Urban Resilience and Sustainable Development in Myanmar: A New dawn – New Challenges

by Kyaw Thu, Myanmar, ELP 2014
Written on July 21, 2014.

As with many countries that come out of economic and political stagnation, Myanmar (Burma) faces numerous challenges after emerging from twenty-five years of almost no foreign aid and very limited contact with many development issues, especially addressing shocks and stresses from climate change, environmental degradation and natural hazards.

One of the major challenges is addressing cross-cutting issues such as relations of environmental protection (e.g., conservation/resurrection of mangrove forests and surrounding ecosystem) and disasters risk reduction (e.g., flood mitigation plans such as dykes, irrigation channels, drainage and keeping flood-planes; earthquake risk reduction plans such as micro-zonation, zoning of highly vulnerable areas) and linking them with all levels of economic development plans of the newly decentralized local governments, addressing costs of climate change adaptation, and integrating interdisciplinary knowledge into these plans that actually correspond to the challenging demands of socio-economic needs of the cities and their citizens in Myanmar. Analyzing trade-offs between sustainable economic growth and environmental protection/conservation is also an imperative area, but there is no empirical research and accurate data on Myanmar so far.

Urbanization is critical and poses another huge challenge for long-term economic development in Myanmar. Yangon, the formal capital and now the commercial center, is rapidly growing, passing over the six million population mark; and Mandalay City, the second biggest city, has almost two million population. Secondary cities are also growing. Rapid growth in the cities is expected in the next ten years due to slowing down or mechanization of agricultural industry, but the foundations are not strong enough for several reasons, including no real urban planning capacity and extremely limited financial resources. Urban development faces many challenges, both physical (environmental degradation, climate change, rapid growth) and institutional, but if issues are addressed early enough, there is a real chance that Myanmar can have urban development that is supportive of fast economic growth as well as the environment, human beings and society in general.

Another significant challenge is to convince private sector firms that protecting environment in their business models and activities, and addressing environmental, climate challenges and disaster risks are not only Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) show-case activities but also protect their investments, assets and business continuity, and help gain competitive advantage in the changing context (e.g., Asean Economic Community integration in 2015). It is always difficult to implement genuine multi-stakeholder processes between public and private sectors, as well as build synergies between different initiatives across the sectors. Similarly, convincing communities on climate change impacts is also a challenge.

The government of Myanmar has recognized the importance of environment and negative impacts of environmental degradation by initiating Environmental Conservation Law, but the newly established Environmental Conservation Department (ECD), as well as relevant government departments such as Planning and Economic Development department, Investment Commission, General Administration Department, etc. have very limited institutional capacities to implement the plans and enforce the regulations. The connection of this law with foreign direct investment (FDI) law is also important. In 2012, the government produced the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) to Climate Change. However, the action plans needs to be translated and applied on ground. There is still a significant gap regarding the NAPA application, and Myanmar is one of the most affected countries due to climate change in the Southeast Asia region.

To address the above issues, improved policy design, establishment of appropriate institutions that will ensure longevity of policies and actual implementation of projects will be imperative. Collaborative leadership within diverse multi-disciplinary communities and facilitating genuine multi-stakeholder processes would also help build bridges between different stakeholders, including public sector and private business community, and pave the way for environmental protection and conservation into decision and policy making in the newly reformed Myanmar.