Salween River Dammed by Peace
The Irrawaddy. 3 July 2012
By Charlie Campbell
PA-AN, Karen State ï¿½ Snaking through the verdant limestone landscape,
the Salween River finally reaches the Andaman Sea by Burma's former teak
port capital of Moulmein after running a course of 2,800 kilometers
during which it supports an estimated 10 million people.
But times are changing for what was once the longest free-flowing river
in Asia, as Chinese, Thai and Burmese-backed dam projects look set to
transform the dynamic of this vital waterway in the wake of Naypyidaw's
peace deals with ethnic armed groups.
Pianporn Deetes, of the International Rivers environmental NGO, told The
Irrawaddy that Karen State Chief Minister Zaw Min just confirmed to her
group that the southernmost Hatgyi Damï¿½one of seven on the cards on
Burma's stretch of the riverï¿½has finally been approved by the government.
"We were informed that EGAT [Electricity Generating Authority of
Thailand] and Sinohydro have tried to resume the construction
preparation of the Hatgyi Dam since mid-April, when the peace process
between the KNU [Karen National Union] and Burmese government was taking
place," she said.
"It is reported that equipment was brought to the dam site. More
recently, in early June EGAT and Sinohydro told groups in Pa-an that
they were about to resume the Hatgyi Dam."
Along with the seven major dams planned for the Burmese stretch of the
Salween, another 13 are either planned or under construction upstream in
China. If completed the Burmese projects are in line to produce over
17,000 MW of electricity, the vast majority of which is due to be sold
to Thailand and China despite dire domestic power shortages.
Yet the human impact is likely to be enormous, with almost 100,000
people displaced by the new dam basins in Burma.
"If the [Hatgyi] Dam is really successful, this place will be destroyed
and the livelihood [of villagers] in these villages will become
completely destroyed," a fisherman from B'Yah Kyauk village in Htee
Th'Daw Hta village tract, Bu Tho Township, Papun District, told the
Karen Human Rights Group in a report released last month.
Burma's Ministry of Electric Power signed a deal with the EGAT and
China's Sinohydro Corporation in 2006 to build Hatgyi but progress has
stalled due to the ongoing ethnic conflict. Sinohydro is also the
company due to build the Tasang Dam, in Shan State, as well as the
currently suspended Myitsone hydropower project on the Irrawaddy River
in Kachin State.
And it appears work on the upstream Tasang Dam is also intensifying in
the wake of a peace deal signed between the rebel Shan State Army-South
and Burmese government in late May, with Chinese workers seen surveying
nearby land soon after the agreement, according to rebel sources.
Tasangï¿½purported to become the largest dam in Southeast Asia and the
single largest investment project in Burmaï¿½is expected to displace at
least 60,000 people, with Thailand expected to purchase at least 85
percent of the power produced.
Local people complain of a lack of consultation and inadequate
environmental impact assessments compared with the scale of the projects
being undertaken. "If they dam the river then we do not know what will
happen to our lives here," a fishmonger in Pa-an's central market told
The Irrawaddy on Saturday. "No one has told us anything about this."
The Salween River begins its journey high in the Himalayas at 4,000
meters above sea level on the Tibetan Plateau and remains an integral
part of the livelihoods and cultures of many groups including the Shan,
Wa, Karenni, Pa-O, Palaung, Mon, Lahu, Padaung, Akha and Lisu.
Fishing is a major source of food for Burma's Shan and Karen communities
while the Salween's nutrient-rich waters also replenish vegetable
gardens and farmlands. Yet the natural ebb and flow of the tides and
seasonal flooding would be a thing of the past should the planned
cascade of dams come to fruition.
And it is not just the Burmese that are concerned with the lack of
consultation as Thailand, despite being a major backer of several
projects, is also becoming increasingly worried.
"Interestingly, in 2010 the Thai Prime Minister's Office issued a
recommendation regarding the Hatgyi Dam," explained Pianporn. "In the
recommendation it said there should be a new transboundary impacts
assessment covering Thai soilï¿½the existing [Environmental Impact
Assessment] by Chulalongkorn University didn't cover impacts on Thailand."
"There were public hearings in local areas by the Prime Minister's
Office. But since then there has not been any study undertaken. Affected
communities in Thailand are preparing to submit a letter to the Thai PM
asking about this."
Protests against construction of the dams have been isolated yet
fierceï¿½hundreds of Internally Displaced Persons at Ho Kay, Por Ka Der
and E-tu Hta temporary camps on the banks of the Salween have been
campaigning against the Hatgyi since 2004, the latest mass demonstration
being this past March.
"If the dams are built, the downstream effects stand to alter the lives
of over half a million people," says a report by International Rivers
released last month. "These effects could include altering river flows,
increasing erosion, destroying islands, damaging downstream agriculture,
reducing fish catches and potentially triggering disastrous earthquakes
and dam breaks in this seismically active region."
Protesters also worry that these dams will repeat the problems of
previous mega construction projectsï¿½civilians being forcibly removed
from their homes, losing their livelihoods, being the target of vicious
assaults and random executions as well as destroying the fragile
ecosystems of the area.
Despite the ongoing campaigns, however, many local people remain unaware
of the danger the dams present. "Normal people around here don't really
know much about these dams," confessed a social worker based in
Moulmein. "They are too busy just trying to get on with their daily
lives and making a little money."
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