Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Chinese thirst for power drains Burma’s rivers

Killing the Irrawaddy
Written by Aung Din, The Irrawaddy
Thursday, 04 August 2011

Chinese thirst for power drains Burma's rivers

Being neighbors with China is not something the people of Burma chose
for themselves, but they have to heavily bear the repercussions. For
many decades, China's influence has intruded on their daily lives
politically, economically, socially and culturally.

However, the relationship has now reached a tipping point, as this
dominant neighbor is not only supporting the country�s ruling dictators
and stealing the country�s vast natural resources, but also directly
destroying the lives of the people of Burma.

In this land of pagodas, paddy fields and smiles, for centuries the
people of Burma have proudly owned seven natural treasures gifted by
Mother Nature. They are the three parallel chains of mountain ranges,
called the Western Yoma (Rakhine Yoma), the Bago Yoma and the Eastern
Yoma (the Shan Yoma), and the four major rivers, called the Irrawaddy
(Ayeyawady), the Chindwin, the Sittaung and the Thanlwin. All are
national landmarks of the country, and they have grown together with its
people for countless generations. The Irrawaddy is the most important
river among the four, and it is now under attack by the greedy
autocrats, the Burmese regime and the Chinese government. If no efforts
are made right now, the Irrawaddy will disappear from the map of Burma
in coming decades. It will become a tragic memory of history for future
generations in Burma.

The Irrawaddy was born at the confluence of the N�mai (Mayhka) and Mali
(Malihka) rivers in Kachin State, northern Burma, where snow-capped
mountains stand high guarding the country�s border with China. According
to Kachin legend, the confluence is where the Father Dragon and his two
sons Hkrai Nawng and Hkrai Gam were born and are settled.

Traditionally, the Kachin people believe that if the waterway is broken
and the dragons are disturbed, they will be angry and create a natural
disaster. A famous present-day author created another symbolic metaphor,
writing that a young man (N�mai River with strong current) and a young
woman (Mali River with steady flow of water) met here secretly, made
love, and as a consequence a girl was born. This girl became the mother
river of Burma.

Her finest waterways, and long journey of 1,348 miles (2,170 Km) from
the mountains in the north to the Andaman Sea in the south, effectively
and consistently help the livelihoods of millions of people in Burma.
Many cities, townships, villages and ports are situated on the
riverbanks of the Irrawaddy. It is an essential and vital factor in the
nation�s transportation, fishing, weather and, importantly, agriculture,
especially rice production.

In May 2007, the Burmese military regime and China�s state-owned
"Chinese Power Investment Corporation" (CPI) signed an agreement to
build seven large dams in Kachin State within 10 years, with the
expected date of completion in 2017. One dam will be built on the Mali
River, five dams on the N�Mai River and one at the confluence of the
Mali and N�Mai, called "Myitsone" (junction of two rivers in Burmese).
After completion of the seven dams, about 13,360 Megawatts (MW) of
electricity will be produced annually and transported to Yunnan Province
to feed China�s expanding energy need.

The Myitsone Dam at the confluence of the Mali and N'Mai is the largest
among the seven dams, and is expected to produce 3,600 to 6,000 MW of
electricity annually. It will become the fifteenth largest hydroelectric
power station in the world.

The Myitsone Dam site is located just 2 miles below the confluence and
about 24 miles away from Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. The
length of the dam is about 499 ft (152 m) and the height is about 499
ft, equivalent to the height of a 50-story building. The surface area of
the reservoir is about 295.8 sq mi (766 sq km), about the size of New
York City (301 sq mi). A maximum water depth of the reservoir will be
about 950 ft (290 m), approximately the height of a 66-story building.

The estimated cost of the Myitsone Dam construction project is about US
$3.6 billion. The total cost for construction of the seven dams and
hydroelectric development projects is about US $20 billion. The major
construction contractor from the Chinese side is the China Gezhouba
Group Corporation (CCGC), and from the Burmese regime side is Asia World
Company. Asia World Company is run by the notorious drug-lord Lo Hsing
Han and his son, Tun Myint Naing (aka Steven Law), who are under the
targeted sanctions imposed by the US and very close to the regime�s
powerful Vice-President Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo.

From the beginning, the people in Kachin State have known that the
building of such a mega dam at the origin of the Irrawaddy River will
effectively kill the river itself and drastically affect the lives of
millions of people. The Kachin people and the Kachin Independence
Organization (KIO), an ethnic armed group representing the Kachin
people, have appealed several times to both the Chinese and Burmese
authorities to abandon the dam project at Myitsone.

Also, a team of scientists from China and Burma, hired and funded by
CPI, submitted its "Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) (Special
Investigation)" to both Chinese and Burmese authorities in October 2009,
in which they recommended the abandonment of the Myitsone Project.
However, the appeals of the Kachin people and suggestion of scientists
fell on the deaf ears of greedy and inhumane regimes. As such,
construction of the Myitsone Dam has been active and ongoing.

After receiving complaints from the Kachin people, CPI hired a team of
experts and scientists from the Chanjiang Institute of Survey, Planning,
Design and Research (CISPDR) of China and the Biodiversity and Nature
Conservation Association (BANCA) of Burma to conduct the EIA on
Hydropower Development of the Irrawaddy River Basin above Myitkyina,
Kachin State. CISPDR was in charge of technology and quality of the
whole environmental assessment of the project outside China. BANCA was
responsible for the environmental baseline study and Biological Impact
Assessment (BIA).

The agreement for conducting EIA special investigation was signed
between BANCA and CPI (Southwest Hydro Division) on December 24, 2008.
BANCA started its investigation on January 7, 2009 with 84 team members.
Chinese scientists joined the Burmese team on January 14, 2009. They
worked together for five months in Myitsone and other areas around the
dam sites. BANCA submitted the EIA report to CPI in October 2009.

In its report, BANCA identified Myitsone as "nationally important,
regionally significant and globally outstanding." It also identified the
Irrawaddy River as "the most important lifeblood in Burma. Millions of
people are depending on the Irrawaddy for their livelihoods. It acts as
a conduit of communication to over fifty million people." The report
claimed that, "The hydropower development in Kachin State by
constructing a series of large and medium dams may definitely impact on
the people of Myanmar [Burma] as a whole, in addition to adverse impacts
on riverine, aquatic, terrestrial and wetlands ecosystems."

The report further warned that, "The fragmentation of the Irrawaddy
River by a series of dams will have very serious social and
environmental problems not only at upstream of dams but also to very far
downstream until the coastal delta." The report also warned that "Loss
of Myitsone will be a terrible tragedy for all of Myanmar people,
especially the Kachins."

The report also highlighted the danger of strong earthquakes: "The dam
site is located less than 100 kilometers from Myanmar's earthquake-prone
Sagaing fault line. The highly sensitive Sagaing fault line runs
north-south through Myanmar (Burma). Earthquakes have been experienced
at places along the fault line. Dam breakage would be disastrous for
Myitkyina, the capacity of Kachin State, which lies only 40 kilometers
(24 miles) downstream."

And the report made the following recommendation. "The best option would
be to develop two smaller hydropower dams substituting the already
proposed Myitsone Dam and its location at two appropriate locations
above the confluence of the Malihka and Mayhka rivers."

The authors of the report also requested that their report be made
available to the public and said that public opinions and discussions
should be invited. In addition, they requested that CPI make a
full-scale EIA by conducting nine other assessments on effects of the
dam, a procedure set up by the Mekong River Commission. However, Chinese
and Burmese authorities have never made the report public, and have
ignored the call to conduct the remaining assessments. As of today, they
continue to kill the Irrawaddy by force.

The Chinese government has been a staunch supporter of the Burmese
regime since 1989. China supplies weapons to strengthen the Burmese
military, provides loans and financial assistance to the regime to run
its governing machine, protects the regime in the United Nations and
other international forums, and tries to kill or water down any UN
resolution that will take effective action against the regime for its
human rights violations.

Largely because of China's strong protection and support, the Burmese
military regime has survived to this day, under the disguise of a
so-called civilian government, successfully weathering international
criticisms and pressure. But the price the whole country has to pay back
for Chinese protection of the military regime is enormous.

There have been many countries rushing to Burma to exploit its vast
natural resources ever since the military regime opened its doors to a
market economy. The reality, however, is that it is not real capitalism,
but crony-capitalism. China is the most aggressive investor among them,
and is sucking the country�s blood everywhere it can set foot.
Centuries-old evergreen forests in Kachin and Shan States were rooted
out by Chinese logging companies. Many mountains are being destroyed by
Chinese mine companies to search for gold, copper, sapphire and jade.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced and hundreds of villages
have been destroyed along the route of construction of two pipelines
that transport natural gas and oil to China from Burma's Rakhine
(Arakan) State. Some major cities of Burma are now becoming like Chinese
cities, as Chinese populations and their properties grow and expand
dramatically. Actually, China has colonized Burma without shooting a gun
and has sucked the life of the people of Burma with the help of the
Burmese regime and its cronies. Now, they are killing the Irrawaddy
River as well.

Tens of thousands of Chinese workers have been in Kachin State, using
heavy machinery and building infrastructure for the Myitsone Dam
project. Forests are being cut down. Valleys and plains are being dug
up. Nearly 20,000 ethnic people are being forced to relocate. The
Myitsone confluence will be destroyed and most of the major cities in
Kachin State will be flooded and submerged when the dams are completed.
But the harsh repercussions will be felt not just in Kachin state, but
also downstream, as 60 percent of the people of Burma rely on the
Irrawaddy's watershed.

After completion of the dam, the water flow from the N'Mai and Mali
Rivers will be stopped by the dam and saved in the reservoir to generate
electricity. The N'Mai and Mali Rivers will not be the origin of the
Irrawaddy anymore, but rather the dam will be. The amount of water to be
kept at all the times in the reservoir will drastically decrease the
amount of water the Irrawaddy receives, and the flow of water in the
river will be much weaker.

It will create huge damage for the people living along the river,
beginning with ships and vessels unable to sail in the shallow waters;
fishermen unable to catch fish which can�t survive in the polluted
waters; farmers unable to grow rice and vegetables due to frequent
droughts and lack of sufficient and steady water supplies; the spread
and epidemic of infectious diseases from using and drinking contaminated
water and lack of clean water; permanent losses of vulnerable and
endangered species of birds, flowers, plants and fresh water animals;
significant changes of ecosystem and climate; destruction of mangroves;
in addition to other extensive damages.

During the dry season, which lasts four months from February to May, due
to the low volume of water coming from the upstream of the river, sea
water from the Andaman Sea will flow back to the Delta region with high
tidal water volume, and Burma�s major rice production area will be
flooded with salt-water. The Irrawaddy River may disappear in ten years,
like the Yellow River in China.

This will be a major catastrophe for the people of Burma in terms of
food security, health, society, the economy, poverty levels and politics.

The Burmese regime will receive about US$500 million per year, 20
percent of the total revenue, when the project begins to generate and
transport electricity to China. But this will amount to a tiny fraction
of the losses the people of Burma will have to bear for generations.

The Chinese government has been aiding the Burmese regime in its crimes
against humanity for many years. For decades, Burma's military regime
has been carrying out scorched-earth campaigns against its own civilian
population, destroying over 3,700 ethnic villages, using rape as a
weapon of war, enslaving hundreds of thousands of Burmese people as
forced laborers, recruiting tens of thousands of child soldiers into its
army, killing innocent civilians, and forcing over 2 million people to
flee their homes as refugees and internally displaced persons.

Such flagrant crimes are not simply human rights abuses�they are mass
atrocities, amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Compounding the brutality and magnitude of such international crimes is
the system of impunity, which protects perpetrators and punishes victims.

Now the Chinese government has crossed the line, stepped up further to
commit its own human rights abuses in Burma by attempting to kill the
Irrawaddy. Killing the Irrawaddy is destroying the lives of the people
of Burma�both in the present and in the future�physically and mentally.

The Irrawaddy River is the past, present and future of Burma and major
bloodline of the country. It has many names, "Mother of Burma; Bride of
Histories; the Great Magic of the Nature," and so on, that symbolize the
people of Burma�s great love for the river. Its water flow touches
everybody�s life. Many wars and national affairs have happened on its
shoulders. Many historic events have passed with its current. No artists
can draw a picture well enough to show the beauty of it.

No composer can write a song sufficient to feel the magnificence of it.
No poet can write a poem that demonstrates the sacrifice it made. No one
will feel their lives valuable if there is no Irrawaddy in Burma. The
people of Burma will stand up to protect their most beloved one. The
Chinese government should stop building the Myitsone Dam and destroying
the Irrawaddy before the growing anti-Chinese sentiment among the people
of Burma dangerously explodes.

(Aung Din was a student leader during the 1988 popular democracy
uprising in Burma and he served over four years in prison as a political
prisoner. He is now the Executive Director of Washington, DC-based US
Campaign for Burma.)

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