A third of the Salween’s freshwater fish species are endemic. Saw Blaw Htoo, a wildlife researcher at the Karen Social and Environmental Action Network (KESAN) told Mongabay there has been no intensive research on fish populations in the Salween in Myanmar, and that “many kinds of the fish travel as far as the sea for their seasonal breeding, as well as high up to the watershed of the Nu/Salween river, so stopping the migration through dams will cause major problems to the fish populations”. Maung Maung Aye, Chief Advisor at the Myanmar Environment Institute said, “As far as I know, nothing has been done during the planning of five large hydropower projects to ensure their survival. It is urgent that the future of the Thanlwin River is responsibly planned and equitably managed to protect the environment and the inhabitants of the watershed.”

The Salween’s export-oriented projects tread in the wake of hydropower development along the Mekong, where the environmental fallout from damming that river is only just beginning. Depleted sediments and salinization of the Mekong delta region are already affecting agricultural land, and farmers in Myanmar fear a similar fate. Every year, Aung La Teh, former village headman of Kaw Ku village, crosses the Salween daily from September to December to farm the nutrient-rich Kaw Ku island in the middle of the river. Annual floods leave behind rich sediments that nourish the land. Standing in his long bean farm on the island La Teh told Mongabay, “I am worried about losing the island. We don’t have experience of dams, but we do have experience of erosion and we’re worried that our island will disappear. If the island disappears, so will we. I am so worried about the dams.”

6-former-village-headman-aung-la-teh-walks-through-his-farm-on-kaw-ku-island-d-stokes
Former village headman Aung La Teh walks through his farm on Kaw Ku island in the middle of the river. Annual floods cover the island bringing nutrient sediments that fertilize crops. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

RAPIDLY DEVELOPING MYANMAR

In developing its hydropower potential, Myanmar seeks to establish itself alongside Laos PDR and Cambodia as a regional hydroelectric superpower, selling its electricity to the region’s key consumer countries: China and Thailand. The Salween dams are just one slice of Myanmar’s purported total 100,000 MW of hydropower potential, even higher than that of Laos, the country with dreams of becoming the “battery of Asia.

China and Thailand are looking to boost their electricity imports from Myanmar to support their rising domestic energy demands, and to diversify from other forms of energy such as coal and natural gas. The multi-billion-dollar projects also bring massive commercial opportunities for Chinese, Thai and Myanmar state or private-owned construction companies and investors. The Salween’s energy potential has long been earmarked for development and integration to the regional energy market. Former Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) governor Sitthiporn Rattanopas said back in 2003, “The dream of ASEAN power grid, cannot be realized without the Upper and Lower Salween dams.” EGAT is Thailand’s state-owned electricity commission that generates, transmits and sells electricity.

A young couple sit beside Khan Thar Yar lake in Hpa An, Karen state’s capital. Currently around 34 million people in Myanmar lack access to electricity, but almost all of the electricity generated by the Salween dams will be exported to China and Thailand. Photo by Demelza Stokes.
A young couple sit beside Khan Thar Yar lake in Hpa An, Karen state’s capital. Currently around 34 million people in Myanmar lack access to electricity, but almost all of the electricity generated by the Salween dams will be exported to China and Thailand. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

Integrating hydroelectric power generated by the Salween with the rest of the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) “Greater Mekong Subregion” requires grid extension and increased cross-border connections via power transmission lines from Myanmar to China and Thailand. Recommendations in the ADB’s 2002 master plan on power interconnection in the subregion included connecting the Mong Ton dam (formerly Tasang dam) with a 500 kilovolt line across the border to Thailand (see page 46).

Myanmar also needs to boost its domestic electrification rate to keep pace with rising demand from households and industry. Currently, approximately 34 million people lack access to electricity and 70 per cent of the total population live in rural areas not connected with the national grid. Those in remote rural areas obtain power off-grid, using mini-hydro, solar, or diesel lamps, batteries or candles for lighting. They use solid fuels such as wood and rice husks for cooking and heating. In 2015, Myanmar’s government pledged a goal of countrywide access to electricity by 2030, and received a US$400 million loan from the World Bank to update the national grid and expand it to rural areas. Meanwhile, the deals for hydroelectricity megaprojects sign off most of the electricity to China and Thailand, a major sticking point for critics of the dams.

THAILAND’s STATE-OWNED EGAT EXPORTING ENVIRONMENTAL AND SOCIAL ILLS

The highest per capita electricity consumer in mainland Southeast Asia, Thailand is looking west to hydropower potential in Myanmar (and east to Laos) to achieve its goal of doubling its energy capacity to 70,410 MW over the next 20 years. Last year, Thailand’s National Energy Policy Council approved a new Power Development Plan laying out energy and investment plans from 2015-2036. Imported hydropower currently accounts for 7 percent of Thailand’s electricity; the plan calls for that to reach 20 percent over the next two decades.

EGAT and its subsidiary company EGAT International Co., Ltd. (EGATi) will help develop the Mong Ton and Hat Gyi dams. Thailand’s permanent secretary for energy, Areepong Boocha-oom, told Thai newspaper Thansettakit in September this year that Thailand’s Ministry of Energy planned to meet with its Myanmar counterpart to discuss the Mong Ton and Hat Gyi projects, and that he hoped the meeting would result in “the rapid materialization of our plans.”

Observers comment that the Thai government has a history of overestimating its necessary reserves (see page 33), and that much could be done to improve efficient energy use within country. Environmentalists have condemned EGAT for promoting the Salween projects as “cheap” electricity for Thailand, while exporting environmental and social costs of the large dams across the border. “Many people in Thailand are not aware that if they build these large dams [here] in Myanmar that we will have floods, we will bear the consequences. The problem is too far away from them, too far away from their imagination,” said Pyi Pyi Thant a researcher at the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network (MEE Net).

Two former projects planned for the Salween, the Dagwin and the Weigyi dams, (both situated right on the Thai-Myanmar border) appear to have been suspended. The Weigyi dam’s reservoir would flood Thai villages and parts of Thailand’s Salawin wildlife sanctuary and national park. “If built on Thai territory, the dams developers will be required by Thai laws to implement steps and procedures including health and environmental impact assessments, proper information disclosure and public consultations,” Pai Deetes Thailand campaign coordinator at environmental NGO International Rivers told Mongabay. “There has been strong opposition from Thai affected communities, whose rights are entitled,” she added.

The Nu River in Yunnan, China, where plans to build dams appear to be off the table for now. Photo by Li Xiaolong/International Rivers.
The Nu River in Yunnan, China. Plans to dam the river there have been suspended then reinstated, but seem to be on hold for the moment. Photo by Li Xiaolong/International Rivers.

A DIFFERENT FORK IN THE RIVER?

For the moment, it seems, dam building on the Salween has also stopped at the Myanmar – China border. In March this year, former Yunnan provincial government party secretary Li Jiheng announced a halt on all small hydropower development on the mainstream and tributaries of China’s section of the Nu. He also revealed plans to promote part of China’s Nu as an international tourist destination, and the creation of a new 3,488 square kilometer (1,347 square mile) Nu River national park.

Could the designation of the new Nu river national park signal a change in the upstream?

Plans for four large dams on the Nu in Yunnan province, and one in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture have boomeranged in China. Suspended in 2004 by then Premier Wen Jiabao, they have since been reinstated, but were notably absent from China’s 13th five-year plan for energy released on the 7th November this year. Stephanie Jensen-Cormier, China program director at International Rivers told Mongabay “hopefully this is a good sign for protection of the Nu river.”

CONTINUING CONFLICT IN MYANMAR’S BORDERLANDS

Myanmar’s comprehensive peace process, which seeks to end the decades of conflict between government forces and the country’s myriad ethnic armed groups, is yielding mixed results. Many of the country’s ethnic armed groups have been fighting government forces for decades, seeking greater autonomy and calling for federalism. At a Union Peace Conference that began on Aug. 31 this year, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest of the newly elected government formally sat down with the country’s armed groups to negotiate a national peace settlement. While the Myanmar army and some groups signed a Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement (NCA) last October, it has been criticized for being exclusory. The NCA was not signed by, among others, Myanmar’s two largest ethnic armed groups, the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army. Conflict in Kachin, Shan, and Karen states between the Myanmar army (the Tatmadaw), its Border Guard Force, non-state ethnic armed groups and militias continue to this day — including in contested territories along the Salween.

Observers link the hydropower and related infrastructure projects to increased conflict in Myanmar. “The project is affecting our country’s peace process,” said Daw Nang Khin Thar Ye, a current member of parliament and member of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD). “If they allow them to build the Mong Ton dam, there will no doubt be more conflict,” she said (Part II of this series explores the connection between the Salween dam projects and increased militarization or conflict in Karen and Shan states).

General Boh Kyaw Heh, Vice Chief of Staff of the Karen National Liberation Army speaks at Ei Thu Hta IDP camp on International Rivers day 2016. Photo by Demelza Stokes.
General Boh Kyaw Heh, Vice Chief of Staff of the Karen National Liberation Army speaks at Ei Thu Hta IDP camp on International Day of Action for Rivers.  Photo by Demelza Stokes.

“Whichever country it is, whichever company it is, I don’t care. Even if foreign companies have already made agreements with the government, if it brings more disadvantages to Shan people and to Shan state, and our local people don’t want it, I will stand with them,” Lieutenant Colonel Sai Ohm Khay, public liaison officer of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the political wing of the Shan State Army South (SSA-S), told Mongabay. The RCSS is part of the Committee for Shan State Unity (CSSU), a coalition of Shan political and armed groups that released a statement on August 29 this year in the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to China. “Large dam projects threaten people’s lives, property and homes, and also destroy the ecological system,” they wrote. “Just as the government has decided to review and suspend the Myitsone dam, we strongly urge the government to review the dam projects on the Salween river.”

In his memoir, Pascal Khoo Htwe treks through the forest to find the Salween “…rolling furiously, raging to escape its confinement” from the high cliffs and mountains that surround it. He and his friends run down the riverbank shouting gleefully, to drink the water and to wash. To them the river is place of refuge, a peripheral place of escape. Not anymore. Now the Salween itself is the target. And for those that haven’t already fled due to conflict or worsening conditions in the areas near the dam sites, the security of their lives and livelihoods looks ever more precarious. Increasingly it represents the unknown futures in store for its communities, many of whom have minimal knowledge of the cascade of large dams that would permanently set their lives and environment off course.

Part II, which focuses on connections between the dam projects and conflict in Myanmar’s Shan and Karen states, can be read here.

Banner image: Villagers cross the Salween at dusk just south of Hpa-An. Photo by Demelza Stokes.

Article published by Isabel Esterman
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