Knowledge Vacuum and Conflict Plague Salween River

By Demelza Black 14 March 2015

HPA-AN, Karen State – Bright sunlight bears down on Saw Nyan Win as he unravels his fishing net with practiced hands on the bank of the Salween river, “I have already identified 16 species of fish existing in this area,” he tells me, “but I need more time to be able to identify many more.”

We are standing on the west bank of the Salween north of Hpa-an, the capital of Karen State, in eastern Burma. Saw Nyan Win has fished the river for decades, and now works as a field-researcher for the Karen Environmental Social Action Network (KESAN) identifying which species of fish live and breed in this area.

“I have heard about the dams, but I’m worried that if they block the river it will be difficult to catch fish,” he tells me. Saw Nyan Win is one of thousands of Salween fishermen who face an unknown future.

Caught up in a web of international energy demand and supply, the fate of the Salween lies with the Burmese government, Burmese, Chinese and Thai hydropower companies, and to some extent the ethnic political groups who control pockets of territory along the river. Desire to tame its wild power is fierce, sometimes resulting in flares of conflict along its banks. There are currently five ongoing dam plans for the Salween in Burma, with at least thirteen more in China.

The Salween originates high on the Tibetan Plateau and flows 2,800 kilometers through some of the world’s most biologically diverse regions to its mouth at the Andaman Sea. A third of its fish species are endemic. It is the lifeblood for an estimated six million people, hosting a plethora of ethnic groups including the Shan, Wa, Karenni, Pa-O, Palaung, Mon, Lahu, Padaung, Akha and Lisu. The second longest river in Southeast Asia after the Mekong, for now the Salween remains free-flowing.

Burma’s Deputy Minister of Electrical Power Maw Thar Htwe told Parliament in 2014 that the government will continue forging ahead with the Salween dams. The Kunlong, Nong Pa, Ta Sang, Ywathit and Hatgyi hydropower projects are estimated to produce more than 15,000 megawatts of power, most of which will be exported to China and Thailand. Saw Nyan Win and other environmentalists are calling for more time to study the Salween’s watershed before the series of dams unleashes a raft of impacts on local people and the environment. Activists are worried that in the tide of billion dollar deals, genuine assessments of the dams environmental and social impacts are being swept aside.

Lamenting the knowledge vacuum surrounding the potential environmental and social impacts of damming the entire Salween, Pianporn Deetes, Thailand coordinator of International Rivers, an NGO that campaigns against dam construction said in an interview last year “…we’ll never know what we’ll be losing because we don’t have adequate knowledge about what we have in the river basin.’’

Dam construction and the interruption of natural water flows encompasse a host of environmental impacts. These include depletion of fisheries, loss of agricultural lands, degradation of forests, loss of biodiversity and salinization of freshwater areas. Without efforts to produce comprehensive environmental impact assessments (EIA) for the dams, nor a cumulative study of the entire impact on the river basin, the full scale of potential environmental damage is left in the dark.

Communities like fisherman Saw Nyan Win’s, which are largely dependent on fisheries as a source of protein and income, are left guessing what the effects will be on their livelihoods. Two environmental assessments that have been conducted for the Kunlong and Hatgyi dams have been widely criticized for being inadequate and lacking transparency, bypassing consultation or input from affected people.

Burma passed a national environmental conservation law in 2012, on paper giving some power to the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry to assess and approve or reject development projects in accordance with their projected social and environmental impacts, although these need approval from Naypyidaw. Professor Maung Maung Aye, Chief Advisor of the Myanmar Environment Institute urged that, “[The] Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry and Ministry of Electric Power must ensure that EIAs and SIAs are carried out as genuine investigations rather than formalities.”

Electrification within Burma is a crucial emerging issue, as indeed it is in the wider region as the economies of Southeast Asian countries and China grow and their populations demand ever more power. Harnessing the Salween’s hydropower potential is seen as an essential part of the national energy development strategy and will bring vast profits for the Burmese government, but critics are irked by plans to export much of the estimated combined 15,000 MWs of electricity to China and Thailand leaving Burma to bear the huge environmental and social costs.

Sai Khur Hseng from the campaign group Salween Watch said, “The government should not be prioritizing the energy needs of our neighbors over the security and sustainable development of its own citizens.”

Preparations underway for all of the five dam sites have already borne the hallmarks of large-scale development projects in Burma whereby human rights abuses and lack of consultation with local people is the norm. Land confiscation, forced relocation and conflict have already disenfranchised tens of thousands of people living along the river who remain isolated from the decision-making process. A 100 km highway construction project begun in 2012 to provide access to the Kunlong dam site is implicated in the loss of land, homes and crops for more than 20,000 people from about 60 villages, the Shan Human Rights Foundation reported in February 2014. The affected people reportedly received no prior consultation about the road project, or compensation for their lands or livelihoods.

The Maidong dam, known as the Ta Sang dam before its recent relocation, is slated to be among the largest investment projects in Burma, and will have a total estimated capacity of 7000 MW. Thana Puttangsri, President of EGAT International Limited, a subsidiary of Thailand’s state-owned electricity generating outfit, EGAT, told the Bangkok Post in November 2014 that he expected to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Burmese government this year to purchase 6300 MW of power from the Maidong dam project over a 40 year contract, the remaining 700 MW will be sold back to Burma.

At a parliamentary session last year Deputy Minister of Electrical Power Maw Thar Htwe assured the lower house that the Maidong hydropower project would be implemented with a focus on domestic needs, the Democratic Voice of Burma reported. He said that electrical distribution would benefit Burma’s population and vowed that the ministry would consult local communities about their concerns. A public consultation was reportedly carried out for the project on March 10, but no results from the consultation have yet been made publicly available. Sai Khur Hseng commented that accessing the site to gain information on progress has become near impossible since the Burmese Army mans checkpoints all along the access routes to the site.

Hostilities along the Salween continue to be linked to the need to secure both access routes to and the dam sites themselves. The Burma Rivers Network recently issued a press release in which the group called for an immediate halt to Salween dam projects, “which are fuelling war and violating the rights of local peoples.”

Fighting in October 2014 between the Burma Army-affiliated Border Guard Force (BGF) and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army’s (DKBA) 5th brigade resulted in the DKBA abandoning their posts at Kan Nyi Naung village, which is 15 minutes by boat south of the Hatgyi dam site in Karen State. The subsequent expansion of the BGF camp into Kan Nyi Naung led the NGO Karen Rivers Watch to call the conflict at Kan Nyi Naung “part of a calculated military strategy” as part of a drive to control territory, “possibly motivated by plans to construct the Hatgyi Dam on the Salween River.”

Urging Chinese and Thai hydropower companies descending on the Salween to allow the peace process to materialize before proceeding with the dam projects, Pianporn Deetes said: “This is the reverse part of the story, they [local people] are fleeing for their lives, they are going to the border, they are hiding themselves in the jungle, their land has been confiscated, and the dam is being built. What will they have when peace returns to their home? It will be under a reservoir, it will be under the ownership of the dam company.”

Puttering in Saw Nyan Win’s boat back to the east riverbank, we drift past people working in peanut fields on the wide fertile plains. The fields are dusty and scorching under the hot sun, but soon they will be flooded in the natural seasonal floods that bring nutrience for next season’s crops. Here in the slow heat it is hard to imagine the flurry of furtive activity upstream that stands to change everything along the river’s path.