Optimism and Concern Mark Burma’s First Workshop on Hydropower Dams

By Paul Vrieze 23 January 2015

NAYPYIDAW — An atmosphere of optimism over the sustainable development of hydropower dams in Burma was tempered by serious concern at the country’s first ever public workshop on dams in Naypyidaw early this week.

As international development banks, government officials and business consultants raised the prospect of expanding hydropower in a sustainable and equitable way, ethnic minority activists and NGOs warned against the potentially heavy impacts of dams on local communities, the environment and ongoing ethnic conflict.

Organized by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the International Hydropower Association (IHA), the two-day event drew some 150 attendants from Burma and the region and provided a platform for lively discussions on the future of dams in Burma as it implements democratic and economic reforms.

Dams have long been controversial in Burma and under military rule were associated with human rights abuses, worsening conflict and secretive business deals.

Minister of Electric Power Khin Maung Soe told participants on Monday that increasing electricity supply was “one of the top priorities” for Burma’s socio-economic development and that dams are the main source for a planned expansion of electricity supply.

“In implementing hydropower projects, we’re confronted with the problems of social and environmental impacts, conserving [the river] basin and ensuring sustainable development. This workshop is a good opportunity to exchange views on how to overcome those challenges,” Khin Maung Soe said, before leaving the workshop along with most other senior officials.

Only about a third of Burma’s population, about 3 million households,currently has electricity and domestic energy needs for both population and local industry are projected to grow rapidly in coming decades. Proposed dams would help address these needs, although most hydropower energy would be exported to China and Thailand in order to raise government revenues.

The World Bank, Asian Development Bank, IFC and Japan International Cooperation Agency are assisting Burma in developing policies, plans and legal frameworks to reach its ambitious energy growth targets, while also funding energy infrastructure projects, such as expanding Burma’s underdeveloped national power grid.

The Western and Japan-funded organizations have only reengaged with Burma since 2012 after President Thein Sein’s nominally-civilian government initiated democratic and economic reform. Among bank representatives at the workshop there was a palpable sense of optimism over the direction the government is heading.

Plans to tap Burma’s vast hydropower potential were endorsed, although they urged upholding international standards to assess and mitigate environmental and social impacts of dams. “In Myanmar, we firmly believe that hydropower has to be part of the energy equation. So… it has to be started in a more responsible way because it’s a long-term project,” Raghuveer Sharma, chief investment officer at the IFC’s Infrastructure and Natural Resources department, said in an interview.

Min Khaing, director of the department of hydropower implementation at the Ministry of Electric Power, said Burma had 24 operational dams and is constructing seven more, while preliminary agreements have been signed for 35 projects. Another four projects have been proposed by development firms. If all projects are built it would raise the total amount of hydropower generated in Burma to 43,709 megawatt, up from the currently installed 3,011 Mw, according to a presentation by the official.

Some Burma experts at the workshop said they were encouraged by the public discussions on dams,but noted that laws and government capacity to limit the projects’ negative impacts on environment and communities still fall far short.

“What we’re missing at the moment is both the EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] procedures, which determines how the EIAs are carried out, but most importantly how they should be consulted on and published,”said Vicki Bowman of the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business.

“The Ministry of Environment… don’t have the technical capacity on the environment side, or even more importantly on the social side, to assess whether the companies and the third-party consultants they are hiring are doing these [impact] assessments and mitigation plans properly.”

Bowman said it also remains unclear whether dam projects that are alreadyunder construction—such as the suspended Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State—would be kept to international standards. “The influx of the IFC and the World Bank and this workshop is a perfect opportunity to ensure that social and environmental due diligence for all of these dams is applied,” she said.

Maw Htun Aung, a Kachin activist working with the Natural Resource Governance Institute, told the workshop, “It’s a strategic choice here in Myanmar; are we going to go fast and get it wrong, or are we going to go slow and get it right? That’s a decision all stakeholders have to make.”

Dams Fueling Conflict?

A lack of official information surrounds the exact status of the planned dam projects, most of which are located in remote, ethnic minority areas affected by long-running conflict between the central government and numerous ethnic armed groups in northern and eastern Burma who seek greater political autonomy.

Under army rule, the government signed initial agreements with Chinese firms for the construction of at least eight dams on the Irrawaddy River and its tributaries in Kachin State, while Chinese and Thai firms signed preliminary agreements to build at least six dams on the Salween River, which runs through Shan, Karen and Mon states in eastern Burma.

Among these proposed projects are large-scale dams in war-torn Kachin State, such as the Chibwe and Laiza dams, and in contested areas in Shan State, such as the Kunlong, Hat Gyi and Tasang dams. The status of the projects remains unclear although Deputy Minister of Electrical Power Maw Thar Htwe told Parliament last year that the government intends to push ahead with these five controversial dams.

The government suspended the Myitsone dam in 2011 and six other dams planned by China’s state-owned Chinese Power Investment (CPI) in Kachin State are affected by ongoing conflict.

During the workshop, NGOs and ethnic activists warned the government, multilateral banks and participating business consultants that endorsing hydropower dams in Burma entails serious risks, as some projects could reignite ethnic conflict and severely impact ethnic communities and the environment.

“As far as I know there will be seven large-scale dams on the Salween and these are located near the ethnic armed groups. From a political power view, we can think that the government is using dams as a weapon to control and flood these areas, so it can create more conflict,” said April Kyu Kyu from Land In Our Hands. “So please reflect, don’t try to push such hydropower dams… because there will be more conflict in Myanmar.”

The Burma Rivers Network issued a press release to coincide with the workshop on Monday that called for “an immediate halt to dam projects on the Salween River, which are fuelling war and violating the rights of local peoples.” The statement was accompanied by a petition signed by about 61,000 people and 131 organizations, including political parties.

Under the former junta, there were many reports of militarization and large-scale rights abuses as a result of attempts by government forces to secure dam project areas and clear them of rebels and ethnic villagers.

A Karen Rivers Watch report released in November claimed that the outbreak of heavy fighting last year between the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and a combined force of the Burma Army and Border Guard Force in Karen and Mon states was the result of government attempts to secure the project area for the planned Hat Gyi dam.

Multilateral bank representatives largely steered clear of discussing dams proposed in conflict zones, but acknowledged the sensitivities of the projects. “Many conflicts are about economic opportunities… We need to understand the nature of the conflict but I am sure we can find a way to resolve the conflict,” Sharma of IFC said, before adding,“If it’s an ethnic thing, it might be harder to resolve.”

Government officials were absent from workshop sessions that discussed the concerns over links between dam development and ethnic conflict

Ashley South, a long-time researcher of Burma’s ethnic conflict and a consultant with the Norway-funded Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, told the workshop, “It needs to be acknowledged that Myanmar’s previous experience with hydropower has been pretty negative in many respects, in particular for communities that have been directly affected.

“So of course many local people will have an extremely negative view of state-led economic development projects in general, and certainly hydropower,” he said, adding, however, that this perception could change if international standards are applied for the implementation of dam projects.

“We have also heard so much about the immense contribution that hydropower can offer to Myanmar and I certainly accept that and it’s very exciting,” South said.

John Bright, water coordinator at the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, said developing dam projects that are truly environmentally sustainable and have the support of the local ethnic population and their political organizations would take many years to achieve.

“We need to make sure we have democratic processes that ensure a peaceful solution and have a peaceful environment,” he said in an interview. “Then we need to come up with some kind of potential agenda for sustainable development because we also need development, because we are struggling for that and for our rights to self-determination.”

“It takes time, it’s been six decades of conflict, and you cannot build trust in one, two three years. It may take 20 years,” he said.