05 Apr 2012

Twenty years ago, John Friedmann, regarded as one of the most authoritative living theorists on sustainable international development, wrote the book Empowerment (1992), in which he argued for the case of alternative development that focuses on human rights, citizen rights, and human flourishing.

Twenty years ago, John Friedmann, regarded as one of the most authoritative living theorists on sustainable international development, wrote the book Empowerment (1992), in which he argued for the case of alternative development that focuses on human rights, citizen rights, and human flourishing. This view highlights the importance of the civil society in various projects, including water and basic infrastructure services, along with the state and the corporate economy that had been the major players in development practices.

Fast forward to 2012, participatory approaches in water management and governance have been promoted by various development institutions. Kate Berry and Eric Mollard wrote in their edited book Social Participation in Water Governance and Management (2010) that there is no doubt “social participation in water management and governance is a reality today”. However, social participation is also political and economic, which often results in tensions among various interests.

With the recent progressive political transformations in Myanmar, Yangon and its surrounding townships becomes an interesting case to look at how social participation can take place—in this case, in water supply and sanitation.

Yangon—formerly known as Rangoon—was the national capital of Myanmar until 2006. Even with the capital officially relocated to Naypyidaw, Yangon remains the largest commercial city of Myanmar with a size of about 520 square kilometres and a population of 4 million (2004, United Nations).

The World Health Survey in 2003 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that access to improved drinking water sources in Myanmar was 75 per cent in urban areas and 74 per cent in rural areas respectively. Another measure shows 95 per cent of the urban population had improved sanitation facilities while the number stands at 85 per cent in the rural area. Nevertheless, the reality is different in Yangon and the surrounding townships.

Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) is responsible for water and sanitation services, while the Ministry of Health monitors the water quality. In suburban and satellite towns of Yangon, many people still rely on private wells, tube wells, public tanks, ponds and rainwater harvesting, as well as small-scale pipe water distributions from deep wells managed and owned by small entrepreneurs. In some of those areas, a few international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) are working on water and sanitation projects.

Most of the existing water and sanitation system in Yangon is about a century old with inadequate maintenance. Water leakage, around 60–70 per cent in 2008, results in low water pressure that makes it difficult to pump water to the upper floors of the high-rise buildings. There is only one water treatment plant, which does not function properly, at Gyobyu Reservoir, while there are no treatment plants in other reservoirs.

Salinity issues

Although Yangon is located near some big rivers, river water is not potable due to its salinity. Potable water is supplied from reservoirs through long-distance pipelines and that accentuates the level of expenditure involved in construction and maintenance of the main pipelines, boosters, treatment plants and water connection. A report by the Economic Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific of the United Nations in 2003 indicated that the revenues from water supply services largely fell short in meeting the expenditures for proper maintenance.

Moreover, substandard water quality drove most of the YCDC customers to rely on bottled water for drinking and cooking. Consumers have to deposit 3,000 kyats (around US$3) for 20-litre plastic water jugs and then 350 kyat (around US$0.35) for 20 litres of water.

Participatory water supply and sanitation programmes have been facilitated by international non-government organisations, especially in the peri-urban areas of Yangon that were beyond YCDC’s coverage. One example is in Dala Township on the bank of the Yangon River. With a population of 100,000 people, the township is a mixture of intergenerational residents and migrant people from the early nineties, including those displaced from Yangon city or due to the conflicts in Kayin, Kachin, and Rakhine states.

Socio-economic challenges in Dala Township had been compounded by inadequate basic infrastructure and water shortage, especially in the dry season when all the ponds were dry. Ground water was not potable due to high level of salt and iron. YCDC’s capacity was too limited to extend its pipeline system, so Aide Médicale Internationale (AMI)—an INGO—adopted small-scale community based water systems for its water and sanitation programme.

The programme featured the formation of water user groups, each consisting 10 to 15 families. Each group was responsible for management, maintenance—including collecting maintenance fees from members—and equal water sharing from one rain water collector, shallow tube well, and iron removal tank. At the construction stage, each group participated in digging soil for the new water facilities and received training to solve minor maintenance problems.

Existing pond committees continued to manage and maintain rehabilitated ponds. Each committee consisted at least six members mainly from government sponsored social entities— Myanmar Maternal and Welfare Association and the National Red Cross Society—or the local authorities at the ward level. Pond committees were responsible for fencing the ponds, cleaning the compounds, rationing of water and raising funds for the maintenance cost.

Leaders of the water user groups and pond committees received training on basic management, communication, team-building, leadership, transparency, bookkeeping, and problem solving and conflict management.

These community-based water supply and sanitation programmes have resulted in 70 per cent of ponds having significantly lower fecal coli bacteria. In a December 2004 survey, diarrhea incidence since June 2002 had been reduced by 51 per cent in five wards where the facilities were fully operational. For the whole township, the reduction rate was 48 per cent.

Empowering women

Community groups were also encouraged to develop income-generating activities to improve their overall living standards and ensure the sustainability of the water facilities. Involvement in water user groups served as an empowerment opportunity, and this was shown in the case of women’s roles. In Empowerment, Friedmann specifically mentioned that women’s structure of opportunities was limited, as their life-spaces were restricted to the domestic sphere. It was true that most of the water user groups were led by men, but some of the women leaders were active and were doing very well. For example, one group led by a woman invested in a small shop selling firewood and rice, taking turns to keep the shop. There were also cases where groups established businesses such as groceries and sewing businesses.

One of the key features in the empowerment and alternative development model is working from within the cultural context. In Myanmar, the New Year, and concurrent water festival is an important annual celebration. The community-based water provision facilitates the activities in these festivities. Individual households or the community usually assist in cooking the traditional delicacies and sharing with the community members. Water user group members take out the water they have saved in the previous days for the community feast.

Political will

Despite the positive effects of the programme, the sustainability of community groups depends much on the support of the respective authorities by means of officially recognising those groups and helping with the technical and organisational arrangements. With the nature of an INGO that works within a limited project time frame, AMI needed to hand over the whole process to the local community. Meanwhile, the local authorities are lacking adequate capacity and willingness to encourage the growth of the community groups within the political and social challenges at the national level.

Referring again to Friedmann’s Empowerment, he wrote; “Although an alternative development must begin locally, it cannot end there. Like it or not, the state continues to be a major player. It may need to be made more accountable to poor people and more responsive to their claims. But without the state’s collaboration, the lot of the poor cannot be significantly improved. Local empowering action requires a strong state.”

While community-based water supply and sanitation programmes may address immediate water challenges in the poor townships in greater Yangon, the state needs to play a role to ensure the sustainability of the positive effects. This structure needs to be legalised and empowered so that communities can be equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively work with the respective stakeholders, including the township peace and development council (TPDC), ward peace and development council (WPDC), YCDC and the township health department.

Rita Padawangi is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Her email is .

Hnin Wut Yee holds a Master in Public Policy from the Lee Kuan Yew School, National University of Singapore, and a Master in Human Rights and Democratisation from the University of Sydney. Her email is

The background research of this article is part of the Government-Corporate-Society Framework in Urban Water Management, led by Dr Rita Padawangi at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.