RANGOON — As the noontime temperature soared into the high 30s, Tin Oo helped sister Nyaunt Myint, 70, onto a timber bench in the front yard of the family’s home in northern Rangoon.
As the older sister propped her head under a folded towel, Tin Oo, 63, looked on. “She’s not feeling so well in this weather, and the water situation does not help,” said Tin Oo, voice raised above the sonorous incantations blaring out of a nearby Buddhist monastery.
There’s nothing as dramatic as a drought here, but clean water is hard to come by in this suburb of Burma’s biggest city. Here in North Dagon, some residents drill their own backyard wells, hoping to tap groundwater, while others, like Tin Oo’s family, depend on hand pumps set up in the yard and connected to a leaf-covered lake nearby.
Cranking the rusty old pump is heavy work for the elderly, with the hot season now reaching its peak. But for other, less well-off families in the area, getting water means ferrying buckets and jerrycans from the lake—work best left to the young in such heat.
And while millions gear up for Thingyan, the Buddhist New Year celebration marked by a weeklong festival in which revelers douse each other with water, other Burmese have more mundane water matters on their minds.
Pressure on Rangoon’s water supply is growing as the urban population increases and construction work on new buildings and roads puts greater demand on the main pipe feeding the city.
Burma’s urban population growth is more than two times the national population growth rate, according to Hlaing Maw Oo, the assistant director of the Department of Human Settlement & Housing Development (DHSHD), part of Burma’s Ministry of Construction. “Even with a rural development strategy, that urbanization will speed up,” she told a gathering of officials and businesspeople at the Myanmar Investment Summit 2014 held in Rangoon recently.
“There is even less water than last year for us to use. Since then, many new families have moved into this area, from the countryside, and from the downtown [in Rangoon],” explained Tin Oo. “Now, even though it is so hot, we only bathe once a day, at nighttime.”
Tin Oo and Nyaunt Myint contend that the lake water is fine to drink, but that assessment is not shared by neighbor Aye Chan, a young bank official.
“We buy about four of these a week,” she said, pointing to a drum of drinking water perched upside-down on a steel stand, a tin cup poised on a footstool beneath.
Her family—better-off than most of the neighborhood—installed an electric pump priced at 30,000 kyats (US$31), just over two years ago. “It was worth it, but sometimes the power goes off, so we have to use the old hand pump,” Aye Chan said.
While estimates suggest that less than half of Rangoon’s 6 million or so population is connected to the main public water system, there is insufficient information about the water supply in Burma, particularly when it comes to assessing whether water is safe to drink.
According to a 2013 article in The Scientific World Journal, “very few water-quality data are currently available,” wrote the Japanese authors, who added that “To the best of our knowledge, only a single water-quality survey has been conducted.”
In Rangoon, Burma’s commercial capital, the public water supply is prone to leakage and waste, with up to 60 percent of water lost, according to some estimates. It’s a problem that city bosses at the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) have commissioned Tokyo-based Mitsubishi and Manila Water, a Filipino company that has worked on plugging water supply seepages in the Philippines and Vietnam, to sort out.
Fixing the water supply is part of a Japan-backed blueprint for a projected $4.5 billion renovation of Burma’s biggest city—one of the most dynamic and modern urban centers in Asia just after World War II.
Some developments are already happening. A new water supply system bringing clean water to around 40,000 people in Dagon Seikkan, an eastern part of Rangoon that has been blighted by land-grabs, is due to open in the coming months.
U Zaw, a local administrator for the Home Affairs Ministry in North Dagon, said the city aims to bring piped water to this part of Rangoon by 2015, perhaps in time for national elections due to take place late that year.
U Zaw said the groundwater in North Dagon is safe to drink, adding that he drinks it himself, but the Home Affairs official conceded that Burma’s slow development affects how city dwellers use water. “The power goes off sometimes, so people cannot pump, or end up using less water,” U Zaw said.
Cooling herself with a green, leaf-shaped plastic fan, Nyaunt Myint laughed when asked if she expected the proposal to connect her neighborhood to a city pipeline to help ease water shortages.
“They came here three years ago, asking questions about water supply and saying they were planning something. But we never heard back from them after that,” she said. “Hopefully now things will be done differently.”