Fresh from her emphatic election victory Aung San Suu Kyi gathered her victorious MPs in Yangon this week. She talked about the hard work ahead as they forge a ‘national reconciliation’. She emphasised the importance of their good behaviour.
And she sent them back to their constituencies to pick up litter.
One of the less attractive things about Myanamar is the readiness of many of the locals to throw whatever waste they have over the side of a boat, out of the bus or train window, onto a wind-blown pile at the edge of their village, even straight off the side of their hilltop monastery into the otherwise pristine Andaman Sea.
Of course there are many people who see this for the problem that it is and quietly despair, but more widely it seems there is a belief that once it’s out of your hand it’s not your problem.
It seems there is little understanding of, or need to understand, what might happen to it next, what impact it might have further down the line, further down the river.
When you (I mean me) question or challenge this behaviour you probably won’t cause offence or anger as you might challenging a litter-lout elsewhere. Your protests will more likely be met with incomprehension. Even with laughter.
Aside from a general and widespread lack of environmental awareness or consideration, I imagine this to be a hangover from the time, not so long ago, when if you bought food or a drink on the street or on your travels it was given to you wrapped in a banana leaf, a cheap clay pot or at worst poor quality newspaper, materials that would quickly rot or burn. Materials that would not survive a single rainy season. That would soon ‘return to the earth’. That could do little long-term harm however disposed of.
These days litter, mainly plastic litter, is a big problem. It’s not everywhere, don’t get that impression but it’s never far away. Some places are piled high with it, some literally awash with it. Some people live amongst it, some kids play in it. It hangs like prayer flags from some fences and plants. Some rivers, streams and storm drains are clogged with it, waiting only for the rains to to wash it into a bigger river and eventually out into the sea.
It’s not the same everywhere. Dawei in the south is relatively wealthy, many of its inhabitants work in Thailand, and it’s noticeably cleaner for it. But elsewhere, apart from signs like the one below that proclaims the ambition of creating a cleaner city (It says .. This is your town. Keep it Clean and Beautiful. It’s everyone’s responsibility.) it hasn’t seemed anyone is doing much about it. Either to clean it up or to change attitudes. At least not with much success.
In central Yangon it was always, and still is, the accepted practice to drop your litter into the gutter at the roadside. There were no bins. Every night a large number of – mainly – women attempt to sweep the streets completely clear of each day’s detritus, filling caged trollies that they push to collection points from where trucks take the waste to landfills at Dawei Chaung in North Dagon or Htein Bin in Hlaing Tharyar.
The city begins each new morning almost spotless.
But it’s getting harder. A booming economy means more waste, especially food waste, on the streets and the flood of ‘new’ cars that are now parked along every street at night make clearing the litter more difficult.
There is plenty left for the rats, there have always been plenty of rats. There is no Burmese word to distinguish rats from mice – just ‘big ones’ and ‘small ones’. It’s mostly big ones.
Tourists who take a spin around the city on the circular train (it’s a ‘must-do’ these days*) which trundles along away from the main roads that get swept, behind buildings, over black-water gullies and streams often say they have never seen so much rubbish.
Thirty minutes out of town at Yuzana Garden City the narrow spaces behind and between the row upon row of five storey low-rent apartment buildings look like landfill sites. Most people open their back door and drop today’s rubbish onto the filthy pile below. All sorts of vegetable, mineral and plastic rubbish hangs from the rusting cut-away fire escapes where it gets caught on the way down.
According to Irrawaddy magazine, none of the 1,500 tons of garbage picked up daily by the Yangon City authorities is currently recycled. This does not quite reflect the true picture because as in so many poorer countries the waste is pre-cycled by people, very often kids, who go through the bins and piles of waste looking for, and removing at source, anything of any value; plastic, cans, glass etc.
But there are glimmers of hope.
With $8.2 million in Japanese aid, the municipality will open a $16 million recycling plant by 2017, but it will only be able to recycle 60 tons of rubbish a day, less than 5 percent of the waste stream. Creating energy from waste is also part of the plan.
In the last six months the city has invested in a fleet of Indian compactor bin lorries and large plastic wheeled bins. (Just like the ones at home but bright orange). There’s a new professionalism and sense of organisation about the street cleaning teams.
More than anything it’s the attitude of so many local people that has to change.
“People awareness is still weak, they need to know the right way to discard their rubbish”, says Khin Hlaing of the Yangon City Development Corporation.
If anyone can lead them towards the right way perhaps, just perhaps, Aung San Suu Kyi can.
She told her MPs that they should be setting an example to their constituents and that the party would set up garbage collection services, starting in her own Kawhmu constituency. She told them all to get involved with the new services and to ensure their townships are clean and that services work effectively.
“If an MP cannot keep their constituency clean, no-one can.”
* I wouldn’t say don’t take the circular train at all, just don’t go all the way around. It’s a three hour trip, half of it spent trundling through industrialised countryside to the north of the city. If you’ve only a limited time in Yangon why take up a whole half-day on this when you can combine it with something else?
My top tip would be to take the circular train (it’s called the Myo-Pa Yeta in Burmese) westbound / clockwise for a while late in the morning. Maybe as far as Insein (where the prison is). Get off there, have look around. Eat lunch. Get back on the train going the other way (it’s only 300 Kyat each time). Get off again in Hledan or Myinigone. Have a look around. Have a cold drink. Then walk to Shwedagon Pagoda for late afternoon and sunset, coming at it from the north west where you can see the nice park (and from the wrong side of a fence the General Aung San memorial) that most tourists miss.
Alternatively you could skip most of the traffic jam and use the circular train to get to Aung Mingalar bus station or the airport by taking the train to Mingalardon for the airport or Kyauk Yae Twin for the bus station. And a a much shorter, much cheaper taxi from there.