Mekong Dams Threaten Burmese Fishing, Rice Farming: Activists

By Sean Havey 31 May 2013

RANGOON—The proposed construction of 11 hydroelectric dams on the Lower Mekong River has come under heavy criticism by activists who say the dams would destroy the ability of communities downstream, including in Burma, to catch fish and grow rice.

The environmental impact of the proposed dams on the Mekong’s diverse animal population, including giant catfish and the Irrawaddy dolphin, outweigh any possible benefits of the project as a new source of energy, said British-born journalist Tom Fawthrop, who has extensively studied the dam project and worked in Southeast Asia for more than 25 years.

“Yes, of course the rural people in Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand have the right to electricity, but they also have the right to fish. You can’t eat electricity,” Fawthrop said in Rangoon following the recent screening of his film “Where Have all the Fish Gone,” about the potentially devastating consequences of the dam project to the Mekong’s ecosystem.

The Mekong, one of Southeast Asia’s major rivers, winds its way through the Burma-Laos border, as well as through Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

The first dam to be built along the Lower Mekong is the 820-meter tall Xayaburi Dam, the BBC reported. That dam is being primarily funded by a Thai company, and most of the electricity generated would go to Thailand.

Although none of the proposed dams would be built along the stretch of the Mekong that runs between Burma and Laos, the dams built down river would still affect the riparian way of life there, Fawthrop said.

He said the dams would affect nutrient-rich sediment flow, which would deplete the fish population and hinder the ability of rural communities to grow rice.

The Mekong River’s headwaters begin in the Tibetan Plateau and flow down through China, forming the Upper Mekong River, where four dams including the 292-meter Xiaowan Dam have already been built.

The screening of Fawthrop’s film in Rangoon was intended to help educate the local population about the possible repercussions of damming major waterways, which is a hot-button issue along Burma’s Irrawaddy and Salween rivers, according to Matthew Sheader, who organized the screening at the British Council.

“The planning of dams like these is something that Myanmar will be facing in the next few years,” he said.

Khon Ja, who works for the Kachin Peace Network and is from a town on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, said the Mekong dam projects were comparable to the Myitsone Dam project in north Burma’s Kachin State.

Although President Thein Sein halted the construction of the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam following public outrage over the project’s potential environmental and social impacts, construction is expected to resume when his term ends in 2015, Khon Ja said.

“Our Kachin heritage will be taken away with any dams built on the Irrawaddy,” she said, “and the existence of our heritage is a right.”