Anyone who has flown a window seat into Yangon International Airport around sunrise or sunset has perhaps been treated with the mesmerizing sight of the sunlight reflecting off the myriad waterways and rice paddies surrounding the city transferring like electricity through a massive natural circuit. Myanmar is fortunate to have full control over most of its water resources; more than 19,000 m2 per capita each year, which is about 9 times the available levels in China, 16 times India, 5 times Vietnam and 16 times Bangladesh. My experiences detailed in this article focus on the continuing challenges of providing adequate water and sanitation resources to the country’s 53 million people. Directly related to Soap Cycling’s work in Myanmar, a 2018 UNICEF report suggests that, “50 per cent of schools significantly lack WASH services and the systems to effectively track them. Inadequate facilities in schools contribute to lower attendance and achievement. The lack of basic WASH facilities hampers Myanmar’s effort to reduce child and maternal mortality and illness; it also impedes efforts to reduce stunting which affects 32 per cent of children in rural areas and 20 per cent in urban centres.”  Apart from the lost productivity and potential resulting from the dangers of inadequate sanitation, Myanmar suffers from an infant mortality rate of 45 per 1,000 births and under-5 mortality rate of 55 per 1,000 births, 30% higher than the global average. It is a country blessed with abundant natural resources, a young population, and a prime location in fast-growing Southeast Asia. Its next generation, if it can overcome the above challenges could take the next step to becoming the next Asian Tiger.
While Myanmar has plenty of water and is historically noted for its copious rice production and large number of navigable rivers, the most intractable challenges revolve around the timing and quality of this resource in various parts of the country. With a tropical monsoon climate, the country is inundated with 73% of its annual supply in the just four months (June-Sept). The other major factor is acute poverty. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world measured by per capita GDP ($1,300 USD or $6,227 USD PPP) which would place it 208th of 227 markets surveyed. Citizens are often faced with dilemmas of whether to spend precious funds on sanitation resources or putting food on the table. With 1,400 miles of coastland and the majority of the population situated in areas prone to extreme weather events, Myanmar is also recognized as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. The lack of infrastructure and capacity currently available provides an impetus to not only provide better sanitation and hygiene resources to its people, but also make them more resilient and sustainable in the long term.
In response to Cyclone Nargis in 2010, regarded as the worst natural disaster to ever hit the country, international NGOs poured into a rapidly-changing country that was reorienting toward the West and creating new opportunities for political participation away from the traditional army-led power structure. The need for increased access of adequate sanitation and hygiene in the aftermath of the cyclone was tremendous and resources were quickly mobilized. Unfortunately, many of the investments made at that time were focused purely on short-term “hardware” solutions (latrines, water taps, storage tanks) that sought to expand coverage to as many people as quickly as possible, as opposed to providing the “software” to ensure the long-term sustainability of such facilities. The “software” side of community WASH investment includes consultation with local communities to understand any specific localized challenges, creating demand for WASH services through education of proper hygiene practices, and developing the necessary skills, resources, and commitment from communities and government officials to keep “hardware” investments operating after the NGOs have moved on to other projects.
Soap Cycling Myanmar
Soap Cycling, a Hong Kong founded student charity established in 2012 and now operating in Shenzhen and Singapore, has discovered an unique niche to address the “software” side of this WASH problem in developing Asia. Operating purely as a middleman, they collect discarded soap from hotels across the region, reprocess it with the help of volunteers, and then donate the finished product to charities administering WASH programs across 12 countries. Starting in 2018, Soap Cycling entered Myanmar in a first attempt to link our students in Hong Kong with a real-life experiential learning opportunity. Connecting with Jone in Yangon, I became familiar with the operations and mission of Soap Cycling’s Myanmar (SCMM) expansion project. Employed since March 2018 and based in Yangon, Jone coordinates all collections and distributions within the country. After managing the initial experiential learning project for University of Hong Kong interns during the summer, Jone has kept operations going since then by networking with local hotels, recruiting volunteers, and making connections with potential downstream distribution beneficiaries. The challenges faced by SCMM to scale up operations include the relative underdevelopment of the local hospitality sector, lack of a critical mass of corporate partnerrs to recruit volunteers and donations, and difficulties with regulations for incorporation, opening a bank account, and obtaining charitable status. Even facing these hurdles, jone remains positive on the future trajectory of SCMM, seeing potential departures from the Hong Kong model by making deeper connections with local communities to study the efficacy of soap donations over time and developing local soap recipes for sale in more developed markets such as Hong Kong or Singapore.
Yellow Generation Wave
Though Jone’s network, we arranged a visit to a local monastic school near the industrial center of Pathien, a dusty 5 hour bus drive to the northeast of Yangon. While the countryside in between seemed mostly bucolic, with grazing cows and thatch huts, Pathien emerged as a bustling town with 8 garment factories employing 20,000 workers that represents Myanmar’s developing future as a low-wage manufacturing hub. According to Jone, a new start would make $1,200 USD a year working 6 days a week. To put that in perspective, the amount of soap I brought over from Hong Kong (650 bars) would cost $300 kyat per bar if purchased locally, which would come to a value of $195 USD. Apart from the dollar value of the donated soap, the quality of the bars (donated from Hong Kong’s luxury hotels) is of a much higher grade and better for the skin than the general purpose soap generally used by rural communities which also does double duty for laundry and household cleaning.
Pathein is famous historically in Myanmar for its rice production, and the area remains mostly dominated by farms and rice mills. The school we visited was located 15 minutes drive outside the city in a rural area. Operated by Yellow Generation Wave (YGW), an offshoot of a national Buddhist monastic order, the compound housed and educated 150 children ranging from < 1 to 18 years old. The children were all either orphans or sent to the school by under-privileged families who are unable to afford the cost of education. Myanmar’s primary/secondary school system consists of private schools for the urban elite, government schools for rural areas, and monastic schools for those who either can’t afford tuition or live in particularly inaccessible areas. Government schools, while nominally free, do incur costs for boarding and food that many families simply can not manage. YGW operates over 300 such schools all over the country, sustaining their operations with in-kind and monetary donations from the community.
After a brief chat with the head monk, the older children were assembled before us for a brief lecture by Jone on proper handwashing tips. With final exams approaching, she admonished the youngsters to study hard and stay healthy so they can achieve their academic goals. Apart from talking about hygiene, Jone also ran through Soap Cycling’s mission and history as well as quizzed them a bit on their knowledge of recycling as a concept. After handing out hemp bags with 1-2 reprocessed soap bars brought from Hong Kong for each of the students, we took a brief tour of the facilities with two Grade 9 female students. The living quarters are divided into 3 areas: boys, girls, and toddlers/babies. The canteen and classrooms are open to the weather, which makes learning quite difficult during the rainy season. The bathroom facilities are supplied with water from an underground well. There is no chemical treatment of the water. It is left to sit in a large cistern until turbidity decreases and clean water can be siphoned off. The shower facilities consisted of a large rectangular cistern with a trough around the outside. To shower or wash your hands, simply fill up a bowl from the trough use a bar of soap to produce lather, and rinse yourself off (I tried it myself). All wastewater from showers and toilets runs into open ditches snaking throughout the campus, which again must produce a somewhat dangerous situation during sustained periods of rain.
With my first trip to Myanmar under my belt, can’t wait to come back to check on Jone’s progress and explore the fascinating culture and people that populate this country on the move. I personally enjoyed seeing so many cyclists on the road (a rarity in most developing Asian countries) and really loved the variety of delicious foods available. Discovering Burmese tea is quite a delight; a bit stronger and sweeter than Hong Kong 奶茶, but a little milder than spicy Indian chai. With continued investment in local WASH programs, there’s certainly a future in view where Myanmar’s children can study and develop disease free.