Myitsone Dam Safe, Chinese Company Assures Kachin Lawmakers

By Nan Lwin 25 June 2019

YANGON—The Chinese state-owned company behind the controversial Myitsone hydropower project in Kachin State last week tried to assure state lawmakers that the suspended mega dam on Myanmar’s lifeline Irrawaddy River would not collapse despite its proximity to one of the country’s biggest seismic fault lines.

In the company’s latest attempt to revive the suspended hydropower project, a group of Chinese experts backed by China’s State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC) tried to convince lawmakers in the state parliament on Friday that there is no need to worry that the dam will collapse in the event of an earthquake, or to fear the destruction of the region’s biodiversity or other potential environmental impacts due to the mega dam project.

Attending the meeting in the Kachin State parliament’s Banquet Hall was a group led by SPIC officials that included three Chinese experts and a French seismologist based in Beijing.

The seismologist claimed he had determined that an earthquake fault line running near the project site is “inactive”, so local residents don’t have to worry about an earthquake disaster, prominent local lawmaker Ja Seng Hkawn told The Irrawaddy.

“He said that as it is inactive, we don’t have to worry about an earthquake risk, even to the construction of a dam,” Ja Seng Hkawn said.

The dam site is less than 100 kilometers from the major Sagaing Fault. Other experts have warned that if an earthquake were to occur near the dam, there would be serious humanitarian and ecological implications.

About 3.2 kilometers south of where the confluence of the May Kha and Mali Kha rivers gives rise to the Irrawaddy River, the 6,000 MW dam is expected to cost US$3.6 billion (about 5.45 trillion kyats) and would rank among the largest hydropower projects in the region. Work started in 2009, when SPIC was known as the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI). Then-President Thein Sein suspended it in 2011 amid widespread public concern over the dam’s social and environmental impacts.

Environmentalists warn the dam site has some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world and that the project would both destroy the natural beauty of the Irrawaddy River and disrupt water flow. They say it could potentially flood an area the size of Singapore, destroying livelihoods and displacing more than 10,000 people.

Beijing’s constant efforts to revive the dam have fueled negative sentiment among the Myanmar public. Former Chinese Ambassador Hong Liang’s claim, after a visit to Kachin State in December, that the Kachin people were not opposed to the dam’s resumption prompted a series of protests in major cities calling for the project to be scrapped

In the state parliament, SPIC’s experts said the dam would be constructed using the latest technology, which would minimize the environmental impact and disruption to local people, according to the lawmakers.

“They told us the Myitsone Dam project is totally safe. The dam will have a strong foundation and won’t collapse,” local lawmaker Zau Mu Naw told The Irrawaddy.

“They also said they would take care not to harm the biodiversity of the area,” he said .

Kachin State lawmakers and representatives of SPIC, the Chinese state-owned company behind the Myitsone Dam project, pose for a group photo on Friday. / Kachin State Hluttaw / Facebook

“They highlighted the advantages of the dam for local people, particularly in terms of electricity generation,” he added.

Under the terms of the initial agreement, the dam would send 90 percent of its electricity to southern China’s Yunnan Province.

After taking power in 2016, the National League for Democracy-led government set up a 20-member commission, including the chief minister of Kachin State, to review the dam and its likely impacts on the environment and local communities. The commission has produced two reports, but the government has not made them public. In January, Thaung Tun, the Union minister for investment and foreign economic relations, said the government and a commission studying the project were in serious discussions and considering all possibilities, including downsizing the dam, relocating it or developing other projects instead.

He pointed out that a main problem with the Myitsone project is its location near an earthquake fault line. Also, the catchment area would be twice the size of Singapore, which means a lot of villages would be displaced. He stressed that local people are concerned the dam will submerge important cultural sites that are sacred to the Kachin people.

In April, prominent environmentalists, writers and civil society leaders formed a national committee to oppose the project and warned the government of more resistance if it were revived. Later, they announced a one-dollar campaign to collect money from the public to compensate China in exchange for scrapping the project.

The deputy speaker of the Kachin State parliament, Ding Hkang Hpung (also known as Hkang Len), who attended the meeting, told The Irrawaddy, “We just listened to what they had to say. We also shared our concerns, especially about earthquake risk.”

He said, “We [lawmakers] won’t make any decision about whether it should restart or be completely abolished. For me, it will depend on the people’s will.”

Many people had expected State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss the dam with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the 2nd Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April. But a President’s Office spokesperson said the Myitsone issue was not on the agenda.

Two weeks ago, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon and 18 bishops from 16 dioceses signed a statement calling for the complete shutdown of the project.

Zau Mu Naw said, “I don’t oppose the development [in Kachin state]. I am not anti-dam. I opposed reviving the dam because I would like to see the Irrawaddy River stay as it is.”

On Friday, about a hundred people including environmentalists, lawmakers, anti-dam activists and local people, held a meeting in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, in a united display of opposition to the project. They issued a statement after the meeting vowing to keep up their efforts and to continue demanding that the government scrap the project.

Ja Seng Hkawn said, “As a lawmaker, I have a duty to convey the public’s voice. I will heed the public’s voice.”

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