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Yangon’s recurring urban problems

The Yangon City Development Committee needs to fix itself before it can fix roads and drains

By Alex Aung Khant

Yangon, March 1, 2018

Myanmar Times

The Yangon City Development Committee needs to fix itself before it can fix roads and drains

Recently, I decided to capture the scenes I came across by coincidence on my daily commutes around town. Most of these scenes are situated in downtown Yangon – the older, southern half of the city that was planned and built during the colonial era.

 In Southeast Asia, few cities have managed to keep their colonial heritage intact. In contrast, Yangon has been well-known for its surviving heritage buildings and wonderful architecture. Yet, not many people know that our surviving heritage has more to offer than what’s on the surface, and descends much further into the vast array of public infrastructure.

Most of the sewage drains, pipes and supporting systems that service downtown Yangon date back to the time of British Burma. The huge boom in development in recent years has placed this vital public infrastructure under severe stress. If roads are the arteries that supply and nourish a city with people and resources, then drains are its veins.

Fortunately, the current Yangon regional government, under Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein, has quickly realised the urgent need to bring about a swift and effective overhaul of this rusting system. However, the way in which these public projects have been carried out by the municipal body – the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) – provides reasons for concern.

After all that trouble and toil

With the end of every monsoon season, the YCDC embarks on a grand annual mission of repairs to keep its tattered roads and drains running. Within the YCDC – infamous for corruption at many levels – it is common for public projects to use cheaper, lower quality materials and then produce fraudulent balance sheets, listing prices for products of better quality than those used.

Lacklustre supervision and management, in addition to the use of untrained manual labourers as its primary workforce, also contributes to improper technical implementation of the majority of its projects. Due to budget constraints and other shortcomings, only patchwork maintenance and repairs can be made to certain priority areas. Scores of labourers from the suburbs of Yangon are hired every year for a meagre wage, toiling under the sun and rains to unblock drains and repair damaged roads.

After all that trouble and toil, what is most surprising is that very little of these efforts actually contribute to preventing the next monsoon from wreaking the same havoc on the flimsy state of Yangon’s roads and drains. Instead, with the next monsoon, this cycle repeats again as residents are forced to watch a rerun of the same dreadful episode. This cycle of samsara has gone on for as long as I can remember, and the horrible conditions these workers are made to work in produces an environment that most city residents would never be willing to be around, let alone work in. All aspects of health and safety, and precautions against work hazards, have clearly been thrown out the window. So far, there are no prominent labour unions or health organisations working on this issue.

Fixing the system

It is disappointingly clear that Yangon’s municipal body needs to fix itself before fixing the city. The use of proper machinery and equipment, rather than relying on manual labour, a commitment to correct technical applications, and a guarantee of long-term reliability of their infrastructure, as opposed to the pursuit of cheap fixes – these are just a few of the necessary steps that should be incorporated into the YCDC’s day-to-day practices on all public projects.

Otherwise, all efforts will merely be cosmetic cover-ups of core problems. It will only be a waste of time, energy and resources if the city remains stuck in this metaphorical swamp of repairing broken roads and blocked drains.

If the city is to catch up with other international metropolises around the world, the YCDC should also be taking pre-emptive measures in anticipation of the projected growth of the city, and the inevitable challenges ahead. As one example, along all my walks and commutes around town, I’ve seen very few rubbish bins – a key preventive strategy that encourages proper waste disposal. Nobody wants to get their hands dirty, but it is also disrespectful to these workers, knowing full well that next year, they will be back again in chest-high sewage water. Even the media has shown little interest in following these tragic stories of reckless public expenditure. With little public concern for these projects and their effectiveness, the working lives of these labourers are of grave concern.

Sometimes, there is no simple way to shovel our way out of this city’s problems.

Alex Aung Khant holds a Masters degree in urban studies and public policy from Sciences Po in Paris, France. He obtained his BA in political science and Asian studies from the same university.


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