The battle over Yangon’s Dala bridge

In 1934, when the British built the Ava Bridge, spanning the Irrawaddy River between Sagaing and Ava (or Inwa) close to Mandalay, the poet Nandawshay Hsaya Tin composed a lament for the sampan rowers who’d be put out of work.

“Sampan rowers fall asleep now the bridge is finished / Burmese are out of a job / Crying / looking at the bridge,” the song went.

Bridges over major rivers can transform local, as well as national, economies. But not everyone is in favour of building a $168 million bridge linking the congested downtown of Yangon, Burma’s commercial capital, with the poor and largely rural township of Dala south of the Yangon River.

Dala locals, many of whom have to commute to the city on ferries or disaster-prone long-tail boats, have expressed support for the bridge, and their representatives in Parliament have been lobbying for it hard. Even boat captains whose livelihoods are seemingly threatened have acknowledged the benefits it would bring.

The bridge would provide safer and more convenient passage to an estimated 1.5 million people who live in Yangon’s Southern District, where Dala is located. Pipes included in the bridge’s design would also alleviate water scarcity during the March-May hot season. Without a bridge, the river cuts off the district from the city’s growing prosperity.

The main source of opposition comes from the operators of privately operated ports strung along the riverbank, and their allies in the Myanma Port Authority, who worry that, unless high and long enough, the bridge could restrict the passage of large container ships. Together, these ports account for more than 90 percent of Burma’s sea trade.

Meanwhile, discrepancies in the designs held by different government departments have slowed compromise. However, the project seems to be gathering steam, with the construction ministry announcing late last month that construction would begin by the end of the year under a revised design.

But is everyone truly on board?

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