YANGON (AlertNet) – In the poorest pockets of Yangon, garbage and toilet waste spill onto the streets where children play barefoot. Small stilt houses sit over slimy, dark green water full of rubbish. There’s no garbage disposal system, no drainage.
Welcome to Dawbon, a densely populated area in Myanmar’s main city, where the lack of clean water and sanitation make diseases like tuberculosis rife.
Houses are tiny, flimsy and prone to flooding. Many residents have been living like this for 20 years.
But as Myanmar opens up after decades of iron-fisted military rule, experts say most donors are focusing their attentions almost exclusively on alleviating rural poverty.
And they warn there could be an explosion of slums as industrial estates spring up with little planning or provision for workers.
Almost all economic growth in the region is happening in urban areas, said Michael Slingsby, a poverty adviser with UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency on human settlement.
As factories go up and jobs are created, people migrate from rural to urban areas and send remittances home, which help develop rural areas too, he added.
“We need economically healthy cities to get economically healthy villages,” Slingsby said.
“Industrial estates are being developed without any planning on where workers will live … if we do not do anything in five years time we would have slums.”
UN-Habitat has so far identified at least 65 poor urban areas in Yangon like Dawbon, and it hasn’t yet covered the whole town.
In the absence of clear data, it guesstimates about 40 percent of Yangon’s population is very poor and vulnerable to shocks, such as health scares, commodity-price rises or floods.
In Myanmar as a whole a third of the population of about 60 million live below the poverty line.
Ni Ni*, a single mother of one, sits in a one-room, corrugated iron-and-bamboo house.
Measuring 12 feet by 12, it’s barely big enough for one adult, yet five people – two adults and three children – call it home. They eat, sleep and cook in the same space, paying 25,000 kyats ($30) a month.
A toilet and a shower area shared between eight such houses are at the back.
“My house is even worse and smaller than this,” Ni Ni smiled apologetically. “That’s why I’ve brought you to my foster mother’s house.”
Ni Ni is a street vendor and makes about 3,000 kyats (less than $4) a day. But the woman who usually lends her 20,000 kyats ($24) as capital every morning – to pay back in the evenings – has gone back to her village so Ni Ni hasn’t had an income for four days.
Her husband left after a row two months ago. He broke all the crockery before he left but she has not been able to replace it.
But what Ni Ni is really worried about is the imminent rainy season.
“We haven’t got a proper roof yet,” she said.
The neighbours also all rent tiny rooms or houses, so as to be close to their jobs and the economic possibilities offered by Yangon.
They work as street vendors, construction workers, factory workers and trishaw drivers - low-skilled jobs that make them extremely vulnerable. Many rely on moneylenders who charge 20 percent interest.
The only thing that stands out as new and shiny in this neighbourhood is a concrete road. Replacing a mud track, it was built just before the general elections in 2010 by the military-backed party which later won the ballot.
A stone tablet at the top of the road reminds people of this gesture, even though critics say the funds for the road very likely came from the government’s coffers.
Since then, there have been no more improvements.
There is still time to retrofit many of these areas with public services, but most donors do not see urban poverty as a priority issue, said Slingsby.
Urban poverty is not a new phenomenon in Myanmar. A 2001 government paper said poverty levels in metropolitan areas such as Yangon division, Mandalay division and Bago division were close to the country’s average.
“The typical developing country picture of the metropolitan area having relatively high income at the cost of neglected regions on the periphery does not obtain in Myanmar,” it said.
The opening of the Urban Research and Development Institute – a joint initiative of Myanmar’s Ministry of Construction and UN-Habitat which will carry out training and research in urban planning and management – is a very positive step, Slingsby said.
But he added that international organisations needed to do more to tackle urban poverty and its associated risks such as environmental damage.
Srinivasa Popuri, UN-Habitat’s country manager in Myanmar, said they were trying to tell donors to work on preventing and preparing for risks and addressing the root causes of poverty, rather than "wait for a flood to come and then try to give them some biscuits and shelters".
One of the ways UN-Habitat is hoping to help is by encouraging community savings groups which would reduce the need for moneylenders and be more sustainable for communities than relying on outside help.
UN-Habitat recently took Ni Ni and her foster mother to another satellite town where a local non-governmental organisation has helped poor women buy their houses and land two years after they formed a savings group.
UN-Habitat hopes Ni Ni will start a group in Dawbon too.
“It was so encouraging to hear (the women) speak of their experience,” Ni Ni told her neighbours. “You should’ve seen their houses. They’re big and don’t leak.”
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee