Karen Groups Aim to ‘Save the Salween’

By Nyein Nyein 26 March 2015

RANGOON — The future of Burma’s free-flowing Salween River will be the focus of a two day event in eastern Burma, beginning on Friday.

“Save the Salween,” organized by a network of civil society organizations, will bring together local river-reliant communities, environmental experts, and the general public for panel discussions, an art exhibition and a field visit to a Karen village that is likely to affected by proposed hydropower projects.

The events will be held in Karen State capital Hpa-an, and will be open and free of charge to all wishing to attend.

Expert panels will focus on environmental conservation, fishery, mining and hydropower dams, organizers said. Participants are encouraged to join afterwards for a riverboat tour that will take them directly to communities living near the Salween.

“We want to show the beauty of the Salween River,” said Saw Tha Phoe, one of the events key organizers, “the natural environment and the culture and livelihoods of its residents.”

While locals have a deep appreciation for nature and the livelihoods they have created from the river, he said, many communities most likely to be affected by developments along the powerful waterway have little understanding of the potential long-term consequences they may have.

Saw Tha Phoe said the event is meant to raise awareness among both locals and outsiders, urging both to join a growing movement to “save” the Salween from potentially destructive large-scale developments planned for the river in Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon states.

The 2,800 kilometer (1,740 miles) Salween River is among the longest free-flowing rivers in the world, beginning in the Tibetan Plateau, running through eastern Burma and along the border with Thailand before spilling out into the Andaman Sea. The Salween is believed to support the livelihoods of about 10 million people.

The civil society groups behind this week’s event unanimously oppose the development of six proposed hydropower dams on the Salween which, if completed, will have a combined installed capacity of about 15,000 megawatts. All of the projects are planned for volatile ethnic regions, and would be carried out by joint ventures between the government of Burma and firms from China and Thailand. An additional 13 dams have been planned upstream within the bounds of China.

In 2014, civil society groups in Burma garnered more than 33,000 signatures of people urging the Burmese government to immediately halt the development of dams on the pristine river.

Saw John Bright, a coordinator for the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, told The Irrawaddy that the group hopes to arrive at “better solutions for the Salween” through discussions such as those to take place in Hpa-an this week. He said that civil society is slowly seeing progress in access to officials and increased community consultation after years of campaigning, but the level of public involvement is still far too low.

In early March, a public consultation was reportedly carried out with villagers in Taunggyi, Shan State, about the feasibility of the proposed 7,000 megawatt Mong Tong dam, but details and findings of the session are still not available. The surveys in Taunggyi were believed to be the first such consultations to have been carried out with local communities affected by the Salween dams, but similar discussions are likely to be carried out near the Ywathit and Hatgyi dam sites in Karenni and Karen states, respectively.

Perhaps the most controversial of the proposed projects at present is the Upper Salween—or Kunlong—dam, situated on the fringe of Burma’s embattled Kokang Special Region, where fighting between government troops and ethnic rebels erupted in early February.

For more information or to attend “Save the Salween” events, contact [email protected] or visit KESAN’s Facebook page.