Dirty Living in Downtown Rangoon

Saw Yan Naing The Irrawaddy

RANGOON — Some people would call Burma’s commercial capital busy, others might describe it as expensive, but nearly everyone can agree on one thing: It’s dirty.

Travel guidebooks will say Rangoon is most famous for the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda, a sacred Buddhist site and a major tourist attraction. But bring your eyes down from the towering golden spires to the streets, and the view can be somewhat less appealing.

In a city of more than 6 million residents, littering is a major problem for Rangoon. In the downtown area, it is common to see people tossing garbage on the curb, spitting betel nut juice onto the sidewalk, discarding leftover food in alleyways, and urinating on the roadside.

“People don’t care about throwing rubbish here,” Aye Kyaw, a street vendor on Anawrahta Road, told The Irrawaddy. “Authorities also don’t have a good [waste collection] system. I know it’s not good for health, but it’s the practice. It’s normal here.

Another young man, Mon Yan, jumped into the conversation, saying, “I do throw trash carelessly sometimes, simply because I don’t see any trash bins nearby.”

He said people also commonly urinated on the roadside, and he joked, “If you don’t dare to urinate on the roadside, people here know that you are not a Rangoon resident.”

A shopkeeper added, “I think people are just in the habit of throwing rubbish, but it’s not a good habit. As our country opens up and more tourists visit, it’s not good for our image.”

During the hot months of summer, Rangoon reeks of refuse, and during monsoon season, when heavy rains can lead to flooding after a single day, garbage flows through the streets. Some floods are caused because the drains are blocked by trash.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the international development arm of the Japanese government, is working alongside the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), the administrative body of Rangoon, to help solve some of these problems by modernizing the city after decades of low investment during military rule. As part of the “Greater Yangon” project, JICA hopes to upgrade the city’s drainage facilities and sewage system, in addition to improving its water supply.

Noriko Sakurai, an adviser for the Japanese foundation, said the YCDC department for pollution control and cleaning launched an initiative in April last year to provide different garbage cans for wet and dry waste, though many more garbage cans are needed. Rangoon produces about 2,000 tons of garbage daily, according to local media reports. The city has several garbage dumps, but the main dump is in Hlaing Tharyar Township, on the city’s southwest outskirts.

Maki Morikawa, another adviser assisting JICA with infrastructure plans in Rangoon, said a research team working with Rangoon authorities had also identified a wide array of problems with public transportation in the city. Among priorities for investment, he cited a need to strengthen the reliability, comfort and safety of buses; to improve railway tracks and infrastructure, and to upgrade and modernize the traffic management system.

Despite political and economic reforms under Burma’s quasi-civilian government, Rangoon’s municipal department has been criticized by the public for failing to adequately improve waste management or tackle flooding, traffic congestion, poor water supply and power outages.

In May, environmentalists in the city planned to clean up some litter-strewn streets and public spaces over a weekend but were stopped by municipal authorities. The environmentalists, led by Free Funeral Service Association founder and former Burmese actor Kyaw Thu, began a campaign in two townships to educate the public on the importance of disposing waste properly. The group also planned to pick up trash in the downtown area, but they were contacted by a municipal committee and told they were forbidden from doing so.

At the time, Myint Myint Khin Pe, the wife of Kyaw Thu, told The Irrawaddy that the municipal authorities had not provided a reason for the decision. “They might think that our action is affecting their work somehow,” she said. “But it is neither to condemn the municipal department nor to highlight their weak points. At least this would have helped them to educate people on how to manage waste and how to throw it away properly.”

On many city streets, food vendors commonly set up tables alongside piles of garbage. Many Burmese rely on street food because it is cheaper than eating at restaurants, although often less sanitary. The majority of daily workers in the city earn about 50,000 kyats (US$50) monthly.

Ko Lin, a tour company driver, regularly eats street food. “I know it’s not good for my health, but I can’t pay for expensive food and I don’t have time to cook because I need to drive all day every day,” he said.

The street food made him sick when he first started eating it, after returning to Burma from time living abroad in Malaysia, but he said his stomach eventually adjusted. “I don’t want to get addicted to the habit of consuming good food simply because I can’t pay for it,” he said. “If you practice eating street food, you will make it. Your stomach will be upset the first time if you don’t do it often. But later you’ll have a strong stomach, like me.”

In Burma, the life expectancy for men is 60 years old, while the life expectancy for women is 65.

“I don’t expect to live longer than 50,” he added. “I’m afraid I can’t work to earn my living if I’m older than 50. I’m OK with that. It’s enough for me.”