Myanmar in the dark over hydropower for Asia
Tue, 24 Jul 2012 10:51 GMT
BANGKOK (AlertNet) - On a hot, humid evening in late May, hundreds of
people holding candles gathered in the city of Mandalay to protest
over power cuts, in the largest demonstration since Myanmarï¿½s army
crushed the monk-led ï¿½Saffron Revolutionï¿½ nearly five years ago.
The protests spread quickly to Yangon as six-hour daily blackouts hit
Myanmarï¿½s commercial centre, even though it is better served than the
rest of the country.
ï¿½China, give back our electricity,ï¿½ appealed one demonstratorï¿½s
placard, while another warned in English, ï¿½Thailand, India, especially
China. Donï¿½t steal our electrical source.ï¿½
The protestors questioned why Myanmar, among Asia's poorest nations,
is selling natural gas to Thailand and exporting hydroelectric power
to China while its own people live in darkness.
Myanmar has abundant energy resources, yet 74 percent of its 60
million people have no access to electricity, giving it one of the
lowest domestic energy consumption rates in the region, according to a
recent report by the Asian Development Bank.
Meanwhile, natural gas coming from, or passing through, Myanmar
accounts for about 30 percent of Thailand's energy consumption. And by
the end of August 2011, China had imported almost 5 billion kilowatt-
hours of electricity from two hydropower stations in Myanmar,
according to a Chinese government report.
Participants in the recent protests were particularly angry about
plans to build several dozen hydropower dams on Myanmarï¿½s rivers,
fearing they could wreck livelihoods and food security.
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ï¿½The rivers are critically important for Burma - culturally,
religiously, economically,ï¿½ said Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar at
Australia's Macquarie University, referring to the country by its
ï¿½An awful lot of people get their living from these rivers, either
explicitly or implicitly. They're absolutely central to economic life
in Burma,ï¿½ he told AlertNet.
Local press splashed pictures of the demonstrations on their front
pages and penned editorials questioning a series of billion-dollar
energy deals, testing the waters after a reformist government took
power in March 2011 ending half a century of authoritarian military
ASIAï¿½S NEW EL DORADO
The current government has pledged to promote ï¿½people-centred
developmentï¿½. But the protests - which ended relatively peacefully
after two weeks - highlight the unpopularity of the hydropower
projects, most of which were agreed by the previous regime with its
biggest ally, China.
Chinese firms are expected to build and run 33 of the 45 or so
hydropower plants scheduled for Myanmar, with Thailand and India
holding stakes in the rest. Almost all the power generated would be
exported to those countries.
With a land area the size of England and France combined and rich in
natural resources, Myanmar is shedding its reputation as a pariah
state and fast becoming Asiaï¿½s latest El Dorado.
Now that most international sanctions have been suspended and a
for..., investors are jostling to make up for lost time.
But there is growing resentment among ordinary Burmese that their
countryï¿½s natural resources ï¿½in this case, its rivers - could be
harnessed, and possibly damaged, to boost development elsewhere.
Burmese environmental activist Maw Htun Aung said the hydopower
schemes would change the flow of rivers, destroy fisheries and harm
agriculture, which employs 75 percent of the population. Few local
jobs would be created as Myanmar has little expertise in building and
maintaining large dams, he added.
ï¿½To push on with these projects without really understanding the costs
is like a blind (person) not being afraid of ghosts,ï¿½ he said.
There are signs the goverment may be starting to open its eyes. In
September, President Thein Sein suspended the Chinese-led Myitsone
dam, Myanmar's largest hydropower project, after weeks of rare public
outrage. Located at the source of the Irrawaddy River in northern
Myanmar, the dam would flood an area roughly as large as Singapore.
And in a June speech on reforms, the president acknowledged the
protests over energy, and hinted at moving beyond reliance on dams for
CANDLES IN THE SHADOW OF DAMS
Large dams are the wrong solution for Myanmarï¿½s energy needs, argues
Grace Mang, China programme director for the environmental group
ï¿½The Myitsone dam wonï¿½t power Kachin communities but growth in
Southern China,ï¿½ Mang told AlertNet. ï¿½Many people in Burma are still
using candles, and they need decentralised energy because grid
infrastructure is quite expensive for a developing country.ï¿½
The Asian Development Bank says Myanmar has vast renewable energy
resources, but they have yet to be utilised to provide domestic power.
International Rivers has been able to verify progress on only 20 hydro
projects in the past 18 months, suggesting some agreements could
lapse. But Chinese companies are unlikely to walk away at the first
sign of trouble because the potential profits are too big, Mang said.
Most of the dams are due to be built in areas that are home to ethnic
groups and could cause decades-old conflicts to flare, she said,
pointing to renewed fighting between the military and the rebel Kachin
Independence Army (KIA) in northern Myanmar near the Chinese-backed
According to the Burma Rivers Network, the army sent in troops to
secure the dam sites, inflaming tensions with the KIA. Clashes erupted
in June 2011, and an estimated 75,000 people have since been displaced.
The urgency and secrecy shrouding energy deals in Myanmar is fuelling
concerns it will suffer the resource curse that afflicts many
developing countries where elites get rich on natural resource
exploitation while the vast majority stay poor.
ï¿½There's a very real danger and, in fact, one could argue that a
resource curse is already in play in Burma, particularly with respect
to the flows of natural gas,ï¿½ said Macquarie Universityï¿½s Turnell.
ï¿½It's a particularly big issue for Burma because it's got immense
water resources compared to other countries in Southeast Asia,ï¿½ he
Maw Htun Aung said the government is neglecting other areas of the
economy, including manufacturing, agriculture and fisheries.
ï¿½It is focusing on easy money from natural resource exploitation
instead,ï¿½ he said.
The countryï¿½s natural assets, including its water, are being sold off
in a ï¿½fire saleï¿½, he added.
ï¿½What's scary is that we're not building these dams one by one but
simultaneously. If they all turn out to be bad, future generations
will have to bear the burden for decades,ï¿½ he warned.
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