In accordance with deals signed under military rule, Myanmar plans to build five major hydroelectric dams on its stretch of the Salween River.The majority of the power produced will go to China and Thailand. Critics say consumers in these countries will benefit while people in Myanmar’s ethnic border states pay the price.The dams threaten the river’s ecology and the livelihoods of riverine communities, and could exacerbate conflict between the army and non-state ethnic armed groups. “We held each other’s hands and moved slowly in the dark, smiling. We desired, above all, a good night’s sleep, but that was not possible as we pressed on to the Liberated Zone beyond the river Salween. Salween became the symbol both of a great barrier and of the way to safety. The river was already reverting, in our minds, to what it had been for our ancestors – a spirit, even a god, to be worshipped and propitiated. We talked about it all the time.” — “From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey,” Pascal Khoo Htwe It’s difficult to encapsulate, as an outsider, how significant the Salween is in the hearts, minds and identities of the ethnic communities who live in its watershed. “From the Land of Green Ghosts,” Pascal Khoo Htwe’s autobiographical account of life in conflict-ridden eastern Myanmar is flecked through with references to the “legendary River Salween,” the river he refers to as “an old friend or a lover.” Meeting with Salween riverine communities in Myanmar today, Pascal Khoo Htwe’s depiction of his relationship with the river burns strong – they still talk about it all the time. Even more so now, as political and economic transformation in Myanmar and increased regional integration are shaping the Salween’s future amid the global boom of tropical hydropower development. Karen communities and civil society groups gathered at Ei Thu Hta IDP camp on the Salween River on International Day of Action for Rivers in 2016 to demonstrate against the cascade of large hydropower projects planned for the river. Photo by Demelza Stokes. The 2,800 kilometer (1,740 mile) long Nu-Thanlwin-Salween River is shared by China, Thailand and Myanmar. It has been politically and geographically marginalized for decades, yet it beats persistently through the veins of its six million riparian inhabitants, as well as nourishing their livelihoods, their agricultural production, food security and local economies. Now the Salween landscape is being redefined in the context of large scale infrastructure development, and plans for at least ten large hydropower dam projects are dotted along the Salween’s path in Myanmar and China. All of Myanmar’s Salween projects lie in or near areas of mixed governance between the Myanmar army, non-state ethnic armed groups or militias. This is the first article in a Mongabay series exploring Myanmar’s Salween landscape amid galvanizing plans to develop hydropower projects along its course. Part II looks at the Salween dams’ already bloody legacy and the projects’ direct or indirect relationship with perpetuating instability and conflict in Myanmar’s Shan and Karen states. Part III uncovers some of the Salween’s ethnic and ecological biodiversity at stake, focusing on the Kun Heng “thousand islands,” a unique riverine ecology facing submersion under the Mong Ton dam reservoir in Shan State. Part IV meets actors involved in creating the “Salween Peace Park,” combining wildlife conservation and peace-building in Karen State, where the world’s longest running civil war has raged since 1949. Part IV focuses on downstream Salween communities’ livelihoods and ongoing changes facing the broader Salween landscape due to Myanmar’s rapid economic development. The Salween originates on the Tibetan Plateau, flows through what “may be the most biologically diverse temperate region on earth” in China’s Three Parallel Rivers UNESCO World Heritage site, and down through four states in Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal. The last free-flowing river in Southeast Asia, the Salween is the font of an explosion of ethno-cultural diversity. Globally endangered species such as the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti) and the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), can still be found in Salween habitats in remote parts of Myanmar’s Karen (Kayin) state. The Kung Long, Nong Pa, Mong Ton, Ywathit and Hat Gyi dams are projected to produce over 15,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity, most of which will be exported to China and Thailand. At a press conference this August marking the new government’s first 100 days in office, Htein Lwin, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Electricity and Energy (MOEP) said that the Salween dams would go ahead. MOEP’s estimated completion dates for the dams runs from 2021-2031, with Hat Gyi the first to be finished. Construction on access roads and around some of the dam sites has already begun. Despite a temporary logging ban until March 2017 coming into force in August this year, researchers have documented ongoing deforestation at the dam sites and in their projected reservoir zones (uncovered in PART III). Dams planned for the Salween are part of a region-wide dam building boom. Images courtesy of CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems – Greater Mekong (left) and Map for Environment (right) Local communities, non-governmental organizations and environmentalists look east to the Mekong and despair at the climate of inevitability that pervades the Salween dam projects, while they continuously struggle to obtain true representation at the table. The principle of free, prior and informed consent is just that, a principle, and is nowhere to be found amid the reality of ethnic violence, corruption and lack of rule of law in areas along the river. The projects in Myanmar will be developed by a consortium of Chinese, Thai and Myanmar construction companies and investors, under agreements that were originally made in almost complete secrecy while the country was still fully presided over by the military regime. The National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the November 2015 election and forms the majority of the new government that came to power in March 2016. Despite this transition toward democracy and seismic shifts in the economy, the military still wields great power, its role enshrined by the 2008 constitution. The government’s stake in damming the Salween lies in generating revenue by selling the vast majority of the electricity generated to neighboring China and Thailand. Myanmar will also get a small percentage of the electricity generated by the dams. The legacy of Myanmar’s military regime still weighs heavy on Myanmar’s Salween dam projects. Communities living in the affected areas have been plagued by decades of war and displacement. Etched into their collective memory are the widespread human rights abuses associated with large-scale development projects carried out by the military or its associated companies. Cloaked in almost complete opacity, there have to date been no meaningful environmental or social impact assessments (nor human or conflict assessments) on any project — let alone any systematic cumulative study on the complex and interwoven environmental changes resulting from damming the entire mainstream. With support from the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), plans are in the works for a nationwide Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment for the country’s hydropower sector. Environmentalists and civil society organisations have cautiously welcomed this as positive step toward transparency and participatory decision making.