Thursday, October 13, 2011

Myitsone dam: turning point for China's dam builders?

Turning point for China's dam builders?
By Grace Mang
chinadialogue, October 13, 2011

[Grace Mang is an environment and water lawyer who coordinates
International Rivers' China Global Program. Prior to this, she was an
environment and water policy adviser at the Australian Department of the
Prime Minister and Cabinet.]

The Chinese government is now calling for open discussions on the future
of the project. China's foreign ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei, said:
"Relevant matters that have emerged during the implementation of the
project should be properly settled through friendly consultations
between the two sides."

The suspension of the US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam in Myanmar, also known
as Burma, was the result of a long and sustained campaign by the
country's civil society. My exposure to the project began in late 2010,
when local environmental NGOs reached out to International Rivers for
analysis and technical support, but opponents have been waging battle on
various fronts since 2006. Were it to go ahead, the Myitsone scheme
would be the largest of seven planned Chinese-funded dams on the
Irrawaddy River and the biggest hydropower scheme in all of south-east Asia.

For the Kachin people, the ethnic group living mainly in the hills of
northern Burma, the Myitsone dam presents a threat to their cultural
heartland. For environmental NGOs, concerns have focused on the
significant and irreversible changes the Myitsone project and six other
dams proposed as part of a 13,000-megawatt cascade, would inflict on the
Irrawaddy delta, Myanmar's rice bowl. An environmental impact assessment
commissioned by the energy firm behind the project, China Power
Investment, and carried out byMyanmar NGO the Biodiversity and Nature
Conservation Association (BANCA), recommended in 2009 that the Myitsone
scheme be reconsidered.

Aung San Sui Kyi's public appeal to save the Irrawaddy River in August
2011 catapulted the campaign onto the international stage. It also
signified that, in Myanmar's changed political landscape following last
year's election, there is now a strong national coalition against the
Myitsone dam. At a government workshop on the environmental impacts of
the project on September 17, an intended public display of confidence
for the project broke into a debate on the pros and cons, and many
ministers came forward and questioned whether Myitsone Dam was in fact
in the national interest.

But it would be unwise for China to seek a reversal of the suspension
and deny Burmese civil-society groups their first major achievement in
over 20 years. The decision is an indication of the desire of Myanmar's
new government to distinguish itself from the past. To what extent
reform in Myanmar will calibrate with genuine democracy and political
freedom remains unclear. Nevertheless, China Power Investment should not
put itself on the wrong side of history by working against the will of
the Burmese people. Mistakes can be costly, but that is no reason to
ignore the lessons. China Power Investment and other Chinese overseas
dam builders such as Sinohydro, Gezhouba and China Three Gorges
Corporation, would be wise to dissect the Myitsone project and learn
from it. Myitsone is one of around 300 overseas dam projects in 78
countries in which Chinese dam builders and banks are involved. Amongst
this number are mega projects proposed on vital rivers such as the
Salween in Burma, the mainstream of the Mekong, the Nile in Sudan and
the Omo in Ethiopia, all fiercely opposed by communities and civil
society groups, who say that the social and environmental costs are too

Myitsone brings into focus the need for Chinese companies to deal with
key weaknesses in their current business model. Key questions dam
builders should be asking themselves are: how can they effectively
engage civil society groups in the countries they work? Are there
untenable projects, like the Myitsone dam, in their portfolio that
should be reconsidered? And how can they better manage their overseas
political risks through company policies and procedures? In finding the
answers, Chinese dam builders do not have to start from scratch.
Sinohydro, China's and the world's biggest dam builder has developed a
draft environmental policy which if adopted and implemented would make
it a leader in addressing the concerns and grievances of affected
communities and civil society in the host countries in which Sinohydro

As for the Myitsone dam, hopefully it will not now be remembered as
south-east Asia's biggest and most destructive project, but rather a
mark of the strength of Myanmar's civil society and the beginning of a
new Myanmar.

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