RANGOON – Describing the potential for earthquakes, military conflict, displacement and damage to agriculture, 26 Shan civil society and environmental organizations have called for an immediate halt to major dam projects planned for construction on the Salween River. The community demands were outlined in an open letter to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and delivered on Wednesday.
Suu Kyi is currently on a five-day state visit to China to discuss bilateral relations, and likely, planned China-backed hydropower initiatives in Burma. The letter described how such hydropower dams on the Salween River would block water flow and create hardship for those who rely on the waterway, particularly for agriculture, in Burma, Thailand and China. In Shan State alone, environmental rights groups estimate that 170 villages—with a population of over 10,000 people—would suffer displacement or damage to their farms due to the impact of damming the Salween.
“We urge the new government make these decisions very carefully, because, for us, the disadvantages of the dams are greater than the advantages,” said Nang Kham Mai, the campaign coordinator with Action for Shan State Rivers, one of the organizations behind the letter to Suu Kyi.
The statement comes after the Burmese government confirmed plans on Friday to go ahead with the proposed Salween dam projects, those of which in Shan State are expected to collectively generate nearly 10,000 megawatts of electricity, but an estimated 90 percent will be exported to neighboring countries.
“Coming only weeks before the planned 21st Century Panglong Conference, this green light to the Salween dams is highly worrying,” the letter stated, referring to the upcoming Union Peace Conference scheduled to begin on August 31 in Naypyidaw.
A “unilateral decision” on the part of the government to continue the construction of the dams is effectively ignoring local communities’ right to determine the use of their own natural resources, the letter continued, describing the move as an unwelcome start to the upcoming peace conference.
The organizations also described how exported electric power obtained from the Salween dams would not address Burma’s own energy needs, rendering the projects impractical for domestic communities.
“The government will merely distribute 10 percent [of the electricity] to locals. So it is hard to say what the locals’ benefits are,” Kham Mai said.
Highlighting the decades-long conflict between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups which has plagued the Salween River region, the letter’s signatories warned that unpopular hydropower projects could exacerbate unrest in the area.
Between the Burma and ethnic Shan armies, “territory designation [around the dam sites] could become a big problem,” added Kham Mai.
Dam locations also coincide with an earthquake fault line. This alone, Kham Mai said, makes these projects “too risky to construct.”
Stretching more than 1,700 miles, the Salween River is one of the world’s longest waterways, flowing through Yunnan in China, and Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon states in Burma.
Ethnic minority communities in eastern Burma have consistently objected to plans to build dams on the river, which are planned for Shan and Karen states, specifically.
“In the interests of ethnic reconciliation and environmental sustainability, we therefore strongly urge you to immediately cancel the Salween dams,” the letter to Suu Kyi said.