Wa­ter re­veals two sides of Myan­mar’s eco­nomic boom


Ev­ery morn­ing on his way to work in Yan­gon, builder Zaw Min Tun takes a swig of wa­ter at a Bud­dhist tem­ple, a vi­tal place to quench a thirst for the many or­di­nary cit­i­zens left be­hind by Myan­mar’s eco­nomic boom.

Bot­tled wa­ter is among the plethora of con­sumer in­dus­tries set to take off as the coun­try emerges from decades of iso­lated junta rule, putting more money in the pock­ets of the coun­try’s rich and a grow­ing mid­dle class.

But, at around 300 ky­ats (25-30 U.S. cents) a liter, it re­mains too pricey for the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in a coun­try where the av­er­age an­nual per capita in­come of US$1,105 re­mains one of the low­est in Asia.

Decades of weak in­vest­ment un­der junta rule means the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple — eight in 10 — are forced to drink from un­safe sup­plies such as wells, bore­holes, springs and streams while only nine per­cent have ac­cess to tap or piped wa­ter.

Poor in­fra­struc­ture com­bined with the high prices of bot­tled wa­ter mean many lo­cals like Zaw Min Tun rely on the ter­ra­cotta jars of wa­ter left by kindly strangers at the many Bud­dhist tem­ples across the coun­try.

“This is where I have to wait for the bus,” he tells AFP un­der a bak­ing hot sky out­side the tem­ple in down­town Yan­gon. “And when I’m thirsty I take a drink.”

On the other side of Myan­mar’s con­sumer boom, ad­verts for pu­ri­fied wa­ter cover bill­boards and the sides of de­liv­ery trucks in Yan­gon and other cities, push­ing as­pi­ra­tional and whole­some mes­sages.

“With Alpine, live longer and health­ier,” says the slo­gan of mar­ket leader Alpine, a lo­cal com­pany which pro­duced 200 mil­lion bot­tles in Myan­mar last year, and projects to churn out 300 mil­lion by the end of 2015.

Pu­rity Mat­ters

Myan­mar’s bot­tled wa­ter mar­ket is, as yet, far from sat­u­rated.

In 2013 con­sump­tion of bot­tled wa­ter per head stood at just 0.1 liters, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 re­port by re­searchers at Euromon­i­tor In­ter­na­tional, com­pared with 21 liters in the Asia-Pa­cific as a whole.

Nes­tle is among the in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies that have cir­cled the mar­ket for wa­ter, although the Swiss food and drink gi­ant has shied away from ma­jor in­vest­ment so far.

“This busi­ness has a great fu­ture. As peo­ple get richer, the mid­dle class has more ex­pec­ta­tion,” Sai Sam Htun, CEO of Lo Hein Com­pany, which owns the Alpine brand, told AFP.

For the coun­try’s newly minted mid­dle class, such bot­tlers of­fer a sense of se­cu­rity in what had been, un­til re­cently, a no­to­ri­ously un­re­li­able cot­tage in­dus­try.

“Pre­vi­ously, there were a lot of small play­ers, they did not care about wa­ter treat­ment,” Sai Sam Htun added.

“They just got it from un­der­ground or from the pipe from the city wa­ter. They treated it very lightly.”

Con­cerns over poorly pu­ri­fied wa­ter be­came such an is­sue that in Fe­bru­ary the Min­istry of Health banned more than 70 brands af­ter spot checks showed they failed ba­sic safety tests.

Fenton Hol­land, an Aus­tralian spe­cial­ist who has helped Western drinks com­pa­nies and ho­tels ac­cess safe wa­ter sup­plies in Myan­mar, said busi­nesses are be­com­ing aware they need ac­cess to safe wa­ter.

“Even when you make potato chips you need high-pu­rity wa­ter,” he said.

Her­culean Task

Decades of eco­nomic mis­man­age­ment un­der the bru­tal junta has left Myan­mar with a creak­ing and de­crepit in­fra­struc­ture and the wa­ter sup­ply is no ex­cep­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to na­tional cen­sus fig­ures re­leased this month, only 31 per­cent of in­hab­i­tants liv­ing in cities con­sume pu­ri­fied wa­ter in some form, fall­ing to just two per­cent in the coun­try­side.

Even in Yan­gon, the na­tion’s eco­nomic heart, wells and ponds are a com­mon wa­ter source for the city’s seven mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, es­pe­cially out­side of the cen­ter.

On the city’s western out­skirts, far re­moved from the con­struc­tion cranes and car deal­er­ships of the city cen­ter, Thein Ham, 51, fills up some wa­ter jars on the side of the street.

Bot­tled wa­ter “is for other peo­ple. My mother did the same thing,” she ex­plained.

On pa­per, Myan­mar should not lack for fresh, drink­able wa­ter.

As a trop­i­cal coun­try boast­ing three mighty rivers, it is an­nu­ally soaked by life-giv­ing mon­soon rains, although the dry sea­son of­ten brings drought due to poor man­age­ment.

Re­vamp­ing the coun­try’s in­fra­struc­ture is a Her­culean task, even in a city like Yan­gon.

French firm Egis has been com­mis- sioned by Yan­gon’s author­i­ties to come up with a plan to re­ha­bil­i­tate thou­sands of kilo­me­ters of wa­ter pipes un­der the city.

“These pipes have to be cleaned and re­paired,” ex­plained Mar­ion Hasse, a pro­ject co­or­di­na­tor for Egis. “Most of the pipe net­work is be­tween 50 and 70 years old.”

She es­ti­mates that the cen­ter of Yan­gon could see safe drink­ing wa­ter de­liv­ered via taps within five years, but for the whole city, it could take more like two decades.


This pic­ture taken on April 1, shows work­ers un­load­ing wa­ter bot­tles from a truck at a dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter in Yan­gon.

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