The Lower Mekong region is home to some of the world’s most dynamic cities. Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Yangon all have populations in excess of 5 million and are still growing. Phnom Penh and Vientiane are smaller but their growth has been dramatic. Phnom Penh grew by nearly a third between 1998 and 2008.1 As well as being commercial and often governance centers, these major cities are tourist destinations and home to places of historic and cultural significance.
Bangkok, with 8.5 million people in the city and 14 million in the wider metropolitan area, and Ho Chi Minh City, with 9 million in the metropolitan area, are the largest population centers in the Mekong. Although the capital cities of Mekong nations are also usually their most populated and economically active, Vietnam, where Hanoi is the capital, and Myanmar, where Naypyidaw is the capital but Yangon is the largest city, are exceptions.
Even with such large urban areas, the Lower Mekong region’s population is still mostly rural. With the exception of Cambodia, where only 20 percent of the population are in cities, about one-third of the region’s people are city dwellers. The annual rate of change ranges from 1.6 percent in Thailand to 4.4 percent in Laos1.
Urbanization is projected to increase considerably and will be driven by the increasing market orientation of economies, improved transport, and the regional policy of open borders. Much of the urbanization is found along water bodies, which make them natural centers for transport, as well as serving as water sources. All of five of region’s major cities are situated on rivers.
Source: UN-HABITAT. State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013: Prosperity of Cities. Created by ODI May 2016. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. View data in the ODI DataHub.
The four largest Lower Mekong cities (Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Yangon) are expected to total more than 114 million urban inhabitants by 20302 Myanmar will be the most urbanized country in the Lower Mekong with almost half (48.1 percent) of its population living in cities3 creating increased demand for housing, infrastructure and basic services.
This demographic shift from the countryside to cities will not only concentrate populations but will increase demands on urban water, food, and energy distribution systems, often beyond the control of city administrations, as noted in a 2013 publication by the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition. This raises serious questions for urban planners and administrators about how to cope with the ever-increasing needs of residents. Despite decentralization of public administration in Mekong nations and increased decision-making at sub-national levels, current urban governance and planning is considered generally weak across the region, with limited technical capacity within local government agencies.
According to the same publication4, much of the urbanization occurring in the Mekong is found along water bodies.
Most of the region’s urban inhabitants work as day laborers or are small-scale entrepreneurs, making their incomes relatively low and unreliable. Although official rates of urban poverty are lower than rural ones, income inequality is high in many cities, where multiple levels of society are juxtaposed. The constantly-changing urban landscape means that some neighborhoods are being gentrified, as wealthier residents and businesses catering to them seek new areas to settle, often out-pricing and displacing long-time inhabitants. While this trend is not unique to the Mekong, it has sped-up due to the pace of economic growth.
The state of urban infrastructure varies across the Lower Mekong. Urban populations in Thailand and Vietnam have near universal access to safe water, while 76 percent of the urban population in Cambodia5 and 65 percent in Laos6 have access to improved water supply.
Phnom Water Supply Authority in Cambodia has received international recognition for its world-class urban service and an excellent cost recovery ratio. By contrast, the Yangon water supply system, operated by the Water and Sanitation Department of the Yangon City Development Committee, provides piped water to only 40–50 percent of the urban population, which is plagued with high levels of leakages due to lack of maintenance of the ageing water supply network.7
Many cities in the Lower Mekong struggle to provide adequate sanitation services for their inhabitants. In general, there are too few sanitation and household wastewater treatment facilities, which leads to the pollution of ground and surface waters. Open defecation remains far too prevalent. In a comprehensive 2008 sanitation study of 27 Asian cities, the central sewerage systems in all three Laotian cities studied had a household coverage of less than 28 percent. In Vietnam, Thap Cham’s system had an impressive 100 percent household coverage, but the corresponding percentage for Hue was only 50 percent.8
Traffic congestion is a persistent problem in the region’s large cities. A 2013 study found that Bangkok has the eighth-worst traffic congestion in the world.9 Traffic jams have significant negative impacts on urban areas, including traffic accidents that result in deaths and injuries, air pollution, and loss of productivity. Parking is also a problem in many cities where an increase in automobiles has not included a commensurate increase in parking.
While many major cities have bus systems, only Bangkok and Yangon’s public transport includes rail, although Yangon’s system, which dates from the colonial era, is ageing. Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are constructing light rail lines, with the completion of the first lines projected for 2016 and 2020 respectively.
Around the region, rapid urbanization without adequate urban planning has resulted in the proliferation of slums, characterized by overcrowded and dilapidated housing in hazardous locations, insecurity of tenure, inadequate water supply and poor sanitation. Slum-dwellers accounted for 79.3 percent of the urban population in Laos and 78.9 percent in Cambodia in 2005. The figures are equally discouraging for Myanmar, where 45.6 percent of the urban population are slum dwellers, and Vietnam, with a corresponding figure of 42.3 percent. The number is considerably lower in Thailand (26 percent) owing to its social housing and upgrading programmes.10
In the Lower Mekong countries several ministries at the national, provincial and municipal level are involved in managing urban development, however it is still led centrally by the following line-ministries.
Cambodia: Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (MLMUPC) guided by the National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP) 2014-2018. The Ministry is in the process of completing a Draft National Urban Development Strategy Framework.
Laos: The Department of Housing and Urban Planning (DHUP) of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MPWT) guided by the National Socio-economic Development Plan (NSEDP) 2011-2015 and the National Urban Sector Strategy.
Myanmar: Department of Public Works (DPW) and the Department of Human Settlements and Housing Development (DHSHD) of the Ministry of Construction (MOC) guided by the National Development Plan
Thailand: Department of Public Works and Town & Country Planning (DPT) in the Ministry of Interior (MOI)
Vietnam: Ministry of Construction (MOC)
Last updated 8 April 2016
- 1. Cambodia National Institute of Statistics. “Provisional Population Totals of Population Census 2008.” Accessed 23 June 2015. http://www.nis.gov.kh/index.php/en/find-statistic/site-administrator/cips-2004/provisional-pop-cen-2008.html.
- 2. Based on the calculation of urban population projection in 2030. Cambodia: 5,870,000; Myanmar: 28,545,000; Vietnam: 46,585,000 and Thailand: 33,624,000 from the Urban population and urbanization by country, 1990–2030 table. No data available for Laos. UNHABITAT. 2013. State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013: Prosperity of Cities. Kenya, UNHABITAT, 170. Accessed 23 July 2015. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/745habitat.pdf.
- 3. UNHABITAT. 2013. State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013: Prosperity of Cities. Kenya, p.170. Accessed 23 June 2015. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/745habitat.pdf.
- 4. UNHABITAT. 2013. State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013: Prosperity of Cities. Kenya, UNHABITAT, 170. Accessed 23 June 2015. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/745habitat.pdf.
- 5. ADB. 2012. Cambodia: Urban Sector Assessment, Strategy and Road Map. Manila, ADB, 6. Accessed 23 June 2015. http://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/institutional-document/33425/files/cam-urban-sector-asr.pdf.
- 6. ADB. 2012. Lao People’s Democratic Republic: Urban Development Sector Assessment, Strategy, and Road Map. Manila: ADB, 7. Accessed 23 June 2015. http://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/institutional-document/33722/files/lao-pdr-urban-sector-assessment.pdf.
- 7. ADB. 2013. Myanmar: Urban Development and Water Sector Assessment, Strategy, and Road Map. Manila: ADB, 6. Accessed 23 June 2015. http://www.themimu.info/sites/themimu.info/files/documents/Report_Urban_Water_Sector_Assessment_ADB_2013.pdf.
- 8. 2009. Asian Sanitation Databook 2008. Manila: ADB. Accessed 23 June 2015. http://adb.org/sites/default/files/pub/2009/sanitation-dbook.pdf.
- 9. Castrol Magnatec. “Stop-Start Index.” Accessed 23 June 2015. http://www.castrol.com/en_au/australia/products/cars/engine-oils/castrol-magnatec-brand/stop-start-index.html.
- 10. UNHABITAT. 2013. State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013: Prosperity of Cities. Kenya, UNHABITAT, 149. Accessed 23 June 2015. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/745habitat.pdf.