Environmental Advocates: Salween River is Being ‘Sold Off’ to China

By Saw Yan Naing 23 August 2016

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Ethnic Shan environmental and human rights advocacy organizations have expressed opposition to the construction of hydropower dam projects on the Salween River in war-torn Shan State.

The Shan groups said that they remain gravely concerned that dams will be constructed without proper studies on their social and environmental impact.

Hydropower projects on the on Salween River receive little attention in comparison to those on the Irrawaddy River, like the planned Myitsone dam in Kachin State.

During her recent visit to China, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi ensured that she would pursue a solution to the stalled Myitsone project suspended by Burma’s previous government. On August 12, ahead of the State Counselor’s trip to China, the Burmese government announced plans to go ahead with five dams proposed on the Salween River, which runs through Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon states.

Ethnic Shan environmentalist Sai Khur Hseng told The Irrawaddy that the current government has decided Salween dams are “necessary” in order to meet electricity demands, despite previous reports which estimate that up to 90 percent of electricity generated by such projects will be exported to neighboring countries, like China.

The Shan advocacy groups said that Chinese state-owned firm Hydrochina has, in recent months, proceeded with construction plans to build the 1,200-megawatt Naung Pha dam on the Salween River.

“If the Naung Pha dam is completed, we worry that villages in Ho Pang and Tanyan townships will be flooded because there has been flooding every year. If the dam is built, the flooding will be worse. Villages nearby will be underwater,” said Sai Khur Hseng.

In a statement delivered on Tuesday, the rights groups reported that an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for the Naung Pha dam is being conducted in secrecy by Australia’s Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC). Last year, local communities protested against the Australian firm for carrying out a study in a similar manner for another project, the Mongton dam in southern Shan State.

“While all eyes were on the Irrawaddy Myitsone dam, Burma has quietly sold off the Salween to China,” said Sai Khur Hseng said in the statement.

Shan community groups also sent a letter to State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on August 17, calling for a cancellation of dam projects on Salween River.

The Naung Pha dam has faced protests by local communities on several occasions in the past. About 250 residents from nine village tracts in Tangyan Township joined legislators from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) to launch a demonstration against the dam on August 5. Around 60 community leaders from Ho Pang, Kunlong, Tangyan, Hsenwi and Lashio, including three SNLD members of Parliament, staged another protest on August 21.

Apart from concerns on the environmental and social impacts of the dams, there are concerns about militarization in the areas surrounding the projects that could lead to armed conflict and civilian displacement, according to the rights groups.

“There are different militias, including Burma Army. If they [the Burma Army] reinforce troops in the area for security, we worry that fighting will occur. And if it happens, it will force local villagers into displacement,” said Sai Khur Hseng.