Corporations owned by governments are at the heart of a relentless push to build hydro-electric dam systems in Southeast Asia.
These corporations are driven by a combination of political pressure for energy security and to justify their existence and growth.
The dams―in Burma, China’s Yunnan Province, Laos and Cambodia―jeopardise farmland, fisheries, forests, natural irrigation and rare wildlife and threaten to force many thousands of people from their homes, say environmental protection groups.
Three of the biggest corporations involved are China’s Sinohydro Corporation, the China Power Investment Corporation and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT).
Between them, they are building or have plans to build enough electricity generating capacity from hydro dams to fuel the whole of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore on present power consumption in those countries.
Blueprints for hydro dam construction projects in Laos alone, a country of only six million people, would create an installed electricity generating capacity of 40,000 megawatts―enough to keep the lights, air conditioners and factories operating in Thailand and Malaysia.
Such targets include controversial dams on the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers in Burma, the Mekong where it runs through Laos, and some of the region’s last animal and plant wilderness areas in Cambodia.
And despite stop orders at present on two major projects―the Myitsone on the Irrawaddy and the Xayaburi on the Mekong―campaigners are not hopeful they will be permanently halted.
The American NGO International Rivers thinks dams planned for the Irrawaddy, the Salween, the Mekong and forested areas of Laos and Cambodia will “probably” go ahead finally because public accountability in the region remains weak.
“These dams have been pushed in the name of development, for prosperity and happiness of the people,” Pianporn Deetes, a spokeswoman for International Rivers, told The Irrawaddy.
“Any scientific and local knowledge evidence [against the dams] would not mean anything for such decisions,” she added.
The Chinese state-owned and controlled Sinohydro Corporation, possibly the world’s biggest hydro-electric developer, claims the Three Gorges system in China and the Bakun Dam in Malaysian Borneo among its dubious credits.
The colossal Three Gorges can in theory generate 12 times Burma’s present electricity producing capacity, but is beset with problems ranging from water shortages to environmental degradation.
The Bakun Dam in Malaysia’s Sarawak State is a white elephant which has been under construction for 15 years, has cost taxpayers over US$2 billion and is still not fully operational. In the process it has despoiled an area of tropical forest the size of Singapore.
Two large unfinished projects, one in Burma the other in Laos, underline how determined these state corporations are to build their dams regardless of the opposition.
In Burma, the victory celebrations by opponents of the 6,000-megawatt Myitsone project on the Irrawaddy have been short lived. Only seven months after President Thein Sein decreed that the unpopular dam was suspended indefinitely, evidence is growing that its Chinese developers, led by Sinohydro, are still active on the site.
In Laos, despite an unequivocal call by the Mekong Rivers Commission (MRC) to halt all construction on the 1,300-megawatt Xayaburi project pending a new environmental impact study, there is evidence of continuing site work, claims International Rivers.
The main backer of the $3.7 billion Xayaburi dam is EGAT which will buy most of the electricity generated by the project.
Thailand is a member of the four-country MRC which agreed at a ministerial-level meeting last December to stop work on the dam. The Vietnamese and Cambodian governments are concerned that the dam will reduce water flow and stop fish swimming upstream to spawning grounds. The lower Mekong provides food for millions of people living alongside its route from Laos to the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam.
“Until recently, many of us hoped that the MRC would resolve regional crises such as these,” says California-based International Rivers. “The past year, however, has revealed glaring holes in the ability of the MRC to make decisions. In the case of the Xayaburi Dam, for example, Laos and Thailand have defied the regional process and proceeded with preliminary construction.”
In Burma’s Kachin State, reports as recent as April 6 indicate that preparations are in progress around the Myitsone site near the confluence of the N’mai and Mali rivers where scores of Chinese workers remain.
In Shan State near the border with Thailand, Chinese surveyors have been reported working in the vicinity of an even bigger hydro-electric dam, the 7,300-megawatt Tasang scheme on the Salween River. Sinohydro is also the main contractor here, and one of the chief backers and likely main recipient of any electricity generated is, once again, EGAT.
The Chinese have also dammed their own upper reaches of the Salween and Mekong rivers, but why do the Thais not build dams in their own backyard?
“Thai companies often feel there are too many obstacles within Thailand and prefer the benefits of working in unregulated environments where projects can be maximized without the need to comply with all of the laws and regulations investors face inside Thailand,” Pianporn explained.
“In Thailand, civil society can at least raise environmental concerns to the companies and government for better standards and good governance.”
A statement published by the Burma Rivers Network NGO on behalf of dozens of community groups alleged last week that despite recent reforms which have wooed senior Western politicians, major energy-related development projects in Burma continue to trigger “human rights abuses against local villagers, particularly ethnic communities.”
“These projects have been started without standards to prevent harmful environmental and social impacts, and will therefore cause more refugees,” the statement said. “Large-scale development projects should not be implemented in areas of Burma where conflict remains unresolved, as this will simply fuel further conflict.”
International Rivers says the next decade is critical for the future of major regional rivers, notably the Mekong, but warns that “the region’s governments and greedy foreign interests” seem intent on constructing scores of dams which will have “devastating impacts on downstream communities.”