Warning signs flash as Myanmar gears up

opinion March 19, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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The dizzying speed of economic development has led to rapid urbanisation; millions of citizens urgently need proper urban planning and infrastructure

After releasing the brakes to end six decades of international isolation, Myanmar has geared up wide-ranging reforms that are powering fast development. However, the dizzying speed of progress means huge challenges are looming. Rapid urbanisation is one indication of Myanmar’s growth spurt, but with it come problems that threaten to wreck the country’s success story.
Early warning signs were raised recently at the Myanmar Construction Summit 2014. Delegates cautioned that the mushrooming urban population could overwhelm a nation that still lacks basic infrastructure or urban planning. 
Moe Thida, assistant director at the Ministry of Construction’s Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development, noted that the major problem was the absence of an integrated urban master plan. With no blueprint for land use or utilities and services, construction of desperately needed housing is being hindered. 
The government’s low-cost housing project in Yangon provides a stark illustration of the housing problem. At 12 million kyats (about Bt400,000) per unit, the apartments are too expensive for those in the low-income bracket to afford. The price is simply not in line with the reality of the average person’s income. And if the government can’t provide housing for average-income households, what chance does the rapidly growing underprivileged urban population have of being properly housed?
At present, the government still lacks basic legal powers to monitor and commandeer unused and underused land. This lack of proper land management is driving a steep rise in land prices. 
Yangon has become a melting pot, as any visitor to the city will see. Its six million people make it the most populous city in the country, and that figure is expected to skyrocket in line with economic liberalisation. In 2011, 32.6 per cent of Myanmar’s 60 million people lived in urban areas but that figure is growing by 2.49 per cent every year.
Authorities should regard the early warnings as a blessing, giving them the chance to respond quickly. As in many other developing countries, the problems are not limited to the housing supply but extend to a widening gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”.
One idea proposed at the summit was to limit economic development in Yangon and spread it instead to Mandalay. Suzuki Masahiko, a Japanese urban development adviser to the Yangon City Development Committee, said that such a blueprint could be key to the future of the country’s cities. The Japanese government and Japan International Cooperation Agency is helping the Thein Sein administration with urban development.
Myanmar must act quickly to overcome the major challenges that come with economic prosperity. Social problems that arise out of rapid development can turn nasty very quickly. But the country can learn from the flaws and failures in other developing countries’ experiences and avoid falling into the same pattern. The government’s priority is to find a sustainable path for its urban development and strike a balance between economic growth and social well-being. This requires a team effort: Government, policy-makers, academics, politicians and businesspeople must join forces in leading Myanmar onto the right development path. And they must share the common goal of tackling the obstacles that come with accelerating urbanisation.