A household in Mawlawmyine's Lamuttan quarter uses bowls and buckets to store water. (Naw Betty Han | Frontier)
A household in Mawlawmyine's Lamuttan quarter uses bowls and buckets to store water. (Naw Betty Han | Frontier)

Fixing Mawlamyine’s water woes

Most residents in the country’s fifth-largest city continue to rely on poor-quality water sources in the absence of a reliable government distribution system, but work is already underway on a major upgrade with international support.

By NAW BETTY HAN | FRONTIER

In 2009, U Thein Hla paid K300,000 to have his home in Mawlamyine’s Shwe Myaing Thiri ward connected to the city’s water network.

The supply was intermittent at best, though, and since 2013 he hasn’t bothered to use the government connection at all. “In our quarter, most households have the same experience,” he said. “They have a meter but the water doesn’t come. I guess there isn’t enough water to supply all households.”

The fact he still has to pay a monthly meter maintenance fee of K1,000 is a sore point for the 65-year-old, who works as a tailor.

“The water never comes. I even told the water tax collector to remove the meter, but he wouldn’t take it. So even though I don’t use it, I still have to pay,” Thein Hla said. 

Instead, he still relies on a pipeline that connects to a pond in his ward for non-drinking water. He is far from unique. Although one-third of households are connected to the city’s pipeline network, water is delivered for just a few hours a day – if at all.

As a result, most residents in Mawlamyine – one of the largest cities in the country, with 250,000 residents at the time of the 2014 census – have to rely on other sources. 

Ponds and lakes can be found in some parts of Mawlamyine, particularly Thein Hla’s Shwe Myaing Thiri ward, and neighbouring Zayar Thiri, Thayar Aye and Hlaing wards. These areas were settled in the 1980s, under the Ne Win government, when there was little expectation the government would provide basic services.

“When these areas were developed, people made lakes on nearly every street and they filled up with rainwater,” Thein Hla said. “They used the water for everything, even drinking, because they had no other options.”

The water never comes. I even told the water tax collector to remove the meter, but he wouldn’t take it. So even though I don’t use it, I still have to pay.

U Thein Hla, resident of Mawlamyine’s Shwe Myaing Thiri ward

Although most people now buy purified water to drink, the ponds and lakes are still widely used because of the shortcomings of the municipal system. In other areas, tube wells and shallow hand-dug wells are the preferred choice.

The lack of a city-wide water distribution system means many residents face water shortages during summer, Thein Hla said. This year, water shortages were a huge problem across the state from the beginning of March, and on May 7 the Mawlamyine City Development Committee issued a statement urging residents to use water sparingly, because the dams that feed the municipal network only had two weeks of supply left. 

When the remaining water ran out, community groups stepped in to supply households in the city. Ko Bo Win, a spokesperson for the Bo Bo Win Social Relief Group, said the water shortages were the worst he’d seen in recent memory. 

“Lakes where we could still get water last year were dried up. Some quarters that hadn’t faced shortages in the past ran out,” he said.

Although volunteer groups like the Bo Bo Win Social Relief Group were able to help avert a disaster until the annual rains arrived, he stressed that the current situation wasn’t sustainable. “Donating water to areas of the city facing shortages is a temporary way to solve the problem,” he said. “I want the government to ensure a reliable water supply for everyone.”

A Mawlamyine resident uses buckets to draw water from a pond. Thousands of people in the city still rely on ponds and lakes for water because of the shortcomings of municipal supply. (Naw Betty Han | Frontier)

Plugging the leaks

Changes are indeed coming for the residents of Mawlamyine. In 2014, the Asian Development Bank proposed a project to develop urban services in Mawlamyine, as well as in Hpa-an and Myawaddy, in Kayin State. The US$80 million project, which was approved and signed in 2018, aims to improve water supply and waste management in the three cities by 2025.

About $23.8 million will be spent on upgrading Mawlamyine’s water system, including renovating its reservoirs, an ADB procurement plan shows. A further $17.6 million will be spent on solid waste management and vehicles and $2 million on heritage restoration. 

In Mawlamyine, the ADB project is interlinked with a Japan International Cooperation Agency grant for the construction of a water treatment plant and rehabilitation of some existing sections of pipeline.

When completed, urban areas of Mawlamyine will have access to potable piped water, officials involved in the project say.

A spokesperson for the ADB said the project is in the preliminary technical design stage and civil works contracts are expected to be awarded in July 2021, with construction to take another 18 to 24 months. 

Dr Aung Naing Oo, deputy speaker of the Mon State Hluttaw, said the state government had also allocated K7 billion ($5.4 million) to the water supply upgrade that would be used alongside the ADB loan and JICA funding.

He said work has already started on the new treatment plant, improving storage systems and laying new pipelines. Frontier saw large pipelines being laid along main roads during a visit in August, and Aung Naing Oo said once they were complete smaller pipes would be run through residential areas.

Pipes are laid out beside a main road in Mawlamyine. The city’s water system is being upgraded with support from the Asian Development Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency. (Naw Betty Han | Frontier)

Mon State Development Committee figures show that at present a maximum of 4 million gallons (18,100 cubic metres) of water a day are distributed from Shwe Nat Taung Reservoir, Myebyan Reservoir and two intakes on the Attaran River to 24 of Mawlamyine’s 28 wards each day. However, the system is unreliable and covers only 32pc of the population, and the water is untreated.

“Residents can’t drink the pipe water – that is, if they even have access to it,” said U Tin Ko Ko, director of the Mon State Municipal Affairs Department and spokesperson of the Mon State Development Committee. “This project will enable us to both treat the water and expand the pipeline network.”

The project will also help to meet increasing demand for water, which is expected to rise from 27,500 cubic metres a day to 66,000 cubic metres by 2040. 

Tin Ko Ko said the project would be implemented in two phases. The first will see the physical infrastructure upgraded, which is expected to take three years. 

The second phase will see the government call a tender for the collection of water rates, which it will set at K250 a unit, Tin Ko Ko said. The upgrade will also massively reduce nonrevenue water – that is, water that is produced but lost due to leaks, theft or other causes – which is currently estimated at around 90pc. 

Aung Naing Oo said that once the Mawlamyine upgrade was complete the state government would turn its attention to other townships. 

“People in every township in Mon State face months of water shortages every summer,” he said. “There is already a water supply system in Mawlamyine, but if we upgrade it with this ADB project we won’t need to worry about water shortages in the future. Then we can focus on supporting other townships that don’t have water supply systems yet.” 

Daw Than Htay, 78, sits in front of her home in Lamuttan quarter. Although residents have lived in the area for decades, they are not formally recognised and will not benefit directly from upgrades to the municipal water supply. (Naw Betty Han | Frontier)

Informal settlements miss out

U Sein Min, the administrator of Shwe Myaing Thiri ward, said he welcomed plans to improve the water supply.

The ward’s municipal supply comes from an intake on the Attaran River built in 1986, but supply is intermittent and quality is poor.

“I read about the water supply project on Facebook and think it’s going to be good news for us,” he said.

However, he’s also concerned that some areas might miss out – in particular, informal settlements along the bank of the Attaran River.

He said there are around 300 households who have been living informally for the past two decades in an area of the ward known as Lamuttan, where they rely mostly on river water. 

“If the government can’t provide water to every household in Mawlamyine yet, I don’t think they’re going to care about these squatter areas,” he said. 

Frontier visited Lamuttan Quarter on August 20 and found more than 300 households that lack access to running water and electricity. The houses are built on stilts along the banks of the Attaran River, which rises significantly during rainy season. 

Read more: Yangon water supply upgrade may bypass the poorest

In some areas they had built makeshift ponds to store rainwater for drinking. But U Sein Than, 60, said that in rainy season the river usually flooded the ponds, and residents often caught water-borne diseases.

Daw May Than, 52, has lived in Lamuttan for 20 years. In front of her house she keeps five large water pots, which she fills with rainwater each year and tops up with water from a nearby pond. Asked whether she expected the pipeline extension to reach her home, she replied, “I’ve never heard of the government supplying water to the public before. I didn’t even know the government did that. I’ve lived here for many years without water or electricity.”

Government officials confirmed that the pipeline extension plans did not include informal settlements like those at Lamuttan.

“We are planning to support them with cleaning water in a different way,” said Mawlamyine township administrator U Myint Oo. “For example, we might rebuild the ponds they’ve made themselves to prevent water entering when the river level is high. But this plan is not related to the ADB project – it will be done with government funding only.”

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