Hot Season Highlights Rangoon's Water Woes

By Simon Roughneen 26 April 2013

RANGOON — Pointing down at the three inches of water at the bottom of the school’s concrete tank, Seng Htoi wrinkles her nose. “It’s a bit salty for drinking, so we use it for washing mostly. But if we drink it, we have to purify it first,” she says.

The water supply here in Rangoon’s North Dagon Township is tapped from groundwater, but the u-bend pipe coming in over the top of the tank is running dry. A few finger-marked flecks of dust around the edges signal that someone was just checking the pipe for signs of even a trickle of much-needed water.

It is the hot season in Burma, and for millions, this means getting enough water—for drinking, cooking and washing—is heavy, thirst-inducing work when daytime temperatures top 40 degrees Celsius.

Back inside her school, Seng Htoi, who’s from Myitkyina in northern Burma’s Kachin State but has been living in Rangoon for 17 years, shows how her tightly rationed water is run through a purifier.

That ensures that the groundwater is fit to drink, but during the hot season, there’s not enough to sate thirty schoolchildren. “I have to watch the kids that they don’t take too much water,” she says. “It is tough, as they get thirsty in the heat and when they play, but I have to limit the amount they drink when water is in short supply.”

She says she needs two liters of water per day for each child, but during the hot season, she can only give around half of that, she guesses.

Purifying the water means encountering another of Burma’s many infrastructure deficits. The country’s electricity supply only reaches around 25 percent of the 50-60 million estimated population, though mostly those going without live in rural areas.

But even in Rangoon blackouts are common, and Seng Htoi says the supply is usually too weak to run the purifier: “We have to wait until nighttime to use it, when the power is a bit better,” she says.

In mid-April, millions of Burmese celebrated Thingyan, the Buddhist New Year, by dousing each other with water. The ritual is meant to symbolize the cleansing of the previous years’ sins, but it is also a welcome cooling-off at what is usually the thermometer-filling high point of the hot season.

But between February and May, the city’s water supply often runs far short of what’s needed. Even at the best of times, the city’s water cannot meet demand. Only 12 percent of the city’s population gets its drinking water from what the city can provide, with almost half the population of the city (44 percent) drinking bottled water. 12 percent use rainwater or water from a pond or canal, and 17 percent have their own well, according to statistics disseminated at the recent Public Consultation Seminar on Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage Systems in Rangoon.

Those not supplied by the city’s main pipeline often have to put money and hard work into getting water to their homes. And though most people leave the heavy lifting until evening, when temperatures drop to the mid-thirties, there’s always a need for water in the daytime.

Just before noon, Hla Hla, 56, pauses on narrow, pot-holed road in the north of Rangoon, putting down the two buckets she was carrying, balanced on either end of a stick that she struggled to keep on her shoulders as she walked.

“Too hot for this, yes,” she says. “I have to carry the water 150 meter to my home,” pointing back to where she filled the buckets.

Thirty meters away is a leaf-covered lake, with a pattern of blue and black pipes running across the water and up and over the ditch around the water, leading like straws from a shared glass to the dozens of homes circling the lake.

“Slowly, slowly,” says, Soe Win, a 64-year-old retired civil servant, as he cranks the hand pump outside his timber house, spattering the ground near the four trishaws which he rents out to drivers at 700 kyat (US $0.80) a day—some extra money in his retirement.

The tank was installed three years ago, but before then, the old man had to fetch water by the bucket from the lake, as did neighbor Thaw Thaw, standing over a newly installed electric pump, which sucks water from the lake and into two rusty old barrels beside her front door.

“Before it took one hour for us all to fetch enough water to fill these. Now it takes three minutes using the pump. We’re glad we bought,” she says, adding that the machine cost 60,000 kyat ($67).

But when the city’s electricity supply cuts out, it’s back to the buckets. “We have to carry again when there’s no power,” says Thaw Thaw.

For those near the main pipeline carrying water into the city—from four reservoirs to the north—water is less likely to be a concern. Moe Laing Oo, manager at the Yankin shopping mall, a hundred meters from the pipeline, says that the building gets a regular and reliable water supply from the city.

“We get, no problem, always reliable,” he says. Living nearby, he says that his family gets the water at home, too, and that people in the area can drink the supply.

Water is also not such a worry at the Nate Van Sate Oo monastery, back near North Dagon Township. The monks have the facilities to tap groundwater and harness rainwater, with several large tanks capable of holding more than 500 gallons each, around the monastery grounds.

Myint Zaw, a volunteer leader at the monastery, says that donations from devout Buddhists mean that the even though the premises are just three years old, they are well-provisioned. Pointing to a pick-up truck festooned with Buddhist flags and with two saffron-robed mannequins standing in the back, he says, “We go around every day for alms, it helps fund the activity here.”

Sourcing additional water and supplying the city in the future is one of the key challenges facing Rangoon city officials. The city is the putative epicenter of a hoped-for economic boom, as the Burmese government attempts a number of much-needed economic reforms and Western governments remove sanctions, despite allegations of human rights abuses in ethnic-minority regions of Burma.

However, water shortages and concerns about supply could hinder Burma’s economic promise, says opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Speaking in Japan recently, the National League for Democracy (NLD) parliamentarian said that she was concerned that a lack of infrastructure—such as roads, electricity and water supply—are causing some companies to delay investments, which she hopes will generate jobs for millions of unemployed or underemployed young Burmese.

Rangoon’s city bosses have big plans to improve the water supply, though it could be 2040 before even 80 percent of the city’s population—currently around six million—will be connected to the city water supply, according to projections discussed at the recent public consultation.

Shwe Taung Development Company—which is involved in several new construction projects around Rangoon—is teaming up with city authorities and donors to help plan the future of Rangoon’s water supply. Speaking to The Irrawaddy, Shwe Taung chairman and real estate magnate Aik Htun—described in the past as having “good access” to Burma’s military rulers—said, “We are in the early stages so far. We have to conduct some studies about how best to go about this work, before we proceed.”

Aik Htun says that water supply is one of several infrastructure deficits that Rangoon needs to address in the coming years—the lack of office space is another such bottleneck, prompting premium office rental prices to top out at double those in Manhattan, priced per square foot, per year.

The need for offices, hotels and urban housing has government officials and construction companies anticipating a building boom in Burma’s cities over the coming years. A proposed multistory annex to Traders Hotel, a downtown Rangoon landmark, will offer much-needed new shopping and office space.

Standing up office towers and big hotels requires water, however, which is a challenge for builders at this four-month-old construction site. And though a city water pipe runs close by, the builders chose instead to drill an 80-meter deep well.

“City water is not enough,” said a manager at the site, who asked not to be named. “We need millions of gallons to build, and if we take, then maybe no water for the people who live around here,” he added.