YANGON—Living next door to a high-rise development project that poses a potential threat to the neighborhood can set one’s stress levels on high. Just ask U Than Lwin.
“If it happens, we will not have time to run for our lives,” the retired chemical engineer said, referring to the possibility of an unintended mass release of water from a 92-year old underground storage reservoir lying a few kilometers from his residence in Kokkine Avenue in Bahan Township. What if the construction project being jointly developed by local contractor Zaykabar Company and China State Construction Engineering Corporation Ltd (CSCEC) — which is now in its beginning phase — damages the old water storage structure?
Residents of this well-to-do neighborhood are worried that if the worst comes to the worst, their low-lying area and the nearby Golden Valley Quarter will be submerged if the service reservoir, situated on higher ground while holding up to 20-million gallons of water, collapses.
“We will not be the only ones affected, most of Yangon will suffer too. That’s why we are against the project,” said another Kokkine resident, U Win Bo, referring to the possible damage that could be caused by a burst reservoir as well as by water shortages, because the underground concrete tank distributes water to several townships.
Built in 1926, the Kokkine Service Reservoir on the corner of the Kaba Aye Pagoda and Pearl Road is designed to store water pumped up from the Gyo Phyu Reservoir on the outskirts of the town before it is distributed to downtown areas. It is the biggest (559 feet x 286 feet x 20 feet) and second-oldest underground concrete water tank in Yangon, after the Shwedagon Service Reservoir, which was built in 1894. Both are still functioning.
According to the Yangon City Development Committee, a municipal body, the two storage reservoirs distribute water to 16 townships downtown. The YCDC water supply diagram shows that the Kokkine reservoir feeds water to the Shwedagon reservoir, meaning that any damage to the former water storage facility would cause water shortages to nearly one million people (based on the 2014 Census.) as well as Yangon General Hospital, a major public medical center in Lammadaw Township.
“I wonder if the authorities took this issue into consideration before they approved the project,” said U Win Bo.
No Objections but Not Permitted Yet
The Myayeik Nyo high-rise project causing Kokkine residents to feel insecure is named after the now-defunct Myayeik Nyo Hotel, which was run by Myanmar tycoon U Khin Shwe, chairman of the project developer, Zaykabar Co., Ltd, one of Myanmar’s largest construction companies. His daughter is married to the son of U Shwe Mann, the third most influential person in the former military regime but now an important ally of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Twelve buildings with heights ranging from 382 feet to 412 feet and a three-story structure will be built on the hotel compound owned by the military, according to a correspondence between the company and Yangon Regional Government and viewed by The Irrawaddy. At the corner of the plot lies the Kokkine Service Reservoir.
Located on the second highest point in Yangon with an elevation of around 160 feet after the hill where the Shwedagon Pagoda sits, Myayeik Nyo compound was known for its lush green vegetation. According to the Yangon Heritage Trust, the area was known as ‘Mount Pleasant’ during the British colonial days. Many mansions belonging to high officials, including the Mayor’s Mansion and the Mayor’s Guest House, which are now listed as heritage buildings, and the residence of the manager of Chartered Bank were located there.
In June last year, the government told the company that it had “no objection” to the developer’s request to start the project “as soon as possible.”
In early February this year, site clearing got underway in the compound and the dense vegetation that covered the area is now mostly gone. It was unknown if the two heritage-listed buildings have been torn down. The Irrawaddy witnessed some parts of the hill being bulldozed up to the outer retaining wall of the reservoir.
At one point during the clearing process, to the residents’ fear was realized as the wall was damaged and water oozed out on to the ground.
“At the time, we were really scared. We didn’t know what would happen next,” U Win Bo said.
When residents complained to the company, they replied that it was just “spilled water” from a nearby water tank. But the tank they were referring to is high on the unbulldozed part of the hill, he said.
Frustrated by the company’s response, the residents of Kokkine Avenue formed a seven-member “Yangon Kokkine Reservoir Salvation Team” in early March to lobby for the protection of the reservoir for the sake of Yangon’s people and the structural integrity of the reservoir itself. U Win Bo raised public awareness about their campaign on Facebook. Shortly after the formation of the team, the YCDC suspended the project until the developer came up with a proper solution to ensure the reservoir would not be damaged.
But the order apparently fell on deaf ears. The company did test piling on March 24 afternoon, provoking more angry complaints from residents that halted the piling process.
“They were trying to trick us. The government’s ‘no objection’ doesn’t mean they are allowed to start construction,” said U Win Bo.
According to Daw Hlaing Maw Oo, the secretary of the YCDC— the municipal body grants final construction permission to anyone who wants to build something in the town area but only after a thorough review of the building designs and other aspects of the project— the developer is only allowed to do site clearing, not building.
“They haven’t got building permission yet,” she said.
U Sun Oo, the chairman of the Association of Myanmar Architects said the project needs a proper environmental impact assessment because it’s being implemented in a green belt area and due to its proximity to the reservoir.
Despite repeated attempts by The Irrawaddy’s, U Khin Shwe was not available for comment.
While their top concern is the reservoir bursting, the Kokkine Avenue and nearby residents are now also worried about the potential for a landslide in the project area once the rainy season arrives, which normally happens in May.
In the past, thick green trees covered the project area, protecting the hill from erosion and landslides. But with the removal of the vegetation, the nearby low-lying residential area is now prone to mudslides and floods.
“Given the current situation at the site, there could be a possible landslide and mud will enter the residential area,” said U Than Lwin, whose house is situated next to the bulldozed parts of the project area.
He is not alone.
Down the avenue at Golden Valley Quarter, Dr Myint Khaing hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since the project started in February. Situated at the lowest part of the neighborhood, his house is overshadowed by the project that towers nearly 20 feet above. Only a retaining wall separates the house and the project.
“They are working day and night. They shout in Chinese. A backhoe is always buzzing. I can’t sleep,” said the 68-year old former medical doctor. He added that he had complained to the local administrator about the public nuisance being caused. “They just stopped for a while and then resumed their work,” he said.
On Sunday, The Irrawaddy witnessed some construction work going on despite the YCDC’s suspension order—workers were erecting iron beams with the help of a crane while preparing rebars.
Like other people in the neighborhood, Dr Myint Khaing said he was against the project for he was worried about the possibility of the reservoir collapsing. Lying at the lowest part of the area and susceptible to occasional floods in rainy season, his house would be among the hardest hit if the reservoir collapses.
His immediate concern is damage to the retaining wall by the project.
“If the wall collapses, it will fall directly onto my house and it will be flattened.”