Change in Bago, Myanmar: A bustling riverside town to a lively secondary city

Ago, Myanmar by Taylor Martin
Photograph by Taylor Martin

By Taylor Martin, Summer Research Intern 2015

About a two-hour drive from Yangon, traffic permitting, is the riverside city of Bago. Here you will find yourself in a bustling town of traders and peddlers with cars, trucks, and motorbikes coming and going in every direction. Bago has all the charm of a rapidly urbanizing city in Southeast Asia: the dusty patchwork of sidewalk and sewage that lines its streets; the shrill honk of cars and motorbikes edging their way through city traffic; and most of all, the concerted effort required on behalf of yourself and other city dwellers like you to cross the road.

In all seriousness, Bago does have a distinct charm that is easily felt walking down the main strip. Here, the daily rhythms of city life come alive in the corner stores selling newspapers or in the shop houses of seemingly idle shopkeepers. Perhaps the most fascinating place to see is the Bago market, located alongside the banks of the slow moving Bago river¾ a lengthy water way which serves as a transport route for some, and observably, a waste disposal site for most. In the market, you can find anything that you could possibly need in a riverside town. The winding stretch of shops, umbrellas and stalls are filled with crates of fresh fruit and vegetables, piles upon piles of fermented fish, and an assortment of hand shovels, ceramic bowls and other practical and less practical things.

The city itself offers a number of tourist attractions. Shwemawdaw Paya is perhaps the most resilient pagoda in Myanmar, having been destroyed and reconstructed due to earthquakes on several occasions. However, our purposes for travelling to Bago were not necessarily for pleasure, but rather to scope out the city in terms of urbanization and potential climate change hazards. So, to say the least, we were not your average tourists. Perhaps, our biggest challenge of the day was communicating with our driver where we would like to go, as he spoke very little English and we spoke even less Burmese. You can imagine his confusion when we asked him to take us to the nearby industrial site. This proved to be a worthwhile place to stop to understand the changes that are brewing in Bago.

To get an idea, Bago is the fourth largest city in Myanmar and is the capital of the Bago Region. Due to its proximity to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest urban centre, Bago is likely to experience the associated spill over effects of rapid urban growth and industrial development. As Myanmar continues to open up its economy to the outside world, Bago is in for some serious changes. The nearby industrial estate, to which we visited during our brief trip to Bago, was teeming with construction workers preparing for the coming of industry. The Hanthawaddy International Airport is due for completion by 2020. The airport will become Myanmar’s largest and most modern airport, replacing Yangon Mingalardorn Airport as the principal gateway to Myanmar. Given these impending changes of industrial development and regional connectivity, it is no surprise that infrastructure construction was underway in the city itself. Labourers no older than 15 years old were paving way for new sidewalks and drainage channels. This construction is welcome in a city that clearly lacks an adequate drainage and sewage system, which from observation, is occasionally rife with garbage and waste.

What remains to be seen, however, is how Bago will manage to plan for the next disaster? As previously mentioned, Bago has experienced severe earthquakes in it the past. What will happen if current developments take place without taking into consideration key questions of resilience? Another area of concern is the annual flooding that inundates the city during the seasonal monsoon from June to October. Given that Bago is a city built alongside the banks of the Bago River, how will the city grow and develop in the face of these vulnerabilities? These questions are critical to ask in times of impending growth, industrial development, and urbanization. As the city grows from a bustling riverside town to a lively secondary city, how will it plan for future shocks and stresses, especially those that may be exacerbated by climate change?

MartinTaylor Martin is a Masters candidate in
International Development and Globalization
at the University of Ottawa.