President Thein Sein’s surprise suspension of the Chinese-led hydroelectric dam on the Irrawaddy River at Myitsone in northwestern Burma secured him widespread praise at home and abroad and seemingly dismayed China.
This was a project that would help solve power shortages in China’s Yunnan Province by generating up to 6,000 megawatts of electricity to pump north across the border.
But away from the mass media spotlight, environmentally questionable large hydro dams further east in Burma on the Salween River are quietly going ahead with the approval of the Thein Sein government.
Approval for a clutch of dams on the Salween which collectively will generate much more electricity than the Myitsone project has been given in the old-fashioned military regime way—without any public consultation, independent environmental impact assessments, or regard for the simmering military-ethnic conflicts in their midst.
Apart from a brief announcement earlier this year by the Ministry of Electric Power, the Naypyidaw government has so far failed to identify who will build the Salween dams, who will benefit from the electricity generated and how the local communities will be compensated.
The ministry said approval had been given for six projects on the Salween in Shan and Karen states.
They include hydro dams at Tasang and Hatgyi which have been debated for years and have had a number of Chinese and Thai backers, including the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, or EGAT. They would have a combined installed capacity of 15,000 megawatts, according to the US-based environmental lobby group International Rivers.
That is about four times Burma’s present total electricity producing capability.
“These projects are proceeding in areas where conflict is continuing between ethnic resistance forces and the Burmese Army, and are shrouded in secrecy,” says International Rivers. “Investment for these projects will come from five Chinese and three Burmese corporations, and Thailand’s Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.”
The Beijing-based environment lobby group China Dialogue has identified three large Chinese state-owned companies it says now have contracts from the Burmese government to proceed with dams construction on the Salween.
They are Sinohydro Corporation, China Three Gorges Corporation and China Southern Power Grid.
The Three Gorges Corp developed the world’s biggest hydroelectric system on the Yangtze River in China which has caused considerable environmental problems since its completion. China Southern is not a dam builder but an electricity transmission infrastructure builder responsible for all power supply in southern China.
“Tensions remain high around China’s role in developing dams in Myanmar largely due to questions about who will benefit,” says China Dialogue, which also has offices in London.
“In a country where energy shortages occur daily and about a third of people live below the poverty line, many criticize the development of natural resources for the sake of providing energy to neighboring states.
“Local communities and internally displaced persons are concerned that the dam plans will lead to increased militarization, human rights abuses, environmental destruction and loss of local livelihoods,” China Dialogue noted.
The risk of armed conflict around two of the Salween dam sites has heightened recently with demands by the Burmese Army for local militias to move away.
The army’s Southeast Command ordered Karen militia forces to leave an area near the Hatgyi dam site they are occupying by May 4, but the Karen have not complied.
This follows an earlier order by the Burmese Army to the Shan State Army-North to vacate their base beside the Salween which they have occupied under the terms of a ceasefire agreement.
Their base is near the sites of two planned dams. One is at Nong Pha and one at Man Tung on the Nam Ma tributary of the Salween and they will have a combined electricity generating capacity of 1,200 megawatts, according to the Burma Rivers Network NGO.
“To my knowledge, EGAT International is actively involved in the Hatgyi dam, but has tried to keep itself more behind the scenes,” International Rivers’ Thailand coordinator Pianporn Deetes told The Irrawaddy on May 8.
“EGAT International and Sinohydro are taking advantage of the conflict situation [along the Salween] to proceed with their investment. Most local ethnic people have already been forced to flee to the border and were not given a say in the decision to build the dams.
“Dams on the Salween including Hatgyi, Tasang, and others, have been used as a weapon to control the conflict areas.”
The Bangkok government is anxious to reduce the country’s dependence on natural gas to fuel electricity generation. Thailand’s own gas resources in the Gulf of Thailand will decline after 2021 without new discoveries and the Thais already import about 30 percent of their needs from Burmese fields.
There is a virtual moratorium on new dam construction within Thailand because of vocal public opposition and EGAT is already co-financing development of a highly controversial hydro-dam directly on the Mekong River inside Laos.
EGAT is the main financial backer of the US $3.7 billion Xayaburi dam and Thailand will buy most of the electricity generated by the 1,260 megawatt capacity operation.
The Xayaburi project is going ahead despite objections by the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam, which share the Mekong downstream. They argue that the dam will disrupt river water flow and levels and undermine agriculture and fisheries.
EGAT has for a long time eyed the lower Salween’s potential to provide electricity to also help solve Thailand’s future power needs. It flows parallel to the Thai border and electricity could easily be transferred across it by power grid cable.
Meanwhile, at the upper end of the Salween in Burma, China could yet get the electricity it needs for Yunnan Province—without the Myitsone dam project.