Australian Firm Says Community Opposition Impeding Consultations on Controversial Dam

By David Hopkins 16 June 2015

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — An Australian company contracted to assess the potential environmental and social impact of the planned Mongton dam has responded to recent criticism of the consultation process, saying that interference with its data collection efforts could lead to “suboptimal outcomes for the affected communities.”

The Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC) has faced significant local opposition since holding its first public consultations on the project on March 10 in Taunggyi, Shan State. It cancelled a planned public meeting on April 30 in Shan State’s Kunhing—a township in the path of the proposed dam’s massive reservoir—where hundreds of locals had gathered to protest the project.

SMEC was appointed to conduct the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Social Impact Assessment (SIA) for the hydropower project which is backed by three Chinese companies, China Three Gorges Corporation, China Southern Power Grid and Sinohydro; the state-owned Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT); and local conglomerate the International Group of Entrepreneurs, owned by the sons of Union Solidarity and Development Party lawmaker Aung Thaung, who was placed on a US Treasury blacklist last October.

In a statement sent to The Irrawaddy, SMEC acknowledged opposition to the Mongton project and the notion of hydropower on the Salween River in general, but stressed that EIA/SIA meetings were “forums for the exchange of technical information” and not “platforms for political lobbying and demonstration.”

The firm warned that “important future decisions may be based on poor or incomplete data” if the EIA/SIA process was disrupted.

“Disruption of technical meetings by organised groups and demonstrations, often by people from outside the area, does have the potential to impede the information gathering process and ultimately is a disservice to the communities and stakeholders that may be directly impacted by the project,” SMEC said.

At 241 meters in height, the 7,000 megawatt-capacity hydropower dam is the largest of six controversial dams planned along Burma’s stretch of the Salween River. Most of the electricity generated by the hydropower project, which Burma’s government has admitted would flood an estimated 676 square km area of farmland and forest, is expected to be sold to Thailand and China.

On June 9, a coalition of 16 Shan civil society organizations derided SMEC’s community consultations as merely a “rubber stamp” and alleged that SMEC field surveyors in Mongton angered local villagers “by only explaining the positive impacts of the dam, giving them ‘gifts’ which they saw as bribes, and persuading them to sign documents they didn’t understand.”

SMEC told The Irrawaddy that it was working to implement a “participative, inclusive and transparent” consultative process and that it had “tried to engage with civil society organizations on numerous occasions with limited success.”

The firm also emphasized that it would not be making a recommendation as to whether the project should or should not proceed but that this decision rested solely with Burma’s government.

Over the three months of consultations thus far, activist and community groups have consistently expressed concern that the opinions of affected persons were being sidelined.

“The EIA process has not been inclusive nor transparent enough to ensure that voices and concerns of those whose lives are at risk are included in decision-making,” said Pianporn Deetes of the environmental NGO International Rivers in an email to The Irrawaddy.

The Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) has been monitoring the Mongton project and was one of the groups that signed on to the June 9 statement. When the Australian company’s response was put to SHRF on Monday, the organization refuted suggestions that protesters were often from “outside the area.”

“About 150 Mongton local people protested against SMEC on April 6, 2015 and over 300 Kunhing local people, including local Kunhing MP Nang Wah Nu, from the Shan Nationalities Development Party, planned the protest against the SMEC public consultation on April 30, 2015,” said SHRF spokesperson Sai Hor Hseng.

“They are native local people. They love their natural resources and they want to protect their natural resources. They are not people from outside the area.”

While SMEC’s ongoing EIA/SIA is promoted as a means to help the government decide whether the project should proceed, locals living near the proposed dam site have reported that a level of activity is already underway.

Shan community organizations have said that over 60 Chinese engineers have been based at the dam site since the start of the year and the SHRF provided photos to The Irrawaddy which it said showed a large tunnel, blasted and drilled using heavy equipment.

“We believe this is preparation for actual construction of the dam, as they plan to build several diversion tunnels as part of the dam,” Sai Hor Hseng said.

In its previous incarnation, the Mongton dam was known as the Tasang dam, which was slated for development at a site 10 km further downstream from the current project’s location. The project was linked to human rights violations including forced relocation from the mid-1990s, according to Salween Watch and International Rivers.

SMEC has operated in Burma’s energy sector since 1969, according to the company’s website, and was involved in the original Tasang hydropower project, including various feasibility and operative studies as well as on the design of the proposed site’s power station.

The project’s current developers inked the contract to develop the Mongton dam, set to be the tallest dam in Southeast Asia if developed, with the former military junta in 2010 and initial work began at the new site in 2012.