Plans for a deep-sea port as part of the ambitious New Yangon City project have been welcomed by the residents of five villages who are at risk of being washed away due to riverbank erosion.
By KYAW YE LYNN | FRONTIER
About a dozen houses, mostly small bamboo huts, occupy the narrow strip of land between the riverbank and the sea wall that protects Taw Ka Luu village from the Yangon River, not far from where its muddy waters empty into the Gulf of Mottama
The houses in the village, in Yangon’s outer southwestern Kungyangon Township, are under threat because the riverbank has been dramatically eroded by the tide.
“These houses probably have to move inside the sea wall this year,” village administrator U Aung Tun Kyaw told Frontier on April 7.
When villagers helped the Irrigation and Water Utilisation Management Department to build the sea wall five years ago it was at least 500 feet (152 metres) from the riverbank, Aung Tun Kyaw said.
“Now, as you can see, it is only about 50 feet away,” he said.
Aung Tun Kyaw said that if the erosion of the riverbank continued at its current rate, the sea wall would have to be built up to 5 kilometres (3 miles) inland and the villagers would probably need to be relocated.
A deep channel in the river near the village means that it runs fast when the tide is going out, constantly wearing away the riverbank.
“The sea-lane is so close to the riverbank that your shout can be heard by the crew on sea-going vessels,” said Aung Tun Kyaw, adding that beyond the deep channel there was shallow water and a sandbar.
Villagers had measured the depth of the channel at low tide at about 15 metres (50 feet), he said.
“We haven’t measured it at high tide; it must be much deeper.”
Sandbars are formed by sediment deposited by a river and are constantly changing according to the velocity of the current. Villagers say the sandbars at the mouth of the Yangon River are aggravating the erosion of the riverbank.
A surprise visit brings hope
Shifting house because of riverbank erosion is not a new experience for villages in Kungyangon and Kawhmu.
Five riverside villages – Taw Ka Luu, Thaungkhone, Kwinwaing, Sartaingput and Thayettaw – have been relocated four times in the last 60 years, said U Thwin San, 58, a resident of Thayettaw.
“It’s highly likely that we’ll have to move again in the near future,” Thwin San told Frontier.
“This village [Thayettaw] moved here about ten years ago. Now the riverbank is encroaching closer and closer; this place and the sea wall will last another year at the most, I hope,” he said.
“But Taw Ka Luu and Thaungkhone are less fortunate; these two villages are likely to have to move this year.”
Thwin San and other villagers estimate that they have lost at least 200 hectares (500 acres) of farmland to riverbank erosion during the last few decades.
“But this time the financial losses will be much higher, because land scarcity means prices are rising,” he said.
Villagers had raised concerns about the erosion with their MPs under the previous administration. Little had been done, although there was occasionally talk about large-scale development plans for the area.
Then, in January, they received a surprise visit from Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein, who led a group of senior regional government officials through the area to inspect a possible deep-sea port site in neighbouring Kawmhu Township. Kawhmu is the constituency that elected State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament in the 2012 by-election and 2015 general election.
At a meeting with residents of Thayettaw village, Phyo Min Thein said building the deep-sea port would prevent further riverbank erosion and create job opportunities for locals.
“He said the area is suitable for a sea port and for storing fuel in tanks,” Thwin San said, adding that Myanmar and foreign engineers had tested the soil and river depths in the area after the chief minister’s visit.
He said Phyo Min Thein, without providing details, had promised to develop the neighbouring townships of Dala, Kawhmu and Kungyangon as part of the New Yangon City project.
“We think he is going to fulfil what he promised to us,” said Thwin San.
New Yangon City plans revealed
The officials accompanying the chief minister on the visit included the regional Minister of Electricity, Industry, Roads and Communication, Daw Nilar Kyaw, and the regional Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Forest and Energy, U Han Tun.
Nilar Kyaw was recently appointed chairperson and Han Tun a member of the board of directors of the company formed to oversee the New Yangon City project, of which the vice-chair and chief executive officer is Mr Serge Pun, chairman of Serge Pun & Associates Group (SPA Group).
The New Yangon City Development Co Ltd, wholly owned by the Yangon Region government, was incorporated under the Special Companies Act in late March.
Phyo Min Thein said NYDC was formed to “reduce red tape” and allow investment in the project to “flow fast and smooth”.
The NYDC’s mission is to develop phase one of the New Yangon City on 20,000 acres (8,093ha) in the neighbouring western townships of Kyimindaing, Twante and Seikgyikanaungto, north of Kawmhu and Kungyangon.
Information sheets distributed by NYDC at its launch on March 31 showed the possible deep-sea port site as part of a phase-two expansion of the New Yangon City project.
“As the first step, we are focusing on the basic infrastructure for the new city’s first phase,” Nilar Kyaw said at the launch ceremony.
She said the basic infrastructure included five residential areas for resettled villagers, two bridges, a 10-square-kilometre industrial estate, 26km of arterial roads, a power plant and transmission lines, and wastewater treatment facilities.
“We are hoping to finish these works in first three years,” Pun, also known as U Theim Wai, told journalists after the launch.
Pun said that timeline would depend on NYDC’s ability to attract private investors to the development.
“The essential infrastructure work will cost about US$1.5 billion [nearly K2 trillion], but the chief minister has allocated us only K10 billion. That amount is so small.”
Pun said the NYDC board would use the Swiss challenge model to ensure fair competition and transparency in the massive project.
“Transparency is the most powerful tool to earn the trust from all stakeholders,” he said.
Pun gave a pledge that none of his companies would bid for any New Yangon City projects.
“This is the best way to avoid conflict of interest,” he said, adding that NYDC would publicise every step of the project and the tender process.
Phyo Min Thein said electricity for the project’s industrial estate would be supplied by a proposed gas-fired power plant on the Ayeyarwady Region coast a few kilometres north of popular Chaung Tha beach.
“Union Minister of Electricity U Win Khaing already promised it; so we don’t need to worry about the electricity supply,” he said at the launch.
Creating employment was also a priority in developing New Yangon City, the chief minister said.
Pun said the cost of land in the industrial estate would be based on how many jobs an enterprise would create.
“The land price will be higher for businesses with few employees than those with a large number of employees,” he said.
“If your business is labour intensive, please come and discuss with us … We will make sure it is okay for your business.”
TOP PHOTO: About a dozen houses in Taw Ka Luu village, Kungyangon Township, are under threat due to riverbank erosion (Kyaw Ye Lynn | Frontier)