Out of Darkness

Myanmar's Quest to (Em)Power its Citizens

Vehicles drive along a road near electricity posts in Thailand's Nonthaburi province April 2, 2013. Reuters

As Myanmar emerges from nearly six decades of economic stagnation and isolation, perhaps no issue is as pressing to its development as the need to upgrade the country’s antiquated power sector. It is believed that the national power grid currently connects less than a third of Myanmar’s 51 million people. More than half the wiring in the country, which is roughly the size of Texas, is estimated to be at least 70 years old. Without adequate power, Myanmar will never see a transition toward a brighter future; without power, advances in education, health care, industry, and regional development, it is simply not possible. 

But electrification is also a political issue. Myanmar’s grid is concentrated primarily in urban areas, leaving those who live in rural environments—approximately 70 percent of the population—largely without grid access. Some rural citizens report paying anywhere from 10 to 20 times what government-subsidized grid power costs, and they rely on alternative sources, often powered by diesel-powered mini-grids. Myanmar’s economic opening has led many to expect improved living standards from the government. And within the government’s attempt to build a more representative democracy is a push to win the political support of traditionally remote populations, some of which have been affected by ongoing ethnic conflict and social tensions. Rural electrification, in addition to helping these regions and the country as a whole develop, is one means of building support for a more inclusive Myanmar.

Revamping the nation’s electrification system, however, will not be easy. Myanmar’s installed electric capacity—approximately 4,500 megawatts (MW), according to government figures—is a fraction of what it should be for a country of its size. Thailand, by comparison, has a comparable land mass and population, but its installed capacity is roughly ten times larger than that of Myanmar. Adding to the problem, about 27 percent of electricity generated in Myanmar is lost in transmission due to the system’s antiquated nature. Seasonal fluctuations in hydropower—Myanmar’s largest source of electricity—

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