YANGON — Urban planners have questioned the suitability of the proposed site of a massive project the Yangon government has vowed to develop on the western bank of the Yangon River, warning that the low-lying area is prone to flooding as it has a maximum elevation of just 5 meters above sea level.
The government in March launched the New Yangon Development Company (NYDC) with capital of US$7.5 million from development funds allotted by the Union government to regional and state administrations. The company was set up to oversee the resurrection of the controversial new city project, which was marred by murky dealings under the previous government. The project was and hastily approved less than a week before U Thein Sein’s administration stepped down on March 30, 2016.
“This development will be known as the New Yangon City and upon its ultimate completion will cover an area twice the size of Singapore,” according to a recent company press release.
The NYDC, whose chairman and CEO is property mogul Serge Pun of Yoma Strategic Holdings, plans to develop 20,000 acres of land as the first phase of the project. This will include five village townships, two bridges, power plants, water and wastewater treatment plants and a 10-square-kilometer industrial estate generating 2 million jobs. The company says the cost of initial infrastructure work in the first phase is expected to exceed US$1.5 billion.
But experts with more than 20 years of experience in town planning with the Ministry of Construction told The Irrawaddy that the area slated for the first phase of New Yangon City had never been town planners’ preferred location. They said even the previous military government ignored the area when they embarked on a series of city expansion projects on the outskirts of Yangon in the early 1990s.
The main reason? The low-lying topography of the area.
Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the Ministry of Construction’s Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development identified new areas of potential expansion for the Yangon City and Regional Development Planning Project, which was backed by the United Nations Development Program. The plan proposed new developments in the city’s east and west in Dagon Myothit, Hlaing Thaya and Shwe Pyi Tha. These areas were developed by the military regime but not fully urbanized.
The site of New Yangon City, mostly farmland, was never even on the list.
“We hadn’t put the area [across the Yangon River] under consideration as it is very low,” said U Than Moe, one of the strategic planners for the project, explaining that the area’s elevation is about 20 feet lower than neighboring Hlaing Thaya, which is around 30 feet above mean sea level.
As a town planner working for the Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development at the time, U Aung Myint studied aerial photos of the area west of the Yangon River and did a site survey in the area that is now the proposed location of phase one of New Yangon City.
“We had to exclude it [from the proposed expansion plan] as it has an elevation of around 5 meters at the highest point. The other expansion areas are at around 30-40 feet. Even there, some areas lower than that height sometimes flood,” the retired urban planner explained.
More than two decades later, their findings are still relevant. The Strategic Urban Development Plan of Greater Yangon report prepared by the Japan International Cooperation Agency in 2016 recommends serious consideration be given to flooding when it comes to developing low-lying areas.
Quoting a 2016 flood-management study by the Asian Development Bank, the report warns that areas along the west bank of the Yangon River (including the slated site for New Yangon City) are vulnerable to cyclonic surges of 2 to 5 meters — a height similar to the tidal wave caused by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
“So, land development costs should be taken into consideration for any development in the area,” according to the report.
Both U Than Moe and U Aung Myint said that as town planners they are not against the idea of expanding the city.
They said, however, that the proposed location of the new city would best be reserved for future use, as it will require a huge amount of investment just to develop the land, given the low-lying nature of the area.
U Aung Myint prepared a conceptual plan for a new city in the same area for a private company under the previous administration a few years ago. The senior town planner said the lowest point in the area is just over 7 feet above sea level, meaning that a huge amount of earth would inevitably be required to fill the site for any development there, something he said would be “extremely costly.”
“You would need landfills as high as 30 feet if you want to build a new city there,” he said.
He included this recommendation in the plan for the project, prompting one minister in the then Yangon government to ask “Are you serious?” as the proposed landfill was as high as a three-story building.
“Where would you get the soil needed to fill 20,000 acres? Even if it were available, there would be transportation costs. Then you would have to wait for several years to allow the landfill to fully subside [and become hard enough to build on],” U Aung Myint said.
Another urban planner, Dr. Kyaw Latt, agreed that the new city area had potential for use in the future, but said now was not the right time, given the costly bridges that would be needed to connect the site to Yangon. Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein and NYDC have announced that two bridges will be built as part of the project. A key project map posted on NYDC’s website shows one of the proposed bridges spanning the Yangon River from Kyimyindaing Township. The map does not show the second bridge.
The retired planner from the Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development explained that the bridge would need to be high enough for international cargo ships making port calls at terminals and wharfs on the eastern bank of the river, right across from project area, to pass under.
“If you build that high, the bridge’s approaching lanes on the Yangon side would probably be landed in Sanchaung Township. All hell would break loose, as it is already a very congested area,” he said, referring to the fact that the township is among the most overpopulated areas in Yangon with a density of more than 1,000 people per hectare. That is far higher even than Dhaka, one of the most densely populated cities in the world with an average of 555 people per hectare.
“The only possible solution, according to transportation planning experts, is an underpass tunnel. But that would cost around US$1.5 billion. You shouldn’t spend that much when the country’s economy is not in good shape,” he added.
Chief Minister U Pyo Min Thein does not seem persuaded by the experts’ warnings and concerns, however.
During the NYDC launch ceremony, he told the audience that the less developed western bank of the Yangon River had to be transformed.
“We will make it happen. We want to see Yangon’s old town become a green business hub with heritage buildings, while the new one across the river will be a smart city with development,” he said.
The chief minister said the cost of investment in the project would not be borne solely by the government, but would be supported by public-private partnerships, adding that he “hoped to attract investment.”
Regarding the topography of the project site, CEO Serge Pun said the company had kick-started a flood-risk assessment (FRA) for the New Yangon City project with Royal HaskoningDHV, a Dutch company that advises on the entire flood-risk management cycle, from concept to feasibility to impact assessment.
“Since late April, Royal HaskoningDHV has started site visits and data collection, and the company will submit a final report in October 2018,” he writes in a weekly blog entry on the NYDC website.
The FRA’s results and recommendations will be incorporated into the town planning, building design, and policy guidance of NYDC’s New Yangon City project, he said.