Karen Communities Demand Halt to Salween River Dams

By The Irrawaddy 18 March 2013

About 2,000 ethnic Karen gathered on the banks of the Salween River in Papun District in northern Karen State on Friday to demand that the government abandons it plans to construct multiple hydropower dams on the river in eastern Burma, environmental activists announced.

Karen River Watch said an estimated 2,000 people, who live in a nearby internally displaced persons (IDP) camp called Ei Htu Hta, assembled near the river in order to mark the International Day of Action for Rivers and Against Dams.

The protestors dressed up in local traditional dress and carried banners with messages such as “Save our Salween: No Dam!”, while they also held Buddhist, Christian and animist religious ceremonies to pray for protection of the Salween River.

“Communities along the Salween share this common goal. We want to raise our voices to let governments and decision-makers know of our sufferings and needs,” Paul Sein Twa, director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, said in a press release.

“Local people do not want any dams … without the free, prior and informed consent of impacted communities. The government and the Karen National Union [ethnic rebels] need to broaden the decision-making process so that it is transparent, inclusive and democratic,” he said.

The 2,800-kilometer Salween River runs from China down through eastern Burma and past Thailand, into the Adaman Sea. It supports about 10 million people and passes through Karen, Shan, Karenni and Mon states, according to the NGO Salween Watch.

Six dams—with a combined installed capacity of 15,000 megawatt—are planned on the Salween in Burma’s ethnic regions by Chinese, Burmese and Thai investors. China has planned 13 dams upstream on the Tibetan Plateau.

Deputy Minister of Electric Power Myint Zaw told the Lower House on Feb. 27 that the six dams would be built using foreign investment, state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar reported.

The projects would have a major environmental and social impact on ethnic communities, as the dams would affect the river’s abundant fisheries and the nutrient-rich water that are used to replenish local farmlands. Some dams would also flood farmlands and displace communities.

The Burmese army is likely to station its units near the projects, a situation that could lead to a rise in human rights abuses, according to Karen River Watch.

“Current development projects will only benefit a few people—mainly governments and investors—but local people like us will face huge challenges, including permanent loss of our lands, displacement, hunger and severe flooding,” said Naw Phyo Phyo, of the Karen Women’s Organization in Ei Htu Hta camp.

Ethnic insurgencies have long delayed the implementation of the dam projects. But after some of the major Shan and Karen ethnic rebels groups signed ceasefire agreements with the government in early 2012, there have been growing concerns that dam construction might be resuming.

A major source of concern is the 1,360-megawatt Hat Gyi dam in Karen State’s Papun District. According to environmentalists, this US $2.6-bllion project is being planned by China’s Sinohydro Corporation and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, a Thai government body, which signed a deal with Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power in 2006.

Activists say only 60 megawatt of the electricity generated by the dam will stay in Burma.

There have been reports that Chinese and Thai developers have resumed survey work at the site since April 2012, while they also met with the Karen ethnic rebels to gain permission to conduct the initial project survey.