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Hydropower in Myanmar: For Whose Benefit?

December 16th, 2016  •  Author:   Transnational Institute  •  20 minute read
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A commentary by Nang Shining

Amidst the many challenges Myanmar now faces, the threats to the environment are urgent – and they are growing more extreme. The situation is especially serious in the case of mega dams and hydropower where a host of projects are being promoted, without appropriate planning or public consultation, that are likely to cause irreversible harm to communities and natural ecosystems around the country. Not only are many of the projects located in nationality areas that are conflict zones, but the bulk of the energy produced will also be exported to neighbouring countries.

As protests spread in Myanmar, it is not too late to change course. In a suitable place, hydropower can be an important energy source, but it is vital that its development is suited to meet local needs and conditions – not the cause of new suffering, ethnic grievance and threats to the achievement of nationwide peace. A moratorium is essential, while participatory discussion is begun to underpin informed and inclusive agreement about planning decisions that will have lasting impact on the political, economic and environmental direction of the country.

The Mega Dam Controversy: Incredible Miracle or Extreme Jeopardy?

The way in which people perceive the value of natural resources can vary greatly. Much depends on their different interests and personal backgrounds. This issue of perspective is especially contentious in the case of water and hydropower, where arguments often split on opposite sides of the same coin. While people living in urban areas view water as little more than drinking water and an easy source for power generation, those whose homes are in the countryside know that their livelihoods depend on water and the protection of land and natural resources. The result is a complete imbalance in arguments between “incredible miracle” and “extreme jeopardy”. For city dwellers, water and hydropower are promoted for their cheapness and convenience; for rural communities, they can represent a very real threat to the cultures, histories and lives of local peoples.

Between these polarities, informed debate over who truly benefits from hydropower projects is often curtailed, and vital questions over whether mega dams are environmentally sustainable or the most appropriate form of power generation become side-lined. This is often the case in emerging economies in the industrial age, where the voices of local communities in the field are insufficiently heard. Rather, a network of business investors, government officials and dam developers will coalesce around the promotion of a new mega dam, using the argument that such energy will be clean, cheap and renewable. Their motivation is self-evident. For governments, water is regarded as a natural resource to be transformed into “energy for development”, while commercial interests seek to utilize water and natural resources to generate their own profits.

Such thinking over the impact of major hydropower projects is simplistic and, very often, negligent in the extreme. A chain of consequences is set in motion in the building of mega dams that will have devastating effects, from the forced relocation of communities and destruction of local cultures to irreversible damage to natural beauty and ecosystems. As experiences around the world have shown, many risks and downsides can follow the construction of mega dams that have detrimental impact along the course of rivers and their hinterlands, negatively impacting on the futures of many populations.

First, to produce energy from a water source, a large man-made reservoir is needed. However, because the natural flow of the mother river is blocked, lands upstream of the dam are faced with flooding and submergence under water. At the same time, lands downstream of the dam will experience irregular water fluctuation and drought due to limited water flow and physical changes in the way that the river now runs.

Second, as the dam construction goes ahead, valuable lands in the surrounding areas will be lost in exchange for the creation of the new reservoir. The extent of loss will depend on the scale of the dam, but it will have serious impact on natural ecology and the livelihoods of the local people. Among a catalogue of knock-on effects, many people will be displaced from their homes, while deforestation – exploited by commercial interests – often accompanies dam building, and there is never adequate replacement for the depletion of wildlife and biodiversity.

Third, no matter what compensation is considered, there will be no reparation or restitution that can be just and equitable for those communities forced to give up their lands and relocate to other places. Due to flooding upstream of the dam, it is inevitable that people will be compelled to resettle. For those displaced, this is the beginning of a vicious cycle of marginalisation and poverty that can continue from generation to generation. Because of the scale of dams, the number of victims can be huge, and entire communities may be destroyed. Since they are moved to less fertile soil or suitable locations, many farmers can no longer continue their agriculture and, very often, they have to completely change their livelihoods to become migrant workers moving from one place to another. At the same time, since they have no future on the land, young people will be compelled to relocate to towns or the big city to try and find a job that can financially support their families back home.

Fourth, it is not only displaced communities upstream from the dam that are seriously affected. The difficulties of people living downriver can also be severe. Due to irregularities in flood control and water fluctuation, communities further downstream can no longer rely on riverbank agriculture; areas of habitation may be seasonably lost; and fishermen will lose their livelihoods because of the changed patterns in water flow and because some fish species cannot lay their eggs upstream, thus facing decline or extinction. Deforestation, too, can be an important cause of flooding and land degradation due to changes in the patterns of rainfall.

And this is not the end of the threats to livelihoods and security posed by hydropower projects. As international scientists frequently warn, not only are mega projects a catastrophic risk in earthquake zones but they can also increase the potential for shocks due to the accumulated pressure in the volume of water in the reservoir and the density of sediment that builds up over the years. In summary, far from being a wonder solution for development, hydropower dams that are badly planned and located can be the forerunners of trauma, fear and loss for communities far and wide across a country.

This is the national crisis that the peoples of Myanmar now face. With a multitude of hydropower projects currently on the drawing-boards or underway, the country must address the challenges and risks that the rush to hydropower are likely to bring. Under appropriate conditions, hydropower can be a valuable source of economic energy. But the fundamental question that still needs to be answered is to whose benefit? For once built, the proposed succession of hydropower dams on the great rivers of Myanmar, including the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy), Thanlwin (Salween) and Chindwin and their tributaries, will change our country’s natural eco-systems and geography forever. There can be no going back. In the process, millions of lives could be affected, many communities displaced from their homes, and long-standing systems of livelihood in agriculture, forestry and fisheries face disruption without recompense. As Myanmar’s environment comes under increasing challenge in the new economic era, the protection of vital lands and fragile ecosystems should very much be an issue of national concern for all citizens.

The Mong Ton Dam and Threat to the Thanlwin River

As Myanmar moves towards the development of a market economy, government officials, business companies and foreign investors are following similar tendencies to neighbouring countries by seeking to extract natural resources in order to foster economic growth. In recent years, this has seen hydropower emerge as one of the most controversial of the new industries in the country during a time of uncertain political change. Under the previous quasi-civilian government, President Thein Sein gained national approval for his suspension of the China-backed Myitsone Dam at the confluence of the Ayeyarwady River in the Kachin State during his parliamentary time in office (2011-16). But with the advent to government of the National League for Democracy last March, the Myitsone Dam is now the subject of a commission of review, and concerns are rising over the fate of another of Myanmar’s pristine rivers, the Thanlwin. Asia’s last free-flowing river on such scale, the Thanlwin runs for over 2,800 kilometres from its source on the Tibetan plateau through China and Myanmar, briefly touching on Thailand, to the Andaman Sea in our country’s far south.

While international comparisons can be instructive, this is where understanding of the situation on the ground in Myanmar is essential in assessing the impact of the new hydropower schemes. As threatened communities are seeking to warn, there are a host of reasons why such mega-projects are unsuitable and un-needed in Myanmar. Not only are such projects environmentally detrimental and located in potential earthquake zones, but their main impact will also be felt among disadvantaged nationality peoples who have long been in conflict with the central government in their pursuit of justice and equal political rights. Equally contentious, many citizens are asking why is most of the proposed energy from the new hydropower schemes to be exported to neighbouring countries when more than half our population is living in the dark? Surely the need is for the development of sustainable and environmentally sound energy schemes that benefit the Myanmar peoples – not international companies and a small business elite.

In examining the scale of challenges ahead, the Thanlwin River is an urgent case in point. According to Salween Watch, five major dams have been proposed for construction on the mainstream river: the Kunlong Dam (1,400 MW), Nong Pha Dam (1,000 MW) and Mong Ton Dam (7,110 MW) in Shan State; Ywathit Dam in Kayah State (4,000 MW); and Hat Gyi dam in Karen State (1,360 MW). Without consultation with Myanmar’s peoples, it has been agreed that a remarkable 90 per cent of electricity from these five schemes will be exported to the neighbouring countries of China and Thailand.

Of the five dams, the Mong Ton (formerly known as Tasang) will be the largest, and it will also be the biggest in Southeast Asia, with a reservoir the size of Singapore. The dam developers are the China Three Gorges Corporation, Sinohydro Corporation, China Southern Power Grid, Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, and the International Group of Entrepreneurs, a Myanmar-based company. To take the project forward, an Australian firm, Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation, has been hired to conduct Social and Environmental Impact Assessment studies. According to the SMEC’s Environmental Impact Assessment factsheet, the installed capacity will be 7,000 megawatt and the key project features are a height of 241 metres for the dam and a reservoir of 641 square metres. Reflecting the energy distribution of other hydropower plans, 45 per cent of the electricity produced will be exported to China, 45 per cent to Thailand, and the remaining 10 per cent will be for domestic use.

Completely missing, however, from such projections is any detailed understanding of the massive impact of the dam on local communities, including those flooded by the reservoir and those downstream whose livelihoods will be gravely affected by the disruption in water flow, sediment loads and loss of fisheries. Deforestation on major scale is also certain to occur, and there are many concerns about pollution and new social ills, including drugs and disease, as gangs of outside workers are brought in to complete the mega-project. In particular, the size of the resettlement population is seriously underestimated at 12,000 people in one of the most environmentally sensitive regions in the country. As the MP Nang Khin Htar Yee of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy warned: “Because of the Mong Ton dam project, the natural beauty of ‘One Thousand Islands’ will be flooded under the water forever. Not to mention other places, the population of around 50,000 in Kunheng township alone will have to relocate. This is only to highlight one small spot in the affected area.”

Equally important, the planning for the dam appears to completely ignore that the proposed location is in a sensitive area in national politics with a long history of military intimidation and ethnic unrest. According to the Shan Human Rights Foundation, as many as 300,000 inhabitants were displaced from their homes in 1996 during military operations by government forces in the central and southern Shan State in the planning stages of the dam. Since this time, the number of military camps has further increased, reflecting the tensions and potential for conflict. Downstream of the dam project, both sides of the Thanlwin River are occupied by government forces, known as the Tatmadaw, while a local Lahu Border Guard Force is also based nearby. Although it has had a ceasefire with the government since 2011, an influential ethnic armed organisation – the Restoration Council of Shan State/ Shan State Army (also known as the Shan State Army-South) – also controls territory both upstream and downstream of the dam site along the river. And in 2011, three Chinese engineers and their interpreter working at the project were held for three months before their release after their detention by a local Shan force.

Against this backdrop, the Mong Ton dam is not simply an economic issue for the Shan and other local peoples but a challenge that underpins conflict, marginalisation and suppression of their rights to land and livelihood. The dam, which is located on an earthquake fault line, can never be considered a “cheap” energy source, as dam developers like to advocate. Rather, the environmental, humanitarian and social costs will be immense, with serious implications for politics and national peace-building. According to the veteran SNLD leader Khun Tun Oo: “Natural resources are extracted from the lands of ethnic nationality groups but they do not get benefit at all from the development project. Instead they carry the burden of social and environmental costs. According to fundamental human rights, if the dam goes ahead without the consent of local people, it is going to effect the nationwide ceasefire agreement and peace reconciliation in Myanmar.”

There is little evidence, however, of conflict sensitivity or understanding of the realities of Myanmar’s peoples in the Mong Ton hydropower project. As the potential impacts are so huge, it is essential to have meaningful public participation in the primary stages of planning. Although an Environmental Impact Assessment law was approved in 2015, the government does not have the capacity to evaluate the Social and Environmental Impact Assessments prepared for the dam nor to monitor its construction phase to comply with existing laws. Equally remiss, the local people living along the Thanlwin River have been poorly informed about the project and its impact, and many have no access to needed information at all.

A particular criticism is that during “consultative” meetings in Taunggyi, Kunheng and Lang Khur, the SMEC did not provide enough detail or analysis about the potential social and environmental impacts of the dam nor the flooding zone and relocation plans. According to a member of the Mong Pan Youth Association: “The SMEC Company chose to invite the villagers that would give them favour, who have been living far away from the dam site, and who will not have impact from the dam project at all. They also did not reveal to whom the benefit will go. In fact, it is very clear that 90 per cent of electricity is for export to neighbouring countries, but they keep saying Myanmar needs electricity.”

It is also alleged that SMEC carried out its studies in a manner that has not been transparent nor inclusive of the communities that will be effected. According to a local researcher and MPYA member, Sam Pao Hom: “Though Wan Sala village is the closest village, the consultative meetings have not been conducted and the people have not been targeted to participate.” Highlighting this lack of investigation has been the unresponsive tone of the developers, which has further deepened local concerns. It is very clear that the hydropower project is aimed to profit powerful interests and neighbouring countries at the expense of minority nationality peoples living along the Thanlwin River. During the consultation meeting in March 2015 in Taunggyi, an SMEC official said: “It is the government project; whatever matter it will go ahead.” In response, as the Action for Shan State Rivers reported, over 200 civil society organisations and 23,717 individuals sent a statement to the SMEC in August 2015, stating their rejection of the EIA process due to limited public participation and the lack of transparency by the SMEC.

Equally resonant, although advocacy for hydropower still continues, it is widely appreciated that neighbouring China suspended plans in 2004 for the construction of dams, some of which were located within the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site, on the upper Thanlwin River (known as Nu) in Yunnan Province which passes through one of the most bio-diverse and seismically active regions of the world. China’s former Premier Wen Jiabao, who trained as a geologist, understood well the environmental risks. Within China itself, at least, there appears to be awareness of the negative consequences of dam-building along such a precious water source. Earlier this year, too, in a vision that has encouraged environmentalists, the communist authorities in Yunnan Province halted further dam schemes in what will become the Grand Canyon National Park in Nujiang Prefecture in order to protect local ways of life and boost tourism as the most appropriate form of development.

Public concerns are therefore deepening in Myanmar. In an era of promised conflict resolution and political reform, the saying “for the majority benefit, the minority has to suffer” is not in line with the values of a democratic system and universal human rights. Everyone is born with equal rights and dignity before the law, and it is vital that debate in our country now addresses the urgent challenges of national hydropower, exemplified by the Mong Ton dam, before irreparable damage is now done.

The Need for Alternative Approaches

The 2015 general election manifesto of the National League for Democracy stated commitment to energy sources that cause no harm to the people and environment. Since assuming office, the development patterns of the new government also appear to be moving in line with the NLD’s election promise of “Time for Change”. At a public meeting in Taunggyi in August 2016, the Minister of Planning and Economy for the Shan State, U Soe Nyunt Lwin, stated: “We respect the majority voices and the concerns of people. We will not move forwards any mega hydropower development on the Thanlwin River in this government period if the benefit is less than the impacts. The entire project should be transparent and accountable by the government to go in line with the concerns of the public.”

Many people are encouraged by such words. With political will comes the opportunity for long overdue reflection and appropriate planning. Awareness of this need is coming not simply from the campaign against the Mong Ton dam in the Shan State but from broader civil society, communities facing dam threats elsewhere and informed opinion in the international community. Solidarity among peoples affected by the negative consequence of dams is growing. It is not in question that Myanmar needs greater energy production, distribution and access to electricity for the general population. Hydropower, in itself, is neither the problem nor the solution. The need is for energy sources and policies that are sustainable, environmentally sensitive and of benefit to all the people.

In the context of Myanmar, therefore, where there is an abundance of natural resources, there is simply no need to rush to massive development projects such as mega dams, power plants and programmes of major infrastructure-building, including roads, bridges and industrial zones, if these projects have the potential to harm the livelihoods of the people and pose a risk to our environment. Indeed a large hydropower dam is the slowest option, taking many years to complete and, due to the huge amount of water flow on rivers like the Thanlwin, single dams – rather than cascade dams – will create large reservoirs, exacerbating the negative impacts. And even if all the energy produced by these dams is used in Myanmar rather than being exported abroad, it will still take ten years before power can be supplied in our country. Clearly, then, the mega dams will not solve the present energy crisis. A number of alternative policies need to be put in place instead.

As a first step in feeding the energy demands, we need to improve the existing power plants, transmission lines and operating systems. Many have been operating without proper maintenance since Myanmar received compensation from Japan after the Second World War. Due to a lack of maintenance and old technology, the output capacity remains very low. Second, Myanmar has a lot of potential to produce electricity at the local level from sustainable water sources. Instead of mega dam projects, it is very feasible to develop small hydropower projects to meet the energy needs of local people. Third, the present centralization system is also not efficient, because more than 50 per cent of energy is lost in sending from the central grid to sub-transmission lines before reaching to households and industries. In addition, building the grid and transmission lines costs more than the dam project itself. Thus, rather than going through the central grid, it is recommended to send energy from the power stations to small-scale transmission lines as a decentralization system in each of the States and Regions. And fourth, Myanmar needs to make a major upgrade in education about energy needs and policies in our country, including environmental studies, socio-economic planning, advancing skills in technology, operating site management, and developing a decentralization system for energy efficiency.

Finally, I assert that the rule of law and good governance is the key element to build social, economic and environmental development that is sustainable in Myanmar. Good governance should be comprised of transparency, meaningful public participation, accountability, effective rule of law, personal security and adequate financing for the involvement and protection of the public good. If good governance and good management are not put in place, then the over-exploitation of natural resources and marginalisation of local communities are unavoidable. Therefore capacity-building activities are essential among all relevant stakeholders to develop and enforce appropriate laws, enhance the administration of governance, boost the distribution of sustainable energy to all peoples, and eliminate the existing conflicts and environmental destruction in our country. To achieve this, peace will be essential and an equitable balance in power relations between the central government, regional authorities and local communities through good governance, the rule of law and a responsive educational system. Power generation is an important need in Myanmar, but it must be for the benefit of all – not the cause of more disparity, environmental destruction and human cost.

Nang Shining is a specialist in the field of peacebuilding and environmental advocacy from Shan State. She has previously worked for Images Asia and EarthRights International on environmental issues, and she is a founder of the Mong Pan Youth Association and a co-founder of Weaving Bonds Across Borders. She is interested in the intersection of peace and conflict transformation, human rights and environmental issues in the Mekong and Salween regions.

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