Anyone who has spent time in the Yangon suburbs will be familiar with the main water pipe that runs from the Gyohpyu Reservoir to the center of the city. The colonial-era pipe snakes its way along ditches, through gardens and under roads and the railway line before disappearing into the ground at Yankin, to supply the downtown area:


Well, apparently the pipeline isn’t coping. According to an article (in Burmese) on the New Era Journal website, some residents say that 2009 has so far been the worst for water supply in memory, and it isn’t getting better.

One 15-year resident of 37th Street told New Era that in the past when the electricity supply was on, water also could be pumped, but that in February the pumps have been running dry. Another person living in Botahtaung, down by the waterfront, said that previously from midnight to about 5am they had been able to get piped water but that now there too even when the power is on the water isn’t flowing. Someone at the township municipality speculated that the lack of supply is due to power outages at pumping stations further along, but evidently they’re not sure. Other similarly affected townships reportedly include Pazundaung, Mingalar-taungnyunt and Tamwe: perhaps if any New Mandala readers are living in these areas they could confirm or deny this news.

The New Era article notes that people in 26 townships of Yangon are officially receiving water from four reservoirs–Gyohpyu, Hpugyi, Hlawga and Ngamoeyeik–and from 225 artesian bores. Daily about 135 million gallons are supposedly supplied to around 60 per cent of the population. Everyone else has to make do with private wells, public tanks, ponds and water collected from rooftops. The chairman of the Yangon City Development Committee, Brigadier-General Aung Thein Lin, has been quoted in private media reports as saying that that the current plan is to provide 3.5 million people with water by 2020: given that by official figures the city passed 4 million at the turn of the century, even if the plan works, millions of people would still be going without.

One municipal officer who spoke to New Era said that an added problem is that in supplying water they have to follow the organizing agenda of the quasi-government Union Solidarity and Development Association. This claim is borne out by official media reports like one from the New Light of Myanmar, 18 March 2008, that

As a gesture of hailing the 63rd Anniversary Armed Forces Day, the Union Solidarity and Development Association organized a ceremony to open Ngamoeyeik- Gyobyu water pipe line at the junction of Bayintnaung road and Yarzathingyan road in Dagon Myothit (North) Township.

CEC Members of USDA Mayor Brig-Gen Aung Thein Lin and Vice-Mayor Col Maung Pa, Yangon Division USDA Secretary U Aye Myint, officials concerned attended the ceremony and opened the pipe line by cutting the ribbon. Then, the mayor unveiled the signboard and the CEC members opened the taps of the pipe.

Mayor Brig-Gen Aung Thein Lin gave a speech on the occasion. A total of 1200 USDA membership applications of residents of Nos 49, 50 and 51 wards were presented to the mayor.

Ngamoeyeik-Gyobyu water pipe line opened today runs 1,836,669 feet and will provide residents of 2000 homes with sufficient drinking water.

As the water supply is a matter for the municipality, why is the mayor presiding over pipe openings in his capacity as a member of the USDA? Perhaps New Mandala readers who have been involved in technical cooperation work in Yangon could give some clues about this and other things going on with the city’s water. There are a few bits of information on the web, but not many. For instance, a Mr. Daiji Nagashio in an undated report (PDF) following a Japanese study in 2002 described Yangon’s water supply as “very low in terms of water quality, quantity and pressure”. He continued that

There is a water treatment plant, coagulation and sedimentation, at only Gyobyu reservoir. This treatment facility is not carrying out a function because coagulant is not injected. Therefore water is supplying to Yangon City without treatment and a lot of deposits settle in the pipes and the service reservoirs. Especially in the Hlawga reservoir, which has been operated since 1904, massive floating water plants have propagated since a few years ago (photo-2). Since these plants were supplied with water, the distribution pipes were blocked up by them and the water supply was stopped in the some service area. In addition disinfection is implemented intermittently due to their budget.

Mr. Nagashio estimated that only about 37 per cent of the city was supplied with piped water, a far lower number than the government’s 60 per cent but still probably exaggerated, given that in the areas studied “most” consumers had installed their own pumps to aboveground tanks. He also wrote the YCDC had not actually calculated demand or consumption of water; a fact backed by the empty pie charts assigned for this data in ADB reports (Myanmar was not even included in its most recently published “water development outlook” book).

Back on 37th Street, the YCDC staff attributed the lack of water coming out of people’s taps in February to, wait for it, empty pipes under the roads! Their alternative proposal to disgruntled consumers was to hook up directly to the mains for a cost of 170,000 Kyat. As more and more people with money have been doing just that, they will be further contributing to the shortages that the majority of people are experiencing. Those who can’t afford to pay for a privileged connection will increasingly be left to find water wherever they can, including by digging holes around junctions on pipes to catch leakages in buckets and bowls, and if necessary, by vandalizing pipes. Without any reliable data on water demand and use through authorized channels who knows how many thirsty residents are siphoning off Yangon’s water, and how much of the stuff they really need right now, let alone how much they’ll need in 2020? And as private magazines have been unable to publish stories on water problems, like usual people have been left to find out for themselves what’s going on, and what they can do to get enough water for a bath and dinnertime.