[Below are two articles posted in chinadialogue on China's role in a set
of controversial dams in Burma and Russia. Click on the source links for
photos and supporting documents.]
China-backed dams escalating ethnic tension in Myanmar
By Grace Mang and Katy Yan
Companies pursuing dam projects on Myanmar's Salween River are failing
to learn from painful past experiences
One month after the Chinese government lifted its ban on dams on the
upper Salween River (known as the Nu in China), the Burmese government
confirmed that it too will allow the construction of Chinese-backed
hydropower projects along the lower Salween.
In late February, the deputy minister for electric power told parliament
that six dams would be built on the Salween to generate electricity,
referring to the Kunlong, Tasang, Hat Gyi, Nong Pa (Naungpha), Mantawng
and Ywathit dams. While the Myanmar government has yet to reveal the
companies involved in the projects, it is no secret that among them are
dam-building giants Sinohydro, China Three Gorges Project Corporation
and China Southern Power Grid.
In 2010, the Myanmar government signed memorandums of understanding for
these hydropower projects, paving the way for various
Chinese-Thai-Burmese joint ventures to develop them. According to those
agreements, most of the generated power will to go to Thailand or China.
As in the case of the Myitsone dam ï¿½ a controversial Chinese-funded
project on the Irrawaddy River suddenly suspended in 2011 ï¿½ the proposed
Salween schemes highlight the challenges facing Chinese dam developers
overseas and their international responsibilities.
In an interview with Chinese state-owned newspaper Global Times, a
spokesperson for China's embassy in Myanmar noted that, since the
Myitsone dam suspension, it had been "the toughest time for Chinese
investment in Myanmar", with some projects mired in controversy and no
new investments coming from China.
In response, China Power Investment, the company behind the Myitsone
project, has invested significant resources in trying to change Burmese
perceptions of the dam ï¿½ by hosting Burmese media in China, increasing
media access to company executives to make their case and leafleting
It seems that China Power Investment is not the only dam builder
learning from Myitsone. Earlier this year, Sinohydro hastily set up over
20 regional new bureaus around the world to focus on communicating the
company's brand and project activities more effectively. But
International Rivers has seen little evidence of real change in the way
Chinese dam builders go about their projects overseas.
Local people say "no" to Chinese dams
Tensions remain high around China's role in developing dams in Myanmar
largely due to questions about who will benefit. In a country where
energy shortages occur daily and about a third of people live below the
poverty line, many criticise the development of natural resources for
the sake of providing energy to neighbouring states.
A 2008 report by Earth Rights International identified at least 69
Chinese multinational corporations involved in 90 hydropower, oil and
natural gas, mining, jade and other natural resource projects in
Myanmar. Critics argue the Salween dam projects will do little more than
benefit the Burmese government's cronies, since the projects were
initiated by the former military junta, without bringing about the
economic prosperity that Myanmar's people need.
In addition, dam building in the region is exacerbating ongoing
conflicts in ethnic minority areas, according to a recent briefing by
grassroots group Salween Watch. Apart from being one of the richest
ecological hotspots in the region, the Salween River is home to at least
13 indigenous groups including the Nu, Lisu, Shan, Karen, Pa-o, Karenni
and Mon. Conflicts between the Burmese army and local Shan and Karen
people, as well as Kokang Chinese near the China-Myanmar border, have
been under way for over two decades.
Local communities and internally displaced persons are concerned that
the dam plans will lead to increased militarisation, human rights
abuses, environmental destruction and loss of local livelihoods.
During a gathering of 2,000 Karens on the Salween in celebration of the
International Day of Action for Rivers in mid March, Paul Sein Twa,
director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN)
said: "Local people do not want any dams on the Salween River,
especially in Karen State, without the free, prior and informed consent
of impacted communities. The government and the Karen National Union
need to broaden the decision making process so that it is transparent,
inclusive and democratic."
While the government has struck deals with ethnic groups, the ceasefires
have not held and the local situation remains tense. It is clear that
any attempts to proceed with these dam projects without full
consultation and consent of local people, only threaten to plunge both
sides back into intense fighting and conflict.
Increased militarisation around dam sites
The incidence of conflict around large dam projects is not unique to
Myanmar. Conflicts over water and dams are probably as old as dam
building itself, including documented cases in the United States on the
Colorado River and between Syria and Iraq over the Eurphrates. While
large dams are not always the root of the conflict, they can exacerbate
In the Salween river basin, dam projects have led to increased
militarisation of local areas to safeguard Chinese workers. In 2011, the
zone around the Ywathit dam was remilitarised to protect the Chinese and
Burmese dam survey team following the deaths of Chinese engineers in
2010 during an ambush by Karenni resistance troops. Today, special
security troops still prevent local environmental groups from gaining
access to the dam site to collect information from the area.
Troops have also been deployed to provide additional security for the
Chinese company developing the Hat Gyi dam, despite the conclusion of an
initial ceasefire agreement between the government and the Karen
National Army in January 2012. This has led many Karen leaders to
question whether the government is more serious about peace or natural
resource development. According to local witnesses, there are currently
no less than eight army battalions stationed around the Hat Gyi dam
site. "Right now, private investors are stifling the hopes of the Karens
for a lasting peace," said Paul Sein Twa.
While Chinese-built dams are not the cause of the ethnic conflicts along
the Salween River, they are a critical negotiating point. The ceasefire
agreement signed by the Karenni National Progressive Party specifically
called for greater transparency and disclosure around the proposed
Whether Chinese, Thai and Burmese dam builders will respond to the
changing political situation and openly engage their key stakeholders or
continue to work shielded behind army lines remains to be seen. Unless
the dam builders want to risk escalating tensions in the Salween Basin,
they must respond to the situation by changing the way they do business.
This requires consultation with local people and obtaining their consent
for mega-development projects.
In fact, one of the Chinese dam builders, Sinohydro, has already set
itself the standard of obtaining the free prior and informed consent of
indigenous peoples in its policy framework ï¿½ in line with international
standards. However, it has yet to implement this on the ground.
If dam builders fail to acquire consent, the consequences of proceeding
with projects regardless of local realities and without the will of the
local people may plunge the region back into the shadow of a decades-old
Chinese investors targeted in campaign against Siberian dams
By Jenny Johnson
Activists say hydro energy supplied to Chinese cities will come at
social and ecological cost for Russia, calling it "a perfect example of
Russian companies want to help China quench its enormous thirst for
electricity through dramatic expansion of hydropower along Siberia's
many free-flowing rivers, calling it a way for China to diversify its
power supply and help solve its growing air pollution problem.
But Russian and Chinese environmental advocates are opposed to the
projects, and they are targeting Chinese investors, who are essential to
getting new projects off the ground. They say Siberian hydropower ï¿½ far
from a renewable energy source that can generate carbon credits on the
international market ï¿½ is an environmentally and socially destructive
form of energy that puts investors' reputations at risk.
At the forefront of the hydropower expansion are two major new dams in
Siberia that are in the early stages of the approval process:
Trans-Siberian on the Shilka River in the Amur River basin, and
Nizhne-Angarskaya on the Angara River flowing out of Lake Baikal.
The two dams represent one of the first steps in a larger plan by
EuroSibEnergo, part of the private Russian energy firm EN+ Group, to set
off a hydropower boom in Eastern Russia, where it estimates only 20% of
potential hydropower resources are utilised.
The group scored a major victory in the expansion of hydropower in
Siberia and energy supply to China late last year, by bringing the
Boguchanskaya dam online.
"We are at the beginning of a long road," Artem Volynets, EN+ Group
general director, told state television channel Rossiya-24 in a February
4 interview. Volynets is encouraging China to broaden its cooperation
with Russia and help finance hydropower projects that will help reduce
"Every year, China needs to add 100 gigawatts of capacity, and the basic
method of producing electricity in China is coal . . . That means
enormous emissions to the atmosphere, and that atmosphere is common to
all of us, our whole planet, not just China," Volynets said. "The more
coal China burns, the more greenhouse gas emissions are emitted, and it
will be worse for our planet's atmosphere."
However, while EN+ makes claims about its environmental goals for
hydropower supply to China, it is also supplying China with coal. On
March 22, EN+, China Development Bank and Shenhua Group signed a US$2
billion agreement in Moscow in front of the countries' deputy prime
ministers to jointly develop coal reserves in Eastern Siberia.
Environmentalists target Chinese investors
Environmental activists are seeking to head off such cooperation
agreements on hydropower by raising the profile of the China
Export-Import Bank, China Yangtze Power and other Chinese companies in
potentially financing new projects.
"We in principle hold that the mass export of electricity from the
environmental, economic and social perspectives could bring Russia and
the transboundary ecosystems of Russia and China very large damage,"
said Eugene Simonov, international coordinator of Rivers Without Boundaries.
The coalition group Rivers Without Boundaries, which includes Russian,
Chinese, Mongolian and other environmental groups, is sending letters
and connecting with Chinese companies, saying they "should not support
haphazard proposals for quick hydropower development in Russia."
The group says EN+ hydro projects do not comply with Chinese law, which
requires environmental impact assessments. "EN+ Group has launched a
campaign and [is] promoting Siberian rivers as sustainable energy
resources, but this claim is groundless, as neither [the Trans-Siberian
nor Nizhne-Angarskaya project] follows any national or international
sustainable development principles," the group's March 14 letter to
China Export-Import Bank said.
For the activists, the negative environmental and social impacts of the
Boguchanskaya dam, which flooded an area of forest not cleared in
preparation for the reservoir, serves as a prime example of what awaits
if similar schemes are allowed to go ahead in Siberia. Local and
international groups said in a March 22 report on the construction of
the dam that EN+ failed to carry out the necessary environmental and
social protection measures.
"What is happening before our eyes in the development of natural
resources in the Angara River Basin is a clear demonstration that the
preferred strategy is for getting rich quick while cutting out all
ancillary costs not directly related to the extraction of profit,"
Aleksander Kolotov, Russian coordinator of the project Rivers Without
Boundaries, said in a statement about the report.
WWF called the Boguchanskaya dam "a perfect example of environmental
Danger for Lake Baikal
Activists say the environmental and social stakes are even higher in the
cases of the Trans-Siberian and Nizhne-Amurskaya dams. They say the
Trans-Siberian dam would destroy a unique floodplain ecosystem in the
Dauria region, along with cultural heritage sites. The Nizhne-Angarskaya
dam would disrupt the ecosystem of Lake Baikal, a globally important
source of fresh water, according to the environmental groups.
"At this point, no plan exists to sustainably limit and direct the
development of this industry in the context of Russian and Chinese
cooperation," Simonov said. "If the killing of river ecosystems that is
happening now in China is exported to Russia, no one will win."
Activists are asking for Russian and Chinese companies to develop a
sustainable development plan at the basin-wide level and measures to
protect ecosystems and indigenous communities. They are also demanding
the creation of reserves where hydropower plans will not be built.
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