Dam Project in Northern Myanmar Will Destroy Remote River Valley, Environmentalist Group Warns

By Seamus Martov 29 August 2017

A series of four dams set to be built in a remote corner of eastern Kachin State, on the upper waters of the Irrawaddy River, will irreversibly damage an ecologically sensitive river valley, says a report from the Kachin Development Network Group (KDNG), released on Tuesday.

The cascading dams, which planners estimate will generate as much as 1,200 megawatts of electricity annually, are set to be built by a consortium led by the Chinese firm YEIG International Development Company Ltd. (YEIG), on the Ngo Chang Hka River, a tributary of the N’Mai River, one of the two rivers in Kachin State that join to form the Irrawaddy.

The KDNG, a Myitkyina-based group that released the report entitled “Saving the Ngo Chang Hka Valley,” says that the estimated 4,500 people living in the Ngo Chang Hka valley who will be affected by the project have been left in the dark about the specific impacts of the dam project, including the size and location of the areas that will be flooded. Many of the local villagers who live in the valley farm along the river, where the soil is richest. The KDNG warns that the dam’s flooding of local farmland will cause a massive disruption to the local people’s way of life.

Villagers in Kachin State’s Ngo Chang Hka valley staged a protest against a proposed series of dams on the Ngo Chang Hka River in March 2017. (Photo: Kachinwaves)

According to the KDNG, one of the few organizations with a history of working with communities in the difficult to access valley, the project is very unpopular with the local population that is largely comprised of people from the Lisu, Lhao Vo, Lachik and Ngo Chang Hka ethnic Kachin subgroups. “We refuse to let our ancestral homelands and natural resources be destroyed,” said Zawng Lum, a valley resident quoted in the statement accompanying the report’s release.

A 2014 report produced by Japan’s development agency and cited by the KDNG indicates that 50 percent of the power generated from the planned dams is set to be exported across the border, despite the fact that neighboring Yunnan already has an energy surplus and Chinese electricity producers are seeking to export this surplus to Myanmar.

Kachin State is already home to several dams that are operational, including a dam built on the Chipwe River that was supposed to be used to power the construction of the stalled Myitsone dam project.  According to a state official recently interviewed in local media, this dam is running at one-third capacity because local transmission lines have not been upgraded to carry the extra capacity.

Villagers in Kachin State’s Ngo Chang Hka valley staged a protest against a proposed series of dams on the Ngo Chang Hka River in March 2017. (Photo: Kachinwaves)

According to the KDNG, the impact of this dam on the Chipwe River, which was completed in 2013, has been devastating and provides an important lesson for those in the Ngo Chang Hka valley. “Valuable farmlands were destroyed without proper compensation, and villagers downstream now suffer from unpredictable releases of muddy, polluted water from the dam that destroy riverside crops, kill fish, and make bathing dangerous,” reads the report.

The KDNG, which strongly opposed the Myitsone dam and the related six dams that were slated to be built as part of that project on the N’Mai and the Mali Hka rivers, maintains that Myanmar needs to undergo a re-think about its energy planning, in particular what the group sees as a focus by the government to prioritize an energy export model of development at the expense of local needs.

“Addressing domestic energy needs is a secondary priority, and relies on the slow and expensive expansion of a centralized grid that mainly serves cities and towns in central [Myanmar]. Faster and cheaper ‘off-grid’ alternatives, involving local production and distribution of electricity, are not being prioritized,” says the KDNG.

The KDNG, which was formed during the military era by Kachin activists working underground who were opposed to what they perceived as the former State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regime’s mismanagement and theft of Kachin State’s natural resources, has in recent years been at the forefront of a public movement in Kachin State that seeks to gain local control and management of the state’s natural wealth. In February, the KDNG conducted a protest in Myitkyina against the World Bank’s private sector lending arm the International Finance Corporation (IFC), over concerns that the Washington-based group was pushing the development of Myanmar’s hydropower sector in a way that was counter to public interest.

Villagers in Kachin State’s Ngo Chang Hka valley staged a protest against a proposed series of dams on the Ngo Chang Hka River in March 2017. (Photo: Kachinwaves)

YEIG, the Yunnan-based firm leading the valley dam plan, will have an 83 percent stake in the project, according to the KDNG. The firm is partnered with Myanmar’s central government, which will have a 15 percent stake, and IGE, a company controlled by the sons of the late SPDC-era industry minister Aung Thaung, will hold the remaining 2 percent.

The first dam on the Ngo Chang Hka will be built at Laung Din in Tsawlaw Township, while the other three dams will be built in Chipwi Township at Tongxinqiao, Khan Kang and Gaw Lang. The KDNG notes that on the other side of the border, Chinese officials scrapped plans to build dams in a mountainous part of Yunnan on the Nu River because of a fault line and potential earthquakes that could be triggered by the weight of dam reservoirs. According to the KDNG’s research, the Gaw Lang dam is some 30 km away from the same fault line that gave Chinese officials cause for concern.

Another factor that could significantly complicate the project’s development is that the Ngo Chang Hka River flows close to parts of Kachin State that continue to be the location of clashes between the military and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in a conflict that has been ongoing since a ceasefire failed in June 2011. The valley is in an area officially known as Kachin State Special Region 1, a remote corner of Myanmar that has been for many years the fiefdom of Zakhung Ting Ying, the longtime leader of the New Democratic Army Kachin (NDAK), a ceasefire group that officially transformed into a border guard force in 2009.