The fate of the Salween River in eastern Burma remains unclear, despite the government’s release of information about dams planned for the river in response to questions raised in Parliament earlier this week.
The Salween, Burma’s second largest river, is slated to see construction of six hydro-power dams in the coming years, although when exactly they will be built, and what has happened to plans for a seventh dam that was shelved in 2007, is still unknown.
On Wednesday, the deputy minister for electric power, Myint Zaw, told the Lower House that six dams would be built in partnership with foreign investors.
“All he said was that six dams would be built on the Salween to generate electricity,” said Khin Maung Yi, a Lower House MP from the opposition National Democratic Force party who represents a constituency in Rangoon’s Ahlone Township.
“I asked him about the Tasang Dam, but he didn’t answer,” he added.
The Tasang Dam, a proposed 7,110 megawatt project in southern Shan State’s Mai Tong Township, was put on hold in 2007 for unspecified reasons. The project attracted widespread criticism because of concerns about its social and environmental impact.
One reason for the government’s reticence on the issue of the dam may be the fact that opposition to projects initiated under the former military junta has grown since the current quasi-civilian government assumed power two years ago.
“As the previous projects were agreed upon for the private benefit of military-backed cronies, it seems the government doesn’t want to say too much about them,” said Win Myo Thu, chairman of the environmental NGO Economically Progressive Ecosystem Development (EcoDev).
“If they don’t come clean, however, it will only complicate matters. What we really need in our government is someone who has the courage to really talk about these issues,” he added.
Despite this criticism, however, the government has released information about the other six dams, including the foreign investment partners—mostly Chinese and Thai companies—and how much each would generate. All are located in predominantly ethnic areas in Shan, Karenni and Karen states.
It was unclear where most of the generated electricity would go, but around 85 percent of the power that was supposed to be produced by the Thai-backed Tasang dam was slated for export to Thailand.
The fact that most of Burma’s energy resources have benefited the country’s neighbors more than its own people has long been a sore point for many Burmese, fueling opposition to megaprojects such as the Chinese-financed Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River, which was suspended in September 2011.
Now, however, the government is trying to sell the public on the idea of using the dams to meet domestic needs—something that some many still reject on environmental grounds.
“We can meet our own needs by building on smaller tributaries and using other sources,” said Win Myo Thu. “We should try to preserve the biggest rivers—the Irrawaddy, the Salween and the Chindwin—and keep them natural.”