Quenching a great thirst in Yangon

Workers loading bottles of water onto a truck at a distribution centre in Yangon. Bottled water is among the plethora of consumer industries set to take off as the country emerges from decades of isolated junta rule.
Workers loading bottles of water onto a truck at a distribution centre in Yangon. Bottled water is among the plethora of consumer industries set to take off as the country emerges from decades of isolated junta rule.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

YANGON - Every morning on his way to work in Yangon, builder Zaw Min Tun takes a swig of water at a Buddhist temple, a vital place to quench a thirst for the many ordinary citizens left behind by Myanmar's economic boom.

Bottled water is among the plethora of consumer industries set to take off as the country emerges from decades of isolated military rule, putting more money in the pockets of the country's rich and a growing middle class.

But, at around 300 kyats (S$0.35) a litre, it remains too costly for the majority of people in a country where the average annual per capita income of US$1,105 (S$1,490) remains one of the lowest in Asia.

Decades of weak investment under military rule means the vast majority of people - eight in 10 - are forced to drink from unsafe supplies such as wells, boreholes, springs and streams while only 9 per cent have access to tap or piped water.

Poor infrastructure combined with the high prices of bottled water means many locals like Zaw Min Tun rely on the terracotta jars of water left by kindly strangers at the many Buddhist temples across the country.

"This is where I have to wait for the bus," he said outside the temple in downtown Yangon. "And when I'm thirsty, I take a drink."

On the other side of Myanmar's consumer boom, advertisements for purified water cover billboards and the sides of delivery trucks in Yangon and other cities, pushing aspirational and wholesome messages.

"With Alpine, live longer and healthier," says the slogan of market leader Alpine, a local company which produced 200 million bottles in Myanmar last year and projects to churn out 300 million by the end of this year.

In 2013, consumption of bottled water per head stood at just 0.1 litres, according to a 2014 report by Euromonitor International, compared with 21 litres in the Asia-Pacific as a whole.

Nestle is among the international companies that have circled the market for water, although the Swiss giant has shied away from major investment so far. "This business has a great future. As people get richer, the middle class has more expectation," Mr Sai Sam Htun, CEO of Lo Hein Company, which owns the Alpine brand, said.

For the new middle class, such bottlers offer security in what was, until recently, a notoriously unreliable cottage industry.

"Previously, there were a lot of small players, they did not care about water treatment," Mr Sai Sam Htun added. "They just got it from underground or from the pipe from the city water. They treated it very lightly."

Concerns over poorly purified water became such an issue that, in February, the Ministry of Health banned more than 70 brands after spot checks showed they failed basic safety tests.

On paper, Myanmar should not lack for fresh, drinkable water.

As a tropical country boasting three mighty rivers, it is annually soaked by life-giving monsoon rains, although the dry season often brings drought due to poor management.

French firm Egis has been commissioned by Yangon's authorities to come up with a plan to rehabilitate thousands of kilometres of water pipes.

Ms Marion Hasse, a project coordinator for Egis, estimates that the centre of Yangon could see safe drinking water delivered via taps within five years but, for the whole city, it could take up to two decades.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2015, with the headline 'Quenching a great thirst in Yangon'. Print Edition | Subscribe