The Irrawaddy

Specter of Yangon as a Mega City Casts Shadow Over Whole Country’s Future

Yangon at night.

According to the most recent census, Myanmar’s population reached 50.28 million in 2014, of which 14.9 million, or around 30 percent of the country’s people, lived in towns and cities. The annual growth rate of this urban population has been 1.72 percent over the last 30 years compared to 1.12 percent for the country as a whole. If the population continues to grow at the same pace, it will reach around 78 million by the middle of this century with an urban population that has doubled in size to almost 30 million (Fig.1).

 

Fig. 1 National and urban population forecasts based on current trends

Fig. 2 Population forecast for Yangon with three scenarios

In Yangon, due to in-migration from other areas, the pace of growth has been higher than the national urbanization rate. Based on the current trends, Yangon’s population will reach between 13 million and 16 million by the middle of this century (Fig.2). This expected 2- or 3-fold increase in the size of Yangon’s population over the coming four decades is based on the assumption that the city will grow at the rate of the past, without any interventions, such as “the new city” in or around Yangon as the authorities are planning.

As revealed by the authorities, “The New Yangon City” should provide employment for 2 million people, implying a population of around 8 million. In the urban planning field, the word “gravitation effect” is used to refer to the additional population needed to provide necessary services to the workforce and their families; and this can be as much as another 50 percent, or even more in the context of developing economies. Combining this 12 million increase due to the new city (if it were completed by the middle of the century) and Yangon’s expected population of 14 million (based on the middle scenario), Yangon is on track to become a gigantic agglomeration area with a population of around 26 million by 2050. This would make it bigger than even Shanghai, presently the most populous city in the world with 24 million people, and Karachi, which presently has 23.5 million, and Beijing with around 21 million. At the same time, it needs to be highlighted that Yangon’s infrastructure and transportation networks have numerous shortcomings (only 30 percent of Yangon’s households receive water supplied by the Yangon City and Development Committee, or YCDC, only 60 percent of households have electric meter boxes, in peak hours, it takes about 3 hours to drive from Hlaing Thayar, the western suburb of the city, to Sule Pagoda, etc.)
From an urbanization perspective, such an extraordinary population increase implies this one city would absorb all the expected urban population increase of the country in the coming four decades, which is around 15 million. It also means that all the out-migration from rural areas would come to Yangon and all other urban settlements of the Union would not have further population increases.

Yangon authorities envisage that the required investment for the infrastructure of the new city would be around US$1.5 billion, which is around 17 percent of the national debt (based on our national debt of US$8.9 billion in 2016). The question is whether this investment is justified given that Yangon’s population already has the best in the Union in terms of healthcare, employment and education facilities, electricity usage, Internet quality and availability, etc.

These disparities and the inequalities are seen when various socio-economic data between the states and regions are compared. To highlight only a few of these, Yangon Division’s 7 million people, who account for 14 percent of the Union, create 22 percent of total GDP, while the per capita GDP of Yangon Region is more than double than that of the Union’s average and around six times more than the least developed regions such as Chin State and Tanintharyi Region. In the healthcare sector, Yangon Division has about three times more hospital beds per head of population than Rakhine, Mon and Irrawaddy Regions, and these healthcare services are reflected in the “life expectancy” rates — these figures show around 10 years’ difference between regions with the highest life expectancy and those with the lowest (Fig. 6 & 7). From the aspect of national reconciliation, the question should be raised: What are the ramifications of this disparity and inequality between regions for national unity and the Union’s long-term future?

Presently, Yangon with over 5 million people is around four times larger than the Union’s second largest city, Mandalay, while all other state and division capitals have populations ranging from 250 000 to 25,000. Excluding Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyitaw, there were only 14 towns with populations exceeding 100,000 in 2014. These towns have development potential because they are on the main communication lines. Meanwhile, the regional capitals of Magwe, Dawai, Hpa-An, Loikaw and Hakha are home to fewer than 100,000 people. From the aspects of national unity, it would be desirable to improve urban services such as hospitals, electricity, Internet, etc. in all the regional capitals and additionally identify the development regions and improve the transportation networks between these regions. It is clear then that the whole issue of national urbanization and Yangon planning should be an integral part of the country’s national development plan.

Fig. 3 Capitals of states and divisions, and towns with populations over 100,000 in 2014′

Fig. 4 GDP of states and divisions in 2010-11 (Source: Publications from the Ministry of Planning and Finance

Fig. 5. Per capita GDP of states and divisions. Yangon Division’s per capita GDP is around six times higher than that of Kayin, Chin and Kachin states. Based on data from the Ministry of Planning and Finance (2012).

 

Fig. 6. Hospital bed and population ratios. Chin State, although in second place, has no hospitals operated by the private sector. Source: Processed from the Statistical Yearbook, 2017

Fig. 7. Comparison of life expectancy at birth between states and regions. Source: Tables 17, Census 2014, Main Report (Union)

Fig. 8. 22 percent of electricity is produced in Yangon Division

Dr. Kyaw Lat is an architect and urban planner who has worked with the Department of Human Settlements and Housing Development, Ministry of Construction and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat). He was also a professor at Yangon and Mandalay Technological universities, professor at Cologne University of Applied Sciences, Germany, and finally before his retirement an advisor to the Yangon City and Development Committee from 2011 until 2016.