A $50,000 pilot sanitation project in Myanmar shows that local infrastructure and services can be developed by communities and city governments in the informal settlements where they're most needed.
Down the narrow spaces between the homes in Yangon's Dawbon Township, rickety wooden planks lead to outhouses that illustrate the urgency and complexity of Myanmar's reemergence.
Under the latrines - and the houses connected to them - run rivers of murky water clotted with cast-off soda bottles, coconut husks, bright green algae, broken branches, plastic wrappers, and lone sandals. Human waste lends an acrid smell; when the rain waters rise, seepage slips out of the simple pits below.
It's a miserable situation for the estimated 80,000 people who call Dawbon home. Situated in the southeastern part of Yangon, running alongside the eastern banks of Pazundaung Creek where it meets the Yangon River, the township is home to at least 5,000 families, many of them immigrants from rural areas, some of them seeking refuge from conflicts and violence affecting the Shan, Kayin, Rakhine, and Mon regions.
Many of those who live here built their homes piece by piece, sacrificing access to services such as garbage collection, running water, or basic household sanitation in their search for shelter.
Less than 2 years into its reform agenda, Myanmar's political and economic transformation can seem lightning-paced, as foreign companies race to reestablish ties to a vast, mineral- and timber-rich country lying at the crossroads of South, East and Southeast Asia. Aid and development groups, including ADB, have returned. But after a long period of isolation, the pace of change in the day-to-day living conditions of Myanmar's people can seem painfully slow.
It will take time for the full effects of a nascent development agenda to be felt, and for the large-scale projects that will make real impact to take root, but in the meantime, small-scale projects like ADB's $50,000 pilot sanitation program can demonstrate that local infrastructure and services can be developed by communities and city governments in the informal settlements where they're most needed.
"People living in Myanmar are waiting for the government's ambitious reforms to improve their lives. This project proves it can happen on a modest budget and in a relatively short timeframe."
- Amy Leung, ADB
"People living in Myanmar are waiting for the government's ambitious reforms to improve their lives. This project proves it can happen on a modest budget and in a relatively short timeframe," said Amy Leung, Director of the Urban Development and Water Division in ADB's Southeast Asia Department.
Waste collection system
Working through Malteser International, which has been implementing water, sanitation, and hygiene activities in various rural and urban locations in Myanmar since 1991, ADB has initiated a series of workshops, established a waste collection system, and provided garbage trolleys and bins to select households in Dawbon.
The red bins with a latched lid replace old loosely made wicker baskets, which did nothing to combat smells, contain leachate, or deter animals and insects from marauding in the garbage. A formal waste collection system is now in place, with bins collected daily at 3 p.m. and waste transported to a dump site nearby. This is done for a fee to ensure the sustainability of collection - a fee the community has judged to be adequate and just.
Workshops in a nearby community center have helped promote hand washing and curbed incidences of diarrhea, instilling community members with the knowledge of what to do when soap proves too expensive, and how best to use lye or ash as a substitute.
"The community believed that the fast-flowing water of the nearby stream would dilute or destroy any harmful germs," said Ma Aye Aye Thin, a member of the La Mu Tan Ward development committee. The stream became the most common place to practice open defecation - the only option available to many who live in the community without access to a toilet or latrine.
"However, after participating in the workshop, the community learned that illnesses carried in excreta can be spread through water," Thin said. The workshop gave them ways to manage and clean the environment. Now they are eagerly awaiting the construction of proper latrines.
"The Ward Development Committee is continuously sharing their knowledge and encouraging their community to change from risky to healthy behavior," said Thynn Thynn Htut, Malteser International project manager.
Construction of proper latrines, made with deeper pits lined with concrete rings, is set to begin. Households will be trained to oversee the work, and how to operate and maintain the latrines. One resident will be chosen to act as a supervisor.
The community, which received paved lanes as a gift of the last election, has identified its priority needs as drainage, household sanitation, latrines, a library, and electricity for the road.
They place emphasis on drainage - a much bigger project requiring more logistics and engineering - as they feel the stagnant flood water that's left to collect up detritus from the neighborhood is a health risk.
Residents complain of the water's strong smell, and at least one woman living in the area says with so much murky water lying around, dangerous snakes are more prone to appear in the neighborhood after heavy rains.
However, empowered by a small sanitation project that's already having a big impact, it's hoped that the community will keep calling for ways to feel Myanmar's rapid changes and improve their living conditions.