Landmark Meeting Calls for Trans-Boundary Salween Collaboration

By Nyein Nyein 15 November 2014

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Environmental experts have urged the governments of Burma, China and Thailand to lead the formation of a Transboundary River Management Committee to handle environmental and social issues along the Salween River, East Asia’s second longest waterway.

At the start of a two-day international conference in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, on Friday, environmental experts, policymakers and representatives of civil society groups from China, Burma and Thailand gathered to exchange information and analysis on a series of Salween River dam projects. Conference participants focused on the projects’ impacts—present and future—to livelihoods and the environment along the river basin.

“We want people to come to understand what is needed in term of consultation, in terms of ideas. We want to suggest trans-boundary management, what further steps should be taken,” said Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, director of the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD) at Chiang Mai University.

At the moment, he said, “the governments do not listen to us.”

“If we build this knowledge together, then we are in a better position to discuss with policymakers, whether within the government of Myanmar, Thailand or China.”

Since about a decade ago, the Chinese government has had plans to build 13 dams in China, while the Burmese government plans to construct seven dams of its own along the Salween River. The vast majority of the river flows through China and Burma, which host 53 percent and 42 percent of its total length, respectively. Just 5 percent of the river runs through Thailand. The Salween River is also known in Burma as the Thanlwin, and in China as the Nu.

“This first international conference is meaningful for us because it brings participants from many countries to join and share knowledge and experiences, which of course can lead to the management of this very interesting River,” Professor Watchara Kasinriksa, vice president of academic affairs at Chiang Mai University, said in opening remarks at the International Conference on Salween-Thanlwin-Nu River Studies.

Dozens of participants traveled from Burma to attend the conference, including university lecturers from Moulmein, Taunggyi and Lashio universities, retired professors and civil society groups who work along the Salween River. Thailand-based Burmese environmental NGOs groups representing ethnic Karen and Shan populations also joined the conference.

Prior to Friday’s event, experts began collaborating in May 2013 at Chiang Mai University, followed by a consultation workshop on creating a Salween studies network in September of this year at Moulmein University in Burma.

Aung Myint, secretary of the environmental NGO Renewable Energy Association Myanmar, said knowledge about the river and its ecosystems needed to be widely disseminated at all levels because there has been exploitation of river resources by the governments’ dam projects.

The Burmese government officially announced in February 2013 that it would build seven dams in Shan, Karenni and Karen states, despite ethnic civil society groups in the country having long voiced concerns about the environmental and social impacts on the lives of the local residents.

Transparency has never featured in the Burmese government’s Salween River designs. There were no public consultations with local populations concerning any of the seven dam projects prior to the February announcement. What is known is that the dams on the Salween in Burma would produce more than 15,000 megawatts of electricity in total, nearly all of which is due to be sold to Thailand and China.

Out of the seven dams, only the Hat Gyi dam project’s implementers have submitted an environmental impact assessment to the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry.

Than Aye, director of the Environmental Conservation Department under the Myanmar Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry, told The Irrawaddy that his department had received the first Hat Gyi dam EIA report earlier this year.

“But as its data were not up-to-date … we told them redo the EIA,” said Than Aye, explaining that the data used was from 2006.

The two days of meetings will focus discussion on a range of topics including natural resources development and the environmental impact assessment policies and practices in Thailand and Burma. Burma’s chronic power shortages issue were also highlighted in Friday’s discussions, with participants pointing out the country’s propensity to export its energy resources to wealthier nations while 70 percent of the Burmese people live without electricity, and even those connected to the grid are subject to frequent blackouts.

Chayan, the RCSD director, added: “We would like to invite more policymakers to take part in such meetings in the future,” as the Chiang Mai conference only saw one representative each from the Burma and Thailand governments.

After the conference, the experts and CSOs plan to take field trips to several dam sites in Thailand, the organizers said.