Myanmar's dam plans may cause new kind of poverty, villagers warn
18 May 2015
By Christiane Oelrich
Myanmar villagers demonstrate against hydro dam - © Hsa Moo, EPA
Yangon (dpa) - Giant dams, mighty hydroelectric plants and mega-bucks from foreign electricity sales: that's the vision of the future touted by the government of Myanmar, as it tries to lift the country from poverty.
A military junta, which ruled until 2011, plunged the onetime Asian bread basket into isolation and economic collapse. Now its 60 million people crave links with the modern world - but not at any cost, nor at the sacrifice of their livelihoods.
The profits that are sought also risk restoring the military dominance Myanmar just shed, some warn. "The electricity will be sold abroad and the income goes to the central government, which uses it to further modernize its army," says Hta Moo of Kesan, one of several environmental groups challenging the wisdom of plans to build 80 giant hydro-power dams.
Many ordinary Myanmar people fear their homes, land and culture will fall prey to big power strategies in the capital. After years of silence, many are speaking out against this supposed hi-tech panacea for their country's ills. In March, villagers protested against the planned Hatgyi power plant on the Salween River near the border with Thailand, chanting, "Let the Salween flow freely!" and "The river is our livelihood."
The gravity dam site is located in the southern Karen state, which has seen high tension and violence in recent years, and relies heavily on its waterways. "The Salween River is important for our livelihood, for our survival," Saw Kyaw Hla, a resident of the village of Mikayin, said at a recent event organized by Kesan to raise community awareness about the issue. "The river provides us with food, drinking water, and irrigation water to grow our crops. The income we earn from farming along the Salween allows us to send our children to school," he said.
The investors in the plant come from China and Thailand and want to sell 90 per cent of the electricity in their countries. With a planned capacity of 1,360 megawatts, Hatgyi is a world-class project, yet also a relative tiddler among the 80 giant dams planned. The 20-billion-dollar Myitsone plant on the Irrawaddy River is due to produce up to 6,000 MW, mainly for China. With a reservoir the size of Manhattan, it will be one of the 20 largest hydropower facilities in the world once commissioned. An estimated 12,000 people have so far been displaced by the project. After major protests, the government halted construction in 2011, but only temporarily, warns Win Nyo Thu, director of the environmental organization EcoDev in Yangon.
After elections this year, the cards will be reshuffled, he expects, especially now the Chinese investor has made it clear he wants his billion-dollar stake back if the project is abandoned. The Department of Energy has identified 200 potential plant sites that would easily allow generation of 100,000 MW. But the amount produced so far is under 3,000 MW, according to the World Bank, and still barely a third of the population has electricity. "The World Bank is working to turn on the lights in Myanmar," the bank proclaims grandly. "We want to help the country to develop environmentally friendly and socially responsible green energy."
The public have plenty of doubts about this, however.
"The problem with all major projects is the extensive corruption, while laws to protect the people and the environment are weak," says Win Nyo Thu, whose organization has 100 employees based out of a modest office in the capital. "After decades of military rule the authorities are just not used to dealing with social issues and environmental issues."
Beyond economics, the Myanmar people have a close and often spiritual relationship with their rivers. The name of the 2,170-kilometre Irrawaddy, for example, is an English rendition of the local phrase 'ayerawaddy myit,' which translates as "river that brings blessings to the people." "[The rivers] are our source of life, where our civilization began," Win Nyo Thu says. "The Irrawaddy is like our mother - and you can't sell your mother for any amount of money!"
Emotions aside, the environmentalist faults the Myitsone project using a range of internationally defined standards, from safety to its impact on the ecosystem. Does the project make sense, and can the residents live with it, are basic questions here. "There is absolutely no sense in it," is his conclusion. First he cites the absence of long-term studies on rainfall and evaporation, which combined with anticipated effects of climate change give no guarantee of the dam's projected water level. A geological fault line also runs beneath the dam, inviting the question what will happen under the weight of the millions of tons of water amassed there. Furthermore, the reservoir and access roads and facilities will cut through key wildlife corridors, endangering the fragile ecosystem that sustains many communities. None of this was considered, EcoDev claims.
The dam stands at the confluence of two rivers, the warm-flowing Mali and the cold N'Mai, which has its source in the Himalayas. This raises yet more questions about the ecological consequences of their disturbance for the 6 million people who live on the Irrawaddy. People also fear there will not be enough surplus water to irrigate their fields, and that the river will not stay deep enough for navigation by shipping.
None of these concerns were thoroughly studied, according to EcoDev, Salween River Watch and other environmental organizations which say small-scale dam projects are far more reliable and calculable in their effect. And these should first of all serve the power needs of the local communities before output is diverted out of the country for sale, they stress, as local communities wait anxiously for the outcome of the plans.
"This is the first time I've heard information about the dams," said Mae Mae, a young woman who also attended the Kesan event in March. "After hearing the information from different experts, I'm worried that we villagers will lose our happy life."
- [Salween Watch project] (http://www.salweenwatch.org/)
- [World Bank on hydropower for Myanmar] (http://ifcext.ifc.org/IFCExt/pressroom/ ... enDocument)
- [Energy Ministry on hydropower potential] (http://nrec.mn/data/uploads/Nom%20setgu ... yanmar.pdf)
- [Organization International Rivers on Salween projects] (http://www.internationalrivers.org/camp ... lween-dams)
- [Video of dam protests in Karen] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW3F9RaxBqY)