Yangon waits for safe zones – and the big one

Experts warn that Yangon, the country’s economic capital, with over five million inhabitants, is built on soft soil from the deposition of sediment carried by the Bago and Yangon rivers to the delta where they meet.

This was brought home to the Yangon’s easy-going people when the city was jolted by a mild magnitude 4.1 earthquake that roused them from their sleep on November 12.

The quake caused 20 buildings to lean off-kilter, including eight that will need repairs as their tilt went over the maximum allowed 17 centimetres from vertical.

Residents have suddenly become very conscious of their safety in case the big one strikes. Where would they run for safety? In the narrow streets of densely populated townships such as Tarmwe, Latha, Lanmadaw, Kyauktada and Pabedan in downtown Yangon, buildings are lined up cheek by jowl, leaving residents with little space to run to if a strong quake hits.

While storms and floods can be predicted, but it is impossible to predict earthquakes, so it is important to prepare safe zones where people can take shelter when one strikes.

U Saw Htwe Zaw, general secretary of the Myanmar Earthquake Committee, said the city needs to designate less-affected zones where people can find refuge if a strong temblor hits.

“In the event of a disaster, it is difficult to guarantee everyone’s safety, so we need to designate less-affected zones,” he said.

He said such safe zones could include well-built buildings, parks and playgrounds, and other sites.

Government agencies need to inform residents and the public about the location of these designated areas so they would know which ones are closest to their residences, he added.

However, U Saw Htwe Zaw said designating safe zones in the city is still in the planning stage.

“We worry only when we face a disaster. We have to thank small earthquakes, which remind us to immediately carry out plans. Actually, our preparations should be done already,” he said. “

Although Yangon had just 2.9 million people in 1990, the number increased to 5.2 million in 2014 and is expected to rise to 7 million in 2024.

As the population gets denser, so do the buildings. Vacant areas decreased to around 40pc, according to research by Another Development.

The World Health Organization states cities should have nine square metres of green area, like parks, for each person. But Yangon has only 63 parks with a total area of 211 hectacres, or about 0.4 square metres for every person in the city, according to the government. Most parks in Yangon are downtown, and there are no parks in Latha, Lanmadaw, Tarmwe, Seikkan, Dawbon, Hlaing, Hlaing Tharyar, Shwe Pyi Thar and Dagon Seikkan townships.

“During the recent quake, my father ran outside the house. I thought no one would survive if it was a strong one,” said one woman who lives in Thaketa township. “People would be in trouble if electric cables collapse as well. We just have to run to the street. We are surrounded by high-rise buildings.”

U Saw Htwe Zaw said making sure there are adequate open spaces should be a joint effort of the government, private sector, civic groups and the residents themselves. Among Yangon’s well-known parks are Mahabandoola, Thakhin Mya, Thuwunna, Kandawgyi, and People’s Park.

Among its stadiums, which could serve as temporary shelters, are Thuwunna, Aung San, and Padonma Football Stadium.

U Win Shwe, director of Disaster Management for Yangon Region, said every district and township in the city should have a safe zone for residents.

He said that while there are no highly publicised campaigns for safe zones in the city, there are public information and education initiatives among ward administrators.

“In fact, an emergency plan needs to be drafted by each township. There are many requirements,” he said.

Yangon’s location on a river delta makes it prone to disasters such as floods and storms. Likewise, its proximity to the Sagaing fault makes is prone to earthquakes.

The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, the regional government and partner organisations released a quake preparedness and response plan for Yangon earlier this year. The plan includes recommendations to ensure preparedness, emergency response, information management and resettlement. But it remains to be seen whether the regional government has the capability to implement the plan.

Source: Myanmar Times

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