Myanmar dam projects set to ruin rivers

Ethnic groups oppose several Chinese-backed dam projects which will threaten their livelihood
Myanmar dam projects set to ruin rivers

Activists of Kachin National Organisation living in India shout slogans and hold placards during a protest in New Delhi against the military government's dam projects in northern Myanmar, in this file photo. (Photo by AFP)

For Saw Hla, Myanmar's Salween River is his lifeline. It supplies essential fish and irrigation for his whole community but it is under threat from the Hatgyi Dam project.

"Our livelihood will be impacted and biodiversity will also be destroyed because of the construction of Hatgyi Dam," said Saw Hla, a father of two from Myintkaren village.

About 3,000 people live in his village near the river and depend on agriculture and fishing for their livelihood.

"We oppose the mega dam and the government should scrap the project for the sake of the people," said Saw Hla.

The Salween River runs more than 2,735 kilometers and is a vital artery for millions of  those in minority ethnic communities in Shan, Karen and Karenni states. Communities there have been consistently opposing the hydropower dam project for years.

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Myanmar has six proposed dams: Kung Long, Nong Pha, Mantaung and Mong Tong dam in Shan State, the Hatgyi in Karen State and Ywathit in Kayah State. Combined, they are expected to generate somewhere between 37,00 to 15,000 megawatts of electricity.

The projects will be implemented by the China Three Georges Corporation, China Southern Power Grid, the Electricity Generating Authority from Thailand and IGE Group of Companies, one of Myanmar's largest conglomerates.


Growing calls on opposing large-scale projects

Enormous dams have long caused controversy across the impoverished southeast Asian nation.

The country's previous president Thein Sein suspended the Chinese-led Myitsone dam project in Kachin State in 2011 in the wake of fierce public opposition.

Saw Thar Phoe, coordinator for Karen Rivers Watch is concerned that the new civilian-led government will green light the dams in order to appease neighboring China.

"I worry the Salween dams will be implemented in the name of development," said Saw Thar Phoe, an ethnic Karen activist.

Activists are also opposed to the 7,100 megawatt Mong Tong Dam that will export most of its energy to China and Thailand. It is believed that at least 300,000 people will be affected.

Civil society groups in Shan State sent a letter to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on Aug. 17 requesting she scrap the hydropower dams on the Salween as it would create problems for people who depend on the waterway for agriculture.

Sai Khur Hseng, spokesperson for Action for Shan State Rivers, said that large-scale dam projects also impact the culture and heritage of ethnic minority groups.

"We will continue fighting for the anti-dam projects on the Salween until the government scraps them," said the ethnic Shan environmentalist.

Action for Shan State Rivers recently launched the Drowning a Thousand Islands documentary (which you can see below) to reveal the natural beauty of an area along the Pang River tributary that will be affected by the Mong Ton mega dam project.


The above documentary Action for Shan State Rivers reveals the unique natural beauty of the "Thousand Island" area along the Pang River tributary of the Salween, which is currently threatened by plans to build a giant hydropower dam.


Win Myo Thu, director of EcoDev, an environmental NGO, said that Myanmar's new civilian government must take the voice of the people into consideration.

"Our country should not carry out large-scale projects as it will create disadvantages rather than advantages for the people," said Win Myo Thu, adding that he opposes selling energy to other countries instead of using it for the people of Myanmar.

Nang Kham Mai from Wonghaung village in Shan State has collected signatures from the villagers.

"We hope that the new government will pay attention to the voices of ethnic groups as Shan political parties and ethnic armed groups claim that they will listen," said Nang Kham Mai.

Activists also claim that hydropower projects could exacerbate tensions in ethnic areas.

Saw Thar Phoe from Karen Rivers Watch said that the immediate political impact of the Hatgyi Dam caused fighting between government-aligned forces and ethnic armed groups.

He accused the military of attempting to seize areas needed to access the construction site of the Hatgyi Dam in Karen State.

"The dam projects could fuel conflicts in ethnic regions which will impact the security of the people and the peace process," he said.

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