On 24 May 2016, a High-Level Roundtable on Water Security and the Sustainable Development Goals was convened in Yangon, Myanmar. The meeting was organised by Stockholm-based facilitator Global Water Partnership (GWP), an international network involved in the promotion of integrated approaches to water resources management. The meeting identified the challenges posed by water insecurity in Myanmar, as well as addressing the link between water security and five key Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – SDG Five on Gender, SDG Six on Water and Sanitation, SDG 11 on Cities, SDG 13 on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction, and SDG 17 on Partnerships.
Myanmar is naturally endowed with plentiful water sources, with 1,168 km³ per year of total renewable water resources. Despite this abundance, regional and seasonal variation is so great that the country suffers from a range of climate-related water insecurities, including flooding, droughts, and cyclones. Decades of mismanagement and weak investment under military rule has led to poor water access, with one-third of the population continuing to drink from unimproved water sources.
The roundtable emphasised the interconnectedness of water and other challenges in sustainability, such as urbanisation, through the discussion of five key SDGs and how they relate to water security. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development established 17 Sustainable Development Goals agreed on at the UN General Assembly in September 2015. SDG Six aims to ensure Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) for all as well as the promotion of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). WASH projects are currently being carried out across Myanmar by both government and non-governmental agencies in a bid to improve the health of Myanmar’s people and work towards achieving SDG Six. Myanmar is yet to develop a comprehensive plan for IWRM, however it has taken steps toward the goal with initiatives such as the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) Integrated River Basin Management Project (2015-17), an initiative funded by a US$1 million ($1.39 million) loan from the World Bank. The project aims to improve the ability of the Myanmar Government to sustainably manage the Ayeyarwady River. The project includes plans to modernise Myanmar’s hydro-meteorological observation and warning systems to improve Disaster Risk Reduction in line with SDG 13, helping to mitigate the effects of climate-related events on vulnerable communities along the Ayeyarwady. This will work towards achieving part of the Fifth SDG on gender equality, as women in Myanmar are disproportionately affected by disasters. The Fifth SDG on gender equality can be further realised through water management as women in Myanmar have a tradition of water stewardship and can use this tradition to empower themselves and act as key stakeholders in ensuring sustainable management of water resources at the grassroots level.
The 11th SDG, to make cities safe and sustainable, cannot be achieved without dedicated water management. Given the high level of urban growth predicted for Myanmar, water resources must be properly managed to ensure access to improved water sources for those living in cities. Cities in Myanmar have high poverty and low health indicators, demonstrating the urgent need to improve basic services. In the city of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, only a small percentage of the population receives treated water, and for only part of the day. Myanmar must improve water system capacity, quality, and coverage in its cities in order to cope with urbanisation and meet SDG 11. Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein, who attended the roundtable, is set to sign off on a new water system to improve Yangon’s ancient and inadequate sewerage system.
SDG 17, the final goal, is to revitalise global partnership and regional cooperation for sustainable development. The roundtable recognised the importance of this goal to water security by virtue of its very existence as a multilateral forum. Myanmar is set to benefit from the involvement of the GWP, a network that has broad knowledge and experience from its collaboration with governments and regional bodies in Asia and beyond. Various countries sent officials to the roundtable, including delegates from Japan, Australia, and the Netherlands, who shared their countries’ experiences with water management.
The outcomes of the roundtable will be presented to the High Level Panel on Water to be held sometime in June 2016. Myanmar representatives who attended the roundtable have admitted that no master plan on water security was developed. While the roundtable is likely to have achieved limited outcomes, it remains a positive step for the Government of Myanmar, who was sworn in just two months ago. The roundtable signalled the new democracy’s dedication to water reform and management. The act itself of hosting the meeting and engaging with development partners on water management indicates the Government’s willingness to consult and engage with regional and international parties prior to developing its own policies, ensuring Myanmar adopts the correct policies on water management from the beginning.