September 15, 2011
Mytsone Dam in Burma is just one of hundreds in a dam-building spree
Confirmation that construction will continue on the Mytsone dam on the
Irrawaddy River spotlights the vast dam-building capability of Chinese
engineers, who are involved in building at least 251 dams in 68
countries across the world, according to the NGO International Rivers.
In July, the Burma Rivers Network, which opposes the Mytsone dam,
released a 945-page environmental impact study opposing the dam that was
done by the China Power Investment Corp. itself, the Chinese state-owned
entity that is building the structure. Finished in late 2009, the
assessment has never been made public, the NGO said. It was conducted by
a team of 80 Burmese and Chinese scientists
Nonetheless, Burma's Minister of Electric Power-1, Zaw Min, told
reporters at a press briefing in the capital of Naypyidaw that the
Myitsone project will be finished within eight years "and I will answer
"No" to the question of the environmental groups who asked, "Will the
project be stopped? We hired a third party for the impact assessments
and we paid US $1.25 million for this. As we have done well with the
impact assessment, I will say that we will never stop the project before
The dam has been under preparation since 2005. Located 1.5 kilometers
below where the Mali and N'Mai Rivers join to form the Irrawaddy in
Kachin state, it is expected to produce 3,600 to 6,000 megawatts of
power. It is the largest of seven dams the Chinese have proposed on the
Irrawaddy and is expected to inundate more than 750 sq km, according to
the International Rivers NGO, which seeks to protect rivers and defend
the rights of those who live on their banks.
Large dams lose favor
Large dams have increasingly lost favor across the globe everywhere but
in China, many of whose leaders are engineers. The biggest, the Three
Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China, has privately been
acknowledged as an environmental and social disaster by top officials in
the Communist Party. In May, party officials warned of impending
disaster if preventive measures aren't taken to attempt to ameliorate
problems including ecological deterioration, erosion and landslides on
steep hills around the dam, algae blooms downstream, deteriorating
aquatic life and silting of the dam itself. Hundreds of thousands more
people may have to be moved away from the area around the dam, in
addition to the 1.3 million who have already been displaced by the dam,
officials said privately. However, the dam produces electricity
equivalent to that produced by 500 coal-fired generation plants.
The World Bank, traditionally the world's biggest source of funds for
dam construction, has pulled back on funding although it hasn't stopped
altogether, to the dismay of environmentalists. According to an analysis
by the bank's Internal Evaluation Group, it is now funding dams at about
half the level of the 1970s and 1980s.
"At first, large dams were simply regarded as engineering
structures-that is, in terms of their usefulness for generating electric
power and improving the management of water," the internal analysis
found. "In the 1960s, cost/benefit analysis became accepted as the
standard criterion for the justification of large dams, and the World
Bank pioneered the modeling of river basins and new methods of economic
analysis of multipurpose projects in developing countries.
However, social and environmental impacts emerged as fundamental
concerns. The bank has responded by adopting guidelines to integrate
social and environmental concerns into the analysis of proposed projects
and to seek to avoid or mitigate the adverse consequences of large dams,
according to the report.
Those guidelines apparently are not regarded as essential by Chinese
officials. The country, according to a report by David Biello, an
associate editor at Scientific American, "is engaged in a frenzy of
building that has left it with more dams - 26,000 at last count -than
any other nation in the world." In its continuing search for energy -
especially energy that doesn't produce greenhouse gases -- to power its
rapidly expanding economy, the government plans to almost double its
hydropower capacity to 380,000 MW by 2020
Across Southeast Asia, China is playing an integral role in funding and
building dams on the Mekong River, the Irrawaddy and many other rivers.
Southeast Asian dams include the Kamchay Dam in Cambodia and the Tasang
Dam, also in Burma. Major development projects have already been
completed on the Mekong, with more underway including two dams,
completed at Manwan in 1993 and Dachaoshan in 2003. At least four more
are in planning.
The Chinese government is building or planning to build as many as 12
large dams on the Jinsha River, whose headwaters are on the highlands of
the Tibetan Plateau and which passes through Yunan and Sichuan Provinces
before becoming the Yangtze. More than 300,000 people will be displaced,
numerous cultural sites will be inundated and river ecosystems
irretrievably altered, Biello writes.
Because China's dams are upstream from the countries of Southeast Asia,
according to International Rivers, when they affect the seasonal
fluctuations in water volume, the downstream countries feel the effect
of reduced flows and fish stocks most acutely. It is feared that in
addition to reducing the river volumes, the dams will prevent
nutrient-rich sediment from flowing, which would cause serious harm to
agriculture and fishing downstream.
"Among the areas in greatest danger is the Tonle Sap river-and-lake
system in Cambodia, which is the largest freshwater lake in South East
Asia. Because this area is home to more than 400 species of fish, as
well as many species of mammals and reptiles, it is a veritable hotspot
of biodiversity that was designated as a UNESCO biosphere in 1997," the
The World Bank continues to argue that not all dams are bad dams. A
review of 50 projects by the bank's internal evaluation group said they
"have made major contributions to economic development. They have
created an installed power generation capacity of 39,000 MW and they
replace the equivalent of 51 million tons of fuel in electric energy
production annually. They control floods and provide water for urban
populations and for industrial development. They have extended irrigated
areas by about 1.8 million hectares and improved irrigation for another
1.8 million hectares, substantially increasing cropping intensity and
yields of major food crops."
Irrigation from the Tarvela and Mangla dams in Pakistan, for instance,
has made it possible to grow the equivalent of two wheat crops a year on
800,000 hectares of land, adding direct benefits of as much as US$260
million annually to the region.
That is hardly comfort to the people of Burma. The Myitsone dam is
expected to create a reservoir the size of New York City in what is now
pristine rainforest and displace 10,000 people, mostly from the Kachin
ethnic group, critics argue. The dam will also submerge historical
churches, temples, and cultural heritage sites that are central to
Kachin identity and history, they argue.
"There are a few bad things, such as there will be no place for the
biodiversity and the people will be displaced because of the reservoirs,
etc," said Zaw Min, the electric power minister. But we have to compare
this with the national benefits which we will get from the project.
After we reduce those bad things, the project will definitely affect
positively the 50-60 million people of the country."
With reporting from The Irrawaddy
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