‘Yangon’s Development Is Key’

By Naomi Gingold 11 September 2013

RANGOON — Earlier this year, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the development aid arm of the Japanese government, presented a grand plan for how to develop the city of Rangoon, Burma’s biggest city and commercial hub. The plan describes infrastructure projects needed to make the city, also known as Yangon, a more comfortable and well-managed place to live by 2040, and was developed in cooperation with local government authorities. The Irrawaddy’s Naomi Gingold recently spoke with Akihito Sanjo, a senior representative of JICA and director of “The Strategic Urban Development Plan of Greater Yangon,” to find out more details about JICA’s master plan.

Question: What is the Strategic Urban Development Plan of Greater Yangon, and how did the idea develop?

Answer: Right now, the population of Yangon is about 5 million to 6 million people. In 2030, it is expected to be on the scale of 10 million. There needs to be enough infrastructure here to support a population of that size. As the largest commercial center, Yangon’s development is key to the future development of Myanmar [Burma]. So JICA joined the Yangon Regional Government and the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) to figure out what could we do to help.

We made a strategy plan, setting the year 2040 as our target. Experts from various branches of urban development—traffic, water, sewage, the environment, waste—wrote step-by-step goals for how the city should develop along the way, in 2015, 2020, 2030, etc. We held public consultations with different members of civil society to get their opinions, and then around the beginning of this year, we submitted the master plan to the Myanmar government. The plan targets not only the existing commercial area of Yangon, but also future areas to be developed—areas that, because of the rivers, were neglected in the past, like Dala and Thilawa. We’ve discussed with the government the need to define the exact region in order to ensure controlled and effective development.

Q: Why would Japan and JICA be interested in undertaking such a project?

A: From the 1970s and into the 1980s, Japan experienced rapid urbanization, as well as environmental deterioration. We thought our knowledge and experience would be an asset when designing and implementing a development plan for Myanmar. As for how Japan benefits, Japanese companies are interested in investing in upcoming infrastructure projects in Yangon. So, for example, Japan can provide grant aid to Yangon for the projects, and Yangon may choose to award the contracts to Japanese companies. The benefits go both ways.

Q: What are some of the biggest infrastructure problems you are grappling with here?

A: Only about 8 percent of Yangon residents have sewage collection and disposal services. Furthermore, sewage goes into the rivers untreated. In terms of waste management, in five years’ time the capacity at the garbage disposal sites for Yangon will be full. It’s a very, very urgent issue. From a sanitation perspective, the city’s current way of burying and disposing of garbage is not very good. We’ve suggested better methods, as well as proposed the creation of a new final disposal site and a more efficient way to collect garbage.

Q: Tell me about the timeline for the plan.

A: Our master plan doesn’t have minute details on, for example, where we’re building a bridge. Instead we tried to think about: in 2040, what do we need? In 2030, what will we need? What kind of scale of city do we need?

There are quite a few things that the two governments are still negotiating, but there are two projects we’ve already committed to. Currently, to get to Dala, you have to cross by ferry because there is no bridge, and the ferry is very old and dangerous. We’re going to provide three new ferries. Also we are going to refurbish and renovate the water treatment facilities in the northern part of Yangon city. That Nyaung Napin water treatment facility currently provides 40 percent of the total water for Yangon city, so it’s a very, very important facility, but it has really aged. Of four pumping stations, two are out of order. Both projects will be completed in the latter half of next year.

Q: As for transportation infrastructure, after the ferries to Dala, what’s next?

A: Getting rid of Yangon’s traffic jams is one of the greatest matters of concern in the country, not just for the Yangon city government, but the Myanmar government in Naypyidaw. JICA has put forth three ways of dealing with the traffic. The first is to increase the capacity of the roads, the second is to introduce a public transportation system, and the third one is to decrease the number of vehicles on the road. The third is, of course, unpopular with people in any country, so it’s a measure the government doesn’t want to take. They’re most interested in building a public transportation system, as well as increasing the capacity of roads.  Right now they’re building a lot of flyovers in order to do that.

JICA is trying to do the second option—build a practical public transportation system. For example, we want to introduce a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. That’s the first and quickest step. The second is to build a light railway transit system (LRT), like a monorail or skytrain. But an LRT system requires a much larger investment, so it’s more of a mid-term solution.  Given Yangon’s population, an LRT system would be a natural fit, but the economics present an obstacle; local residents cannot afford to pay for the construction and running of such a skytrain project.

Q: When could we look forward to the BRT possibly being built here?

A: Two years ago when JICA said let’s join forces, the Myanmar government told us: If you can’t build the BRT within a year, then we won’t ask you to build it for us. We told them that we couldn’t do it that fast, so they decided to take matters into their own hands.

The Myanmar government has said they will introduce it within the year… They are currently planning to build it along Pyay Road [a main artery of the city], from downtown near the Sule Pagoda all the way up to the airport. If it goes well, they’ll add another line.

Q: What does JICA think is a reasonable expectation for when the BRT would actually be introduced?

A: If we introduce the BRT system to Yangon city, it would take about two years from the time we start. We need time for construction, time to set up the management operations, and we need special buses for it. Usually we carry out a pilot project to see whether the system would fit in the city—we have experience introducing a BRT system to Jakarta. But the Myanmar government decided to introduce the BRT without any pilot project.

Q: You seem like you are not so happy about that.

A: The Japanese side always tries to do enough preparation so that there is no wasted investment, but there are certainly other ways of doing things. Currently, they’re making a lot of flyovers.  If you make a flyover, a BRT usually can’t get through, and so the flyovers become obstacles. We’ve been saying, how about we think more about the long term? We’re not really seeing eye to eye on this right now.

Q: How much of the master plan to develop Yangon will be led by JICA, rather than the Myanmar government?

A: The master plan lays out many projects to implement. We want to choose and give priority to the projects that are the most urgent and have the most potential for effective resolution. But JICA can really only do a small amount of all the proposed projects, and the Myanmar government is also limited by funds. Without the cooperation of other countries, we won’t be able to make Yangon’s city development a reality. We’re currently talking with aid agencies to decide who will take the lead in each sector. For example, Japan is the leader in the transportation sector; in education, it’s the UK.

Q: Let’s talk about the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ). What’s JICA’s role?

A: The Myanmar government wanted to create a Special Economic Zone near Yangon; JICA, as well as Japanese corporations, decided to work together with them on it. Our role is to set up the necessary infrastructure for the SEZ: for example, the water infrastructure, roads, maintenance on the port, etc.

Q: What kind of Special Economic Zone will Thilawa be?

A: That is what JICA and the Myanmar government are currently discussing.  Do we make it focused on the food industry, the garment industry or more heavy industries? That hasn’t been decided yet. It also depends on what companies are interested in.

Q: Is there a timeline?

A: The Thilawa SEZ will start operating in 2015. We won’t start construction next month, but we want to start as soon as possible—hopefully by next year.

Q: What projects have already been agreed on?

A: The development of the port and the installation of the power supply station.

Q: In order to create the Dawei SEZ, the government displaced a lot of people. The current residents of Thilawa are also going to have to be moved to make the SEZ a reality. What are the plans to make sure that’s done in a fair and equitable way?

A: As the Myanmar government has not always necessarily operated according to international standards, they don’t really know, for example, how to provide proper compensation. We are talking to the government about this and advising them to do everything according to international standards. Compensation records will be released to the public, the media will play a watchdog role, there will be public meetings with the residents, and in the end, the residents will be able to tell us themselves if think it was carried out properly.

Q: Has working with the Myanmar government been a difficult process?

A: Sometimes difficult, but sometimes exciting. It’s been challenging, but in a good way.