Greetings from Dawei!, Taylor Martin (Graduate Student)

My name is Taylor Martin and I am a graduate student from the University of Ottawa studying International Development and Sustainability. I’ve been doing research in Southeast Asia for the past five months seeking to bridge my understanding of urban vulnerability and resilience to climate change with applied research in the city of Dawei.
For most, Dawei remains as unfamiliar as other secondary cities in Southeast Asia remaining in the shadow of the larger metropolises of Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh. Indeed, some consider Dawei a sleepy backwater town in Southern Myanmar, however these people must not be following the news or at least the Bangkok Post.

Dawei’s tired reputation is in a state of transformation due to its strategic location on the Andaman Sea, making the city the last missing link on the southern economic corridor and key to achieving regional integration in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS).

Source: http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/a-special-zone-on-myanmars-border

The potential for Dawei to become the next major gateway to Southeast Asia has attracted a flurry of attention from international players including the likes of the Ital-Thai Development Corporation, the Asian Development Bank and the governments of Myanmar, Thailand, and more recently, Japan. It is the potential for Dawei to link global production networks and transport corridors beyond and throughout the GMS that has led the aforementioned players to make plans and sign agreements to develop a 250 square kilometre special economic zone and deep sea port just northwest of Dawei. To get an idea, once it is completed, the Dawei SEZ will be the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

It is important to situate this story of regional integration and the coming of industry around the Dawei SEZ as part of a process of urbanization. It is fascinating to observe the dynamics and drivers of urbanization on the ground in Dawei. Even though the development of the SEZ is still in its early stages, one can already see how it is changing Dawei from a sleepy nowhere town to a bustling frontier municipality. In the past three years alone, hotels and three-storey buildings have begun to tower over the downtown scene, housing and land prices have experienced unseen growth, and perhaps most outstanding is the unceremonious new shopping complex at the north end of town.
As part of my research here, I am interested in understanding not only the drivers of urbanization, but also the implications for vulnerability. This is done in part by applying a systems approach to understand the vulnerability of urban systems and populations to shocks and stresses, both related to climate and non-climatic factors. Here, attention is placed on gaining a birds eye view of urban systems- such as drinking water, waste management, electricity and drainage- and how people access these systems. I am of the opinion that it is important to further this understanding of the vulnerability of urban populations and systems with a more people-centred approach that gives voice to the concerns and priorities of urban populations, particularly those who are more sensitive to stress and shocks, such as the urban poor, marginalized communities and female-headed households. By combining a systems and people-centred approach in this research, I aim to understand how vulnerable populations frame sources of vulnerability in their lives, and how access to urban systems and services may exacerbate their vulnerability to shocks and stresses.

From a systems perspective, the process of urbanization is a key source of vulnerability. As more people move to cities, increasing pressure is placed on the city’s administrative capacity to provide urban services and infrastructure to its growing population. Importantly, the ecological systems that provide the basis for the functioning and provision of urban services are likewise constrained by mounting pressure from a growing urban population. This understanding of urban systems and their functionality in terms of service provisioning can be augmented by an appreciation of how people and institutions manage or mismanage these systems and the fundamental ecological processes that support them.

In the context of Dawei, the capacity for local institutions to manage and provide for the needs of the population is apparently limited, largely due to governance issues, lack of financial resources, and the absence of an integrated planning process. Take for example Dawei’s drinking water supply. Although this is the responsibility of the municipal government, the majority of households rely on underground wells for drinking water. Based on purely qualitative data- as water quality testing is absent in a city like Dawei, let alone Myanmar- groundwater quality varies from well to well, which I assume coincides with factors such as protected and unprotected, shallow or deep, and importantly, the location within the city. I say the latter because Dawei is located at the head of the Dawei river estuary making groundwater useless in riverbank areas due to saltwater intrusion.

Yay O and Yay Chang Sin (Water Pot and Water Pot Shelf) are widely found throughout Myanmar. Yay O is a sign of kindness in Myanmar as water is openly shared by anyone who wishes to drink from it. Photograph by Taylor Martin

An interesting yet troubling finding is the phenomenon of water privatization in Dawei, though I suppose this is unsurprising given the gap between the provisioning capacity of the municipal government and the demand for drinking water. Seeing as riverbank areas have no access to underground water, they are reliant on small private companies that sell water to marketable areas in the city. I say marketable because the interests of private companies are commercial and so only areas of the city that represent a profitable market are serviced. The rest are left to fend for themselves- especially those in peri-urban areas. This is not to overlook the plight of those communities that are serviced by private companies. On the contrary, this relationship is highly precarious and sensitive to shocks and stresses, as their access to water is for the most part dependent on the private sector.

Importantly, it is also critical to understand the stresses that are placed on the ecological systems that support the functioning of urban systems. This is also best understood through the example of water. In the context of Dawei, there are a number of stresses that are both climate-induced and man-made, which have implications for sustainable water management within and surrounding Dawei. For one, Dawei experiences water shortages in late summer, whereby underground water levels are lower and a number of wells in and around the city run dry. Second, deforestation surrounding Dawei presents a major source of stress for water and flood management. Looking forward, forest loss will likely worsen as industrial development and greater transport connectivity open up new areas for agricultural expansion and commercial opportunities. Third, the mining of tin and tungsten around Dawei has led to the pollution of rivers and streams in the nearby area, posing another threat to the underground water supply. These existing stresses related to water shortages, deforestation and water pollution are all sources of vulnerability in and of themselves are exacerbated by ongoing and evolving stresses related to climate change, urbanization and industrial development.

Climate change is already noticeable to a number of respondents in Dawei. Summers are getting hotter and drier and rainfall is becoming less predictable in the monsoon season. These changes will likely exacerbate existing stresses of water shortages in the dry season and seasonal flooding in the wet season. Further, sea level rise will likely cause salinity levels to increase in riverbank areas. Urbanization in terms of concentrated population growth and a growing economy will place additional pressure on the city’s underground water supply. Moreover, industrial development from the Dawei SEZ will require upwards of 300,000 metres cubed of water per day, which will ultimately change the balance between supply and demand for water in the region (Min and Kudo, 2012). Taken together, climate change, urbanization and industrial development are stresses that will need to be considered as a whole in the management of Dawei’s regional and municipal water supply.

Drinking water is widely accessed through underground wells in Dawei. Photograph by Taylor Martin

By examining urban systems and the socio-ecological systems that support them, we can understand existing sources of vulnerability for the city’s water supply and how current and evolving stresses and shocks may exacerbate these sensitivities. This adds an additional layer to thinking about the drivers and implications of urban vulnerability. To heighten this birds eye view of systems level vulnerability, my research seeks to understand how vulnerable populations view vulnerability in their lives. This is where I am now in my research as I engage so-called vulnerable populations in conversations about what matters most to them and how access to urban services adds to their daily struggle. What I find so far is that issues stemming from urban systems such as water access and flooding, although a definite seasonal challenge, do not compare to the insecurity that lack of income and land ownership creates in their lives. By speaking to people and asking questions that seek to understand their challenges and priorities, we can better understand sources of vulnerability on their terms. This lets us then move beyond thinking only of vulnerability and move forward by asking the critical questions of resilience for whom and resilience through what. 

Taylor Martin is a UCRSEA student researcher and a Master’s candidate at the University of Ottawa studying International Development and Sustainability. Her current research surrounds urban vulnerability and resilience in Southeast Asia.

Click here to access Taylor’s article as a PDF.

Work Cited
Min, Aung and Toshiro Kudo (2012). “Newly Emerging Industrial Development Nodes in Myanmar: Ports, Roads, Industrial Zones along Economic Corridors” in Emerging Economic Corridors in the Mekong Region, edited by Masami Ishida, BRC Research Report No.8, Bangkok Research Centre, IDE-JETRO, Thailand.