Government must do a better job managing the impact of growth on Yangon
4 June 18 - As Yangon's status as business and logistics hub of Myanmar grows, the regional government, expecting an influx of people and foreign direct investments, has unveiled grand plans to modernise and expand the city.
Yet, many of the projects announced have been criticised for being poorly executed and lacking in contingency planning. Despite being allocated the lion's share of the Union budget for development - K278 billion in 2017-18 - issues such as power outages, lack of affordable homes, traffic congestion and a shortage of basic transport infrastructure remain.
As such, the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) should focus on fixing the existing problems before launching new projects.
Since coming to power in 2016, U Phyo Min Thein, Chief Minister of Yangon, has launched a slew of new projects intended to meet the needs of investors and create jobs for the locals. Since January, these have included a new industrial zone, an elevated ring road and an entire city slated for development across 1,500 sq km of land - twice the size of Singapore - located west of Yangon.
Meanwhile, investments are still flowing in as Yangon expands. According to documents from the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, 143 foreign businesses were permitted to invest in Yangon in 2017-18, while 45 Myanmar citizen businesses made investments over the same period.
That's also drawn residents from other states and regions to the city in search of jobs. "More than 8,000 new jobs were created from the new investments in 2017-18, many of which came from the garment manufacturing sector," regional planning and finance minister U Myint Thaung said this month.
One of the biggest problems for Yangon as a result of the fast pace of development is providing new and displaced residents with sufficient and affordable housing options as well as clamping down on illegal squatters. Meanwhile, the population of Yangon is expected to rise by more than 40 percent to 10 million over the next 20 years.
Ko Kyaw Naing, an engineer from Mayangone township, said contingency accommodation plans to deal with illegal squatters, joblessness and power and water distribution must be in place when rolling out new projects in Yangon.
He added that "even though the government has promised to provide sufficient housing options to deal with illegal squatters, it has faced difficulties identifying and collecting accurate data on the number of squatter households in Yangon."
The Yangon government has not been sitting idle. Over the last two years, the Ministry of Construction has worked with the private sector to develop low cost housing options such as the Shwe Lin Pan project at Hlaing Tharyar township and Yuzanna project at Dagon Seikkan township. It has also built low cost homes in Thanlyin and Mingalardon. Some of these units are already complete and being sold for under K10 million each.
Other projects, such as the Ayarwon and Yadanar housing projects - have also been partially complete, with units being sold for K20 million-K30 million each.
On May 4, the regional government submitted an updated list of new housing projects across Yangon worth K1 trillion, which will be developed together with the private sector over the next decade. In the six-month interim period between April and September, eight new housing projects were proposed.
Nevertheless, concerns linger. U Than Naing Oo, an MP, pointed out that "under the previous government, new real estate were constructed without any supporting infrastructure. Many of the new townships and housing estates are thus still relying on existing infrastructure for water and electricity, which has placed even more pressure on the city.
"As some of the new housing developments are already facing similar issues, the government should work out how to solve the problems before rushing to build new residences," he said.
The other persistent problem in Yangon is the shortage of electricity. Despite multiple promises to provide the city with reliable power supply, power outages still take place, especially during the summer months and rainy season.
"The government's excuse is that the power cables are too old. But they should have come up with a workable plan on how to solve this problem by now. It leaves us with such a bad reputation when the power is cut every season," said Ko Myo Aung Htwe, a board member of the Yangon School of Political Science.
This year, Yangon has been promised 440 megawatts of additional electricity from three new power plants in Thaketa, Myingyan and Tha Htone. The Thaketa plant, which commenced operations in March, is expected to meet around 20pc of Yangon's needs, said U Win Khaing, Minister of Electricity and Energy. Meanwhile, the other two plants will begin generating power in May and June, respectively.
As a short term solution, the Union government last year also approved the use of K30 billion from the President's special fund to operate a gas plant capable of generating up to 25MW of electricity for up to 160,000 Yangon households during emergency blackouts.
Currently, nationwide electricity consumption is around 2,500MW. The Asian Development Bank estimates that this could rise to 4,500MW by 2020, with Yangon consuming at least half the supply.
With more people in the city, traffic congestion has also become a major issue. Even though multiple suggestions, such as the construction of a multi-level carpark have been proposed over the years, traffic congestion remains one of Yangon's largest problems, interfering with distribution chains and logistics networks across the city.
Ko Win Lwin, a traffic police officer, confirmed that "the number of cars on the road is growing every year, yet the availability of parking lots has not increased to accommodate the rise." As a result, drivers have resorted to parking their vehicles on the driving lanes, which is one of the reasons for the chronic traffic jams in Yangon, the policeman said.
The regional government has taken pains to restructure the public transportation system in a bid to alleviate traffic. Last October, it launched the Yangon Water Bus system with the aim of alleviating traffic on the roads and leveraging on the Yangon River waterways.
Yet, some observers say the the new system has further inconvenienced commuters. "Before the water bus was launched, we already knew it would be a failure because Yangon River is outside of town and commuters need to spend hours on the bus to get back into the city again," said Ko Kyaw Naing.
U Maung Aung, secretary of the Yangon Regional Transport Authority, said it is still too soon to gauge if the Yangon Water Bus is a success. "So far, the water buses are running normally but some new routes have yet to be extended. For now, the water bus does not save commuters much time compared to regular buses," he said.
The government has also made efforts on that front, replacing the old Ma Hta Tha bus system with the new Yangon Bus Service (YBS) last January. But observers say the new system has also introduced fresh problems for commuters that have yet to be addressed.
One of the major changes proposed under YBS is the use of cash boxes to replace bus conductors. However, commuters complain that having to pay their bus fares by inserting notes into the cash boxes is inconvenient, as they do not always carry the right change. Some also attempt to game the system by inserting pieces of paper into the cash boxes instead of money.
The government plans to eventually do away with the cash boxes, replacing these with the Yangon Payment Services card payment system. The cards will function as a single means of payment not only for public transport but in restaurants and malls as well, U Phyo Min Thein said.
But even this has run into setbacks. After selecting Excel KC Myanmar to implement the system earlier this year, the government last month aborted its contract with the company, saying it was not qualified to carry out the job. Excel KC Myanmar's replacement has yet to be announced.
As a whole, it's clear that Yangon needs to have better foresight and execution strategies as well as sounder contingency plans in place as it rolls out new projects and raises efforts to expand the city.
"The YCDC has developed new housing projects but has not been able to distribute electricity and water to every household. They are now launching new projects before being able to solve existing traffic congestion and parking problems," said Ko Kyaw Naing.
One resident from Yankin township put it another way: "Nowadays, Yangon is not a good place to live in because the authorities are not doing a good job managing the consequences of growth in this city," she said.
Source: Myanmar Times