Water reveals two sides of Myanmar’s economic boom

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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.

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

But, at around 300 kyats (25-30 US cents) a liter, it remains too pricey for the majority of people in a country where the average annual per capita income of $1,105 remains one of the lowest in Asia.

Decades of weak investment under junta 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 nine percent have access to tap or piped water.

Poor infrastructure combined with the high prices of bottled water mean 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 tells Agence France-Presse under a baking hot sky outside the temple in downtown Yangon. “And when I’m thirsty I take a drink.”

On the other side of Myanmar’s consumer boom, adverts 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 2015.

Purity matters
Myanmar’s bottled water market is, as yet, far from saturated.

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

Nestle is among the international companies that have circled the market for water, although the Swiss food and drink 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,” Sai Sam Htun, CEO of Lo Hein Company, which owns the Alpine brand, told Agence France-Presse.

For the country’s newly minted middle class, such bottlers offer a sense of security in what had been, until recently, a notoriously unreliable cottage industry.

“Previously, there were a lot of small players, they did not care about water treatment,” 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.

AFP

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