A sure way to empower Myanmar's people and trade

Karin Finkelston and Axel van Trotsenburg say electricity access is key

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 February, 2013, 6:38am

Three out of four people in Myanmar are without reliable access to electricity. No power means that children cannot study at night, people cannot run a business during the day, and clinics cannot refrigerate medicines vital for the population's health. It's time to turn the lights on.

Access to electricity changes everything. An entrepreneur in a small village can expand trade; charged mobile phones can bring connectivity to urban dwellers and remote villages alike. Rural households can reduce hazardous pollution from wood-fired stoves in poorly ventilated homes. For Myanmar, access to sustainable energy offers the opportunity to boost economic growth dramatically - and to directly improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable.

Myanmar's government has embarked on rapid political and economic reforms since 2011, following decades of isolation. But there is still much to do if it is to realise its potential.

It is important for the government to continue with reforms that put people first, and the global community is working together to support these efforts. Arrears to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have been cleared and we are re-engaging to provide financial and technical support. We are discussing with the government and others how to improve agricultural output, public financial management and microfinance to strengthen the economy.

For Myanmar to build a brighter future, the country's leaders have identified increased access and more reliable electricity as a key priority. The World Bank is prepared to assist this effort; the challenge is to meet short-term needs quickly while setting the country's electric power industry on a sustainable path.

Myanmar's vast hydropower potential and gas reserves mean sustainable power can be made available, if done right. At the moment, a run-down system wastes around a quarter of all generated power before it reaches users. Domestic energy demand outstrips supply by 30 per cent or more.

The power of electricity to transform lives is evident in Laos and Vietnam where the World Bank has supported dramatic expansion of generation and access - in Laos, about 80 per cent of citizens are connected and in Vietnam, over 97 per cent of citizens have access to power. Both economies are doing better as a result.

Responding to ever growing energy needs, Myanmar has begun to explore public-private partnerships and independent power production on a pilot basis.

What is important now is to take individual pilot schemes to the next level by developing an integrated strategy for the electric power industry as an immediate priority.

A well-implemented strategy would unlock greater investment in the country's dilapidated power infrastructure to address supply shortages and raise the electrification rate. It would accelerate the path to a Myanmar where all citizens enjoy reliable electricity at a reasonable cost.

Now is the time to make strategic decisions that will meet future needs in an economically and environmentally sustainable way. Combined private-sector experience and international development know-how can play a key role.

Working with the public and private sectors and other development organisations, we hope to facilitate investments to help revitalise Myanmar's energy infrastructure and power sources, offering both short-term gains and a longer-term sustainable path for the entire country - rural villagers and urban dwellers kept in the dark for so long deserve to see the lights turned on in Myanmar.

Karin Finkelston is the Asia Pacific vice-president at IFC, the member of the World Bank Group focused on private-sector development in emerging markets. Axel van Trotsenburg is vice-president for East Asia and the Pacific at the World Bank