Villagers count cost of Myanmar dam project
By Michael Peel in Paunglaung
Financial Times March 21, 2014
The looming flood in Myanmar's Paunglaung river valley has forced
thousands of residents out to higher ground, leaving behind deserted
bamboo buildings where the only sign of life is the haunting toll of
A Chinese-backed dam downstream is due within months to shut its gates
and start submerging more than 20 villages here, in a project that will
power Myanmar's purpose-built capital city – and add to the dispute over
the fast-opening nation's future.
"We have never felt like this before," said Ma Khin Oo Wai, 24, whose
family had to leave their rice farm and are now making a living weaving
baskets and gathering wood in a new settlement up in the hills. "I don't
know what effect this will have on the country – but for our village
this is a serious setback."
Opponents of the Upper Paunglaung development and dozens of other
planned dams scattered around Myanmar claim the damage will be too great
and the benefits too small from this energy bonanza at one of Asia's
richest hydroelectric frontiers. However, supporters say the dams offer
an unpalatable but unavoidable answer to electricity shortages that
plague citizens and curb the ambitions of a nation emerging from decades
of insular military dictatorship.
"The economic development of this country is going to come at a huge
social and environmental cost," said Richard Horsey, an independent
Yangon-based analyst. "It's easy and nice to say these dams are bad,
which they are – but, at a certain point, the alternatives may be worse."
The Upper Paunglaung dam is part of the three-year-old quasi-civilian
government's strategy to focus on the country's little-exploited
estimated 100,000 megawatt hydroelectric potential, which is roughly
equivalent to the installed electricity capacity of the UK. Myanmar's
great waterways – including the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers – are seen
as a way to bridge a power gap that cripples companies with power losses
and has left more than four in five rural people without network
electricity, according to the Asian Development Bank.
But the plan has stuttered forward so far, with some projects delayed or
cast into doubt because they are in areas of conflict between the
government and ethnic militias. Many of the sites are shut off in
security zones guarded by a military put on still higher alert by
incidents such as a mysterious bomb attack in December that killed three
people not far from the planned Kunlong dam.
Other hydroelectric projects are provoking protest because some of their
production is likely to be sent to energy-hungry neighbours such as
Thailand and, especially, China. In a case that resonated nationwide,
the Myanmar government responded to demonstrations in 2011 by
indefinitely suspending work on the Myitsone dam in the far north of the
country, whose contractors included the state China Power Investment
"People in other regions protest against these projects and they are
postponed or cancelled," U Kyaw Mint, 49, a village head in the
Paunglaung river community of Khan Hla, or "Good Fortune" noted
wistfully. "But we say nothing and it goes ahead."
Upper Paunglaung's 140MW generating capacity is tiny compared with some
proposed dams – such as the towering 7,100MW Tasang – but the project
foreshadows some bigger brewing battles. Built by a consortium including
China's Yunnan Machinery Equipment Import & Export Company and AF Group
of Switzerland, it is the second in a pair of dams in an area of
spectacular beauty in the hinterland of the wide but still near-deserted
highways of Naypyidaw, capital since 2005.
The dam is a shock to local people who fish in the gently rippling
Paunglaung river or farm in the lee of the hills ripe with stories of
animist spirits, such as the region's fabled green ghosts. Relocated
farmers say the hillside areas they now till are much less accessible
and fertile than their former valley paddies, causing food shortages
they fear will worsen.
"I do not like that situation, as we will become bandits among us,"
lamented U Aye Maung, 59, who said he only had 40 bags of rice in store
for this year, barely half what his family needed. "Sometimes I foresee
that one house will steal from another – and I will also steal from
others, and we will hit each other with sticks and kill each other with
Villagers still nervous of criticising government after generations of
repression say they have been given some compensation, new land and a
water supply piped down from the mountains, but still have no network
electricity – and have access only to a basic school and no hospital.
"Government is like our father, and we can't go against our father,"
confided one local man, tacitly referencing the historic intimidation
and rights abuses locals and activists say took place after the then
military junta launched the Paunglaung project a decade ago. "But we
pray that maybe there are technical problems with this project, so that
the dam breaks."
Myanmar government officials point to the money and services already
delivered to the Paunglaung river communities and say more will follow.
The dam companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
For now, villagers in the Paunglaung area are waiting for the waters –
and wondering just what they will get back for a sacrifice that will be
demanded from more of their fellow citizens as their country changes.
"We heard that they will provide us electricity, but that will be the
only benefit for the village." said Moe Aung, 18, as he gathered with
friends clad in Arsenal, Liverpool and Barcelona shirts for a
valedictory football match on a pitch they have played on since
childhood. "Apart from that, the rest will be negative".
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