World Habitat Day


  • By Bijay Karmacharya

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Urbanization is a global human phenomenon. We are in a new stage of human history where more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. In the early twentieth century, only 20 percent of the global population or only nine hundred million people lived in cities; today more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and predictions for the next 30 years suggest that it will rise to 70 percent. The 3.5 billion people today living in the urban areas will increase to 7 billion by 2050.
Most of the rapid urbanization is taking place in developing nations. In Myanmar, 29 percent of its population lives in urban areas. Yangon city houses 5.2 million followed by 2.1 in Mandalay city and 400,000 in Nay Pyi Taw. Myanmar is at an early stage of urbanization compared to its South East Asian neighbors. As such Myanmar is a late comer in the process of urbanization and can learn from the experiences of other countries.
Urbanization in Myanmar is bound to happen with exponential growth in urban population in the years ahead. The incessant flow of migrants from rural to urban areas is driven by their very human aspirations for better living conditions and working opportunities. Urbanization is unstoppable and irreversible. It is a proven fact that with or without rural development, urbanization continues. Therefore, what is important is to plan for and manage this inevitable urbanization process. This does not mean giving low priority to rural development and promoting speedy urbanization. With better focus on rural development and regional and territorial planning countries can slow down the rate of migration to urban centers. However, peoples’ aspiration for better lives and better opportunity in cities will continue to draw them out of the villages.
The pace of urbanization usually supersedes the pace of increase in urban basic infrastructures and services resulting in the strain on services of housing, water supply, electricity, transportation, solid waste management, etc. Cities usually are unable to cope with urban population growth. This particularly holds true in developing nations such as Myanmar. In many developing countries around the world one could find disproportionate population concentration in their capital cities and some major cities. Some capital cities grow much beyond their carrying capacities resulting in lack of basic urban services, traffic congestion, pollution and environmental degradation, low growth and urban crimes, thereby turning cities into unpleasant place to live. When a city is already overcrowded and its population grows much beyond its carrying capacity, there is very little one can do about remedying the problems in the city. Therefore, planning for a projected population growth is the only option to maintain livability of a city with urban amenities, opportunities and possibilities of economic growth and prosperity for people.
However, it is very much possible to anticipate, plan and design and manage urbanization. This can be through planned city expansion as well as urban infills ahead of a population influx. The advantages of well thought urbanization are enormous, as they can contribute to the solutions to many of the problems the world’s cities are facing today, such as unemployment, poverty, pollution, congestions and social exclusion. Cities, if planned and managed well, are engines of national economic growth, prosperity and environmental sustainability. This is not surprising given that 55 percent of the global population living in urban areas contribute more than 70 percent of world GDP.
The rate of urbanization and economic growth of a nation goes hand in hand. With economic growth countries have seen increased urbanization and vice versa.
With more than half of the world population living in cities and predictable rapid urbanization, the challenges of the sustainable development of the world will also shift to the urban spaces. It is for this reason that the former United Nations Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki Moon said, “the battle for sustainable development of the world will be lost or won in cities”.
Myanmar has seen economic growth of 7.3 percent in 2012 and 8.4, 8.9, 7.3 and 6.5 percent in the year 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively, since the country initiated economic reform. Therefore, the urbanization rate in Myanmar is bound to increase.
By now, the power of well-planned urbanization is well understood in relation to attainment of global sustainable development goals. There are pre-requisites for a good urbanization to come about. They are: first, adequate laws, rules and regulations; second, better urban design; and third, financing which sustains the function of the cities and funds for its infrastructure plans.
With 70 percent of the world becoming urban by the mid-century, the window of opportunity for the world to fix its urbanization issue is only this 21st century, by which time most of humankind will have lived in urban space.
There is a paradigm shift in urban planning and design in this century, building on lessons learned from the mistakes of the 20th century.
The 21st Century urban development model is guided by 5 key principles:
• Addressing challenges of urban sprawl by compact city design with optimum density;
• Allocating of enough space for streets, open public space and well-connected grids;
• Planning mixed land use as opposed to zoning;
• Connecting through mass rapid transport to combat traffic congestion;
• Integrating of all segments of society through mixed urban development as opposed to social segregation.
The New Urban agenda of the world puts housing at the center of good urbanization. Indeed, where we live defines our ability to participate in the fabric of our cities. Formation of slums is usually a result of inadequate affordable housing at the places where the poor segment of the people needs it.
It is estimated that 82 percent of Myanmar’s total housing stock is made up of ecosystem-based materials (bamboo, wood, thatch, etc.) and current backlog of housing units in Myanmar is estimated at 1.9 million units.
Although one could see massive real estate construction ongoing in the city of Yangon, these are mainly targeted at upper middle class and middle-class people, leaving behind the poorest segments of people who are in need of adequate housing at the places where they need it. Yangon city has seen a threefold increase of slum dwellers in the last 8 years. In the absence of housing for the poorest, there is a danger of slum settlements multiplying. Migration data indicate that approximately 100,000 affordable housing units are required in Yangon to accommodate migrant from other states and regions.
Countries must put adequate investment to ensure housing at the center of good urbanization and improve the living conditions of the urban poor.
UN-Habitat in Myanmar is assisting the Government of Myanmar in several normative areas of work including National Urban Policy, National Housing Policy, Myanmar Climate Change Policy, Myanmar National Building Codes as well as in finding workable solutions to the slum issues in Yangon city.
An increasing urban population also brings the problem of cities’ solid waste management. This year’s WHD theme is Municipal Solid Waste Management. Cities often spend a large proportion of their budget on Municipal Solid Waste Management. Therefore, SWM is at the top of the agenda for cities, their inhabitants and city development committees.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 on “Sustainable Production and Consumption” targets among other things, environmentally sound management of all waste through prevention, reduction, recycling, reuse and the reduction of food waste.
Yangon city produces about 2500 tons of waste every day (TPD), at the rate of 0.41 kg per person. The dumpsites of most big cities face challenges in terms of environmental sanitation, pollution and operations and management of the land fill sites. Htein Bin waste disposal is the largest dumpsite of Yangon waste. On 21 April 2018, a fire outbreak began at the site and spread quickly consuming more than half of the dump. Eight hundred personnel from the Myanmar Fire Services Department (MFSD), YCDC and Yangon Military Command were deployed to fight the fire, which was finally brought under control with great effort.
Smoke from the nearly a month-long fire resulted in a noticeable deterioration in air quality in the areas near the landfill. Scores of people were hospitalized with respiratory problems.
UN-Habitat promotes an “Integrated Solid Waste Management Framework” which envisages: good waste collection services; including environmental protection through proper sorting, reuse, recycle, composting, treatment, controlled disposal of residual waste.
Currently, UN-Habitat Myanmar is planning on offering assistance to Yangon City Development Committee to help manage solid waste, by applying the well-known Fukuoka method to reduce future fire hazard and manage the landfill site in a better way within the framework of the Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan of the city.
UN-Habitat has been assisting the Government and people of Myanmar in its normative and thematic areas of i) Participatory Urban Planning and Management; ii) Improving human settlements and rebuilding communities; iii) Environment, Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change; iv) Pro-poor housing, land administration and Management.
UN-Habitat’s hall mark community driven development projects through “peoples process” have helped 1.2 million people by assisting communities in improving their water supply and sanitation, community infrastructures, and in post disaster reconstruction of housing and human settlements.

Bijay Karmacharya is the Country Programme Manager of UN-Habitat, Myanmar.

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