15 January 2021 - Source: Myanmar Times

It has been nearly two months since the rain last fell over Yangon. Though many clouds have passed over the city, no precipitation has fallen from the sky.

This is normal for Yangon, meteorologically-speaking. On average it rains for just over 4 days in November, delivering just 60mm of rain for the whole month. December and January are typically even drier months.

What's different about this year, however, is the supplies of water to the city have started to dry-up. This year Yangon, like other states and divisions, is experiencing water shortages.

YCDC's main supplies for water are located outside the city – at Hlawga Lake, Phu Gyi, Gyo Phyu and Nga Moe Yeik Reservoirs. The current water levels from all reservoirs are down from their usual five feet to eight.

The deficit of three feet sounds trivial, but it amounts to hundreds of thousands of litres. It's around three-months supply for the whole city, according to, U Thant Zin Oo, head of the Water and Sanitation Department (southern district).

"It has not rained much this year. Water inflow is low. It is significantly less than previous years, and so we have to divide-up our supply sources so that we don't run out of water over the dry season," he explained.

In addition to the city's reservoirs, water is distributed to Yangon from 526 wells owned by the municipality. However, some wells have been destroyed or filled-in. The government plans to close many of the remaining wells by 2025.

U Myint Thein, a leading hydrologist currently living in the United States, said at an online conference that Yangon could soon experience severe shortages. Having worked in the water industry for more than 40 years, he has deep concerns about the future viability of the city's water supply.

According to him, the wells in Yangon have been in use since 1824, since the reign of the Burmese kings. During the colonial era, laws were enacted to regulate the amount of water that could be produced. In the post-colonial-era the construction of residential buildings outpaced that of wells. In 1988 there were an estimated more than 3,000-7,000 wells in Yangon.

Yangon's population increased dramatically over the following decades, with little attention paid to building new reservoirs or even wells. Some house owners built their own wells, which supply limited amounts of water for a few families.

Surveys estimate that the number of private wells is around 200,000, whilst the YCDC-manages just 526.

With a population of over 7 million people, YCDC distributes 205 million gallons of water every day to its residents. But this amount is not nearly enough for the whole population, leaving around 60 percent of residents relying on ground water.

Many new housing projects can no longer access existing YCDC supplies, and also now rely on groundwater. This is also the case for Yangon's factories and manufacturing plants.

Though groundwater is being pumped to supply houses and businesses throughout the year, there is currently no data on existing water levels.

The more water is extracted, the less groundwater can be replenished. Prior to 2000, the infiltration and runoff of rainwater was less than 424mm per year.

Drilling bores for groundwater used to be more widely practiced in the outskirts of Yangon – where water is pumped up to fill irrigation channels. Now the practice is more widespread across the city.

U Myint Thein estimated that after 2020, water levels will have decreased by almost 400mm. With current data, his prediction seems to be coming true.

In 2013-14 in an attempt to replenish existing supplies, YCDC encouraged some residents, monasteries and owners of large buildings to save more rain water and to connect to build their own wells.

During the rainy season when the rivers and creeks swell, water is pumped into some of Yangon's wells. But the volume is not enough to replenish all of them. As a result, Yangon's groundwater levels are gradually declining but no-one is exactly sure by how much.

"Water levels are falling in all 33 cities, not just Yangon," said U Myint Thein.

The Groundwater Act (1930) was the main piece of legislation regulating the use of groundwater. It has since been repealed, and a more updated Groundwater Management Law is being drafted to help address the current water shortages.

Part of the law will deal with extracting and using groundwater, whilst other measures will address water treatment and purity.

According to U Myint Thein, Yangon's water quality falls far below the World Health Organization's recommended safety levels. In 2017-18 ground water supplied to some townships was mixed salt and chloride.

"In Hlaing Tharyar, the whole township's water supply is mixed with salt. Salt is very corrosive and bad for the environment, so it's not the best substance to add to the water," U Myint Thein.

Ko Zay Ko Ko, a lecturer at the Hlaing Tharyar Education and Development Institute, said the residents always complained about water quality in the area.

"Everything that comes out near the market is salty. It's saltier in some areas than others, and it will cause problems for the soil in the future," said Ko Zay Ko Ko.

Ma Thu Zar Aung, who lives in Lanmadaw, said she did not know where the water came from, but she said it was never clean let alone safe to drink. Some residents have installed purifiers, which they use to clean the water when washing their clothes.

The water supply to inner city townships like Mingalar Taung Nyunt, Tamwe, Bahan and Mayangone is also low this year. Salt levels in water from these townships is not high, but the water is not particularly clean either. 

If water consumption continues unabated, and the government is unable to build another reservoir or construct more wells, Yangon may experience complete water depletion – much like what happened to South Africa's Cape Town in 2018.

With its rapid rate of development and dry climate Cape Town suffered from severe water shortages, with experts believing the city was just 90 days away from having no water at all. Dam levels were as low as 15pc capacity, and people were encouraged to save water by limiting the use of toilet flushes and washing machines. Houses were only permitted a few hours of water use per day, with limits set on washing the car and watering the lawn.

Water trains were deployed to deliver water from over 100 miles away. Schools could no longer provide drinking water, and students had to carry their own water bottles to class.

Low-income areas experienced 'water robberies', where and gangs would wait on the sidewalks to steal water supplies from passing motorists.

Ko Zin Ko Ko, who often discusses water issues in online and in public fora, said good water plans were essential for Yangon to avoid a pending crisis. "We have to learn to use water sparingly now," he said. "The water problem is going to be a big problem in the future."

Hopefully, the city won't have to face-off against a 90-day countdown, or experience Cape Town's water crimes, before any action is taken.