PA-AN, Karen State — 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 Dam—one of seven on the cards on Burma’s stretch of the river—has 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.
Tasang—purported to become the largest dam in Southeast Asia and the single largest investment project in Burma—is 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 soil—the 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 fierce—hundreds 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 projects—civilians 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.”