

Flooding is a frequent phenomenon in Myanmar. Even downtown areas in the major cities are often under water after a bout of rain.


Recently, in July–August 2015, intense monsoonal rains and cyclonic conditions caused widespread flooding and landslides that displaced more than 1.6 million people, killed 132, and devastated one-fifth of the country’s agricultural land.

There is no single ministry, which is tasked with managing water resources. The Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation is the main ministry that is involved with rural water supply since it is responsible for groundwater resources. In the three major cities, water supply and sewage treatment is the responsibility of the respective city development committees.

The urban water systems are old (sometimes more than 100 years old) and supply is intermittent. Non-Revenue Water (NRW) is 40% or higher. Water quality is also said to be poor. According to Myo Thein, the Deputy Chief Engineer, Water and Sanitation Department at Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), piped water is supplied to 40% of Yangon’s population.

Myo Thein

Four surface water reservoirs supply water to the city. The raw water quality is good at its source in the jungles, but is compromised by the time it reaches the city. Mr Myo informs that the local Yangon River is too saline for domestic use. Until recently, there was only Nyaunghnapin (Ngamoeyeik) treatment plant, commissioned in 2005 with a capacity of 200,000 cubic metres per day. Most of Yangon’s water was distributed without treatment.


However, a second treatment plant has been built in 2014 while a third will be completed in 2018. The residents who are not covered by piped networks rely on tube wells, operated either by YCDC or private operators., in Mandalay also, according to a feasibility report prepared by JICA in 2003, piped water services cover only half of the city’s population and NRW rates are over 50%. There too, the water is mainly distributed without treatment.

In the absence of a conventional sewerage system (except in the central business district), septic tanks are mainly used to handle urban sewage. Stormwater drains are often receptacles for raw sewage and septic tank effluents. The drains are frequently blocked. Stagnant water leads to breeding of mosquitoes. Thus, Myanmar is saddled with many health risks due to improper management of urban wastewater.

Water policy, standards needed urgently

“We urgently need laws based on Integrated Water Resources Management,” says Khin Maung Lwin, erstwhile Director from the Ministry of Health who is currently a Steering Committee Member of Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC). He emphasises that without a Myanmar Water Act and rule of law, it would be difficult to improve conditions in Myanmar. “We need a leader like Modi who highlights sanitation as an issue,” says Mr Khin. Even though the open defaecation rate is only 10% in the country, Mr Khin explains that improperly maintained latrines are even more dangerous than the use of open fields since they contaminate groundwater.

Khin Maung Lwin

A large number of NGOs are active in Myanmar in the WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) sector. They are collecting data, distributing sachets of water purifiers, building rainwater storage tanks, and building toilets among other things.

Khin Maung Htaey from the Myanmar Engineering Society said he was a part of the Advisory Group that has proposed standards for drinking water quality and for effluent quality. He is an important consultant in Myanmar who is involved in the design of many water projects.

Khin Maung Htaey

When asked about private sector participation, Mr Khin said many BOT projects for town water supply were already in existence. However, he does not expect any awarding of large-scale contracts to the private sector in the near future.

There appears to be some disagreement on a legal framework for the water sector, which is leading to a delay in initiating laws. “Our professionals are not united,” says Mr Khin Maung Lwin. The absence of reliable data is also an obstacle to formulating policy.

Many contenders but the Japanese got in first

The opening up of Myanmar has thrown up opportunities for many countries that want to be a part of building the country’s water and wastewater infrastructure. However, Japan, which has been in the country for the longest time is reaping the advantages and Japanese companies are being rewarded with contracts. Even during the years of military rule, Japan provided some humanitarian assistance and funding for basic health and education.

Thus, it was no surprise when in 2013, Japan Consortium LLC, a joint venture between TSS Tokyo Water and Toyo Engineering Corporation signed a contract with YCDC for a NRW project in Mayangone Township in Yangon. The project scope included flow meter installation, replacement of damaged house meters, pump installation, repair leakage, integrated supply pipe and connection changeover.

In the same year, Japanese funding agency JICA announced a JPY 1.9 billion (US$19 million) grant pumping station at the Nyaunghnapin First Phase Water Treatment Plant, and the renewal of water pipes in Yankin Township, as part of a long-term strategy for water supply system improvement. JICA’s funding will also be used to train local staff in pump operations and maintenance. In addition to water, JICA is financing power, communications and transportation sectors of Myanmar, which makes it the most important international player there.

In 2015, JICA has also signed a grant agreement for an amount of JPY 2.555 billion (US$ 23.4 million) with the city of Mandalay to improve its water supply. The Pyi Gyi Tagon Township has been selected for improvement. In addition, the Kitakyushi City Water and Sewer Bureau of Japan is working under the auspices of a JICA partnership programme to improve the capacity of Mandalay’s water treatment plant operation.

In a manner similar to its working in other countries, JICA is working with consultants to develop a master plan for Yangon’s water and wastewater infrastructure.

The Japanese are also poised to lead in securing contracts for managing industrial effluents in the various industrial parks coming up in the country.

Some of the international companies are uncomfortable to find that after signing MOUs and conducting feasibility studies for free, their data has been used by Myanmar authorities to call an open tender. Ill-defined rules and regulations are keeping many companies away.

Among the non-Japanese international companies that have made some headway is Manila Water, which is working on an NRW reduction pilot project in Yangon along with Mistsubishi Corporation. Korea’s K-Water is also working on a project to develop water supplies in the southern areas of Yangon. Israel’s national water agency Mekorot is reported to have signed an MOU with YCDC to supply water to Yangon but no details are yet available. Similarly, France Development Agency (AFD) has entered into an agreement with Mandalay City Development Committee in 2015 to improve water supplies. Meanwhile, Malaysian company Puncak Niaga has set up an office in Myanmar to explore potential water business in the country.

The way forward

Myanmar has experienced strong growth since 2011. Despite the setback caused by the devastating floods in July-August 2015, the country pulled together and there was no slow-down of the economy. According to Asian Development Outlook 2016, Myanmar’s economy is expected to grow 8.4% in 2016 and early 2017 – the highest rate in Asia and the Pacific.

However, unless it overcomes its infrastructural problems, Myanmar will soon be mired in the same problems as the rest of the region.

The broad principle of integrated water resources management has already been accepted by Myanmar. The new government must endorse and apply it all over the country.

First of all, gaps in knowledge and data have to be filled. The government and its development partners must quickly collect, verify and integrate all the socio-economic and engineering data necessary for planning and implementing programmes. Without proper data, plans can and will fail.

Initially, subsidies and external support will be required but if Myanmar wants to avoid the mistakes made by other countries, it should have a clear plan to transition from partial to full cost recovery via tariffs in the water sector. Phnom Penh in Cambodia has shown how it can be done with help from Asian Development Bank; Myanmar would do well to learn from its model. Allowing the issue of water tariffs to be politicised as in many Asian countries will prove to be detrimental.

The country also needs to develop capacity in critical areas of water management. Managers in water supply and utility agencies do not have much exposure to international best practices. Their awareness and skills will need to be advanced with the help of workshops, regional study tours, and twinning programmes. Capacity building is needed in the area of water governance too.

Not many countries have the chance to make a fresh beginning. Can Myanmar can avoid the fate of typical Asian countries whose main cities have turned into overcrowded, gridlocked places that are sucking in increasing volumes of water from rural hinterlands, and yet unable to satisfy the demand of urban lifestyles?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s