RANGOON — Ethnic Shan communities in northern Shan State have called for an end to four planned hydropower dams on the Namtu River, an Irrawaddy tributary, citing irreparable damage to the environment.
More than 100 people gathered in Hsipaw Township to hold a prayer service on the bank of Namtu River on Wednesday morning, which was followed by a press conference in the afternoon.
The action coincided with the launch of a report by Shan community-based groups called “Save the Namtu River.” The work exposes a lack of transparency around plans to construct dams which “will block half the length of one of Shan State’s most well-known rivers, irreversibly impacting its ecology and the lives of tens of thousands of people relying on it.”
If completed, the four dams would be located in Hsipaw, Kyaukme and Nawngkhio townships—which contain locations where fighting has recently broken out between government forces and ethnic Palaung (Ta’ang) armed groups.
They would produce a combined capacity of around 1200 megawatts, according to Sai Kham Myat, a spokesperson from the Shan State Farmers Network (SSFN), and include the Deedok (66 MW capacity), Middle Yeywar (700 MW), Upper Yeywar or “Ta Long” (280-308 MW), and Namtu (100 MW), respectively.
In a joint statement also released on Wednesday, Shan local residents, the Shan Human Rights Foundation, the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization and SSFN alleged that foreign firms from China, Japan, Norway, and Switzerland are exploiting resources in ethnic conflict areas.
The “hypocrisy” of Norway and Switzerland in particular was highlighted in the statement because of the countries’ demonstrated support for Burma’s peace process in exchange for profit from the Naypyidaw government “before the peace has been reached.”
Sai Kham Myat added that Australian and German firms are also involved in all four dam projects.
Nang Lao Kham, a resident of Hsipaw’s Ta Long village, where a 308-megawatt dam is slated to be completed in 2018, told The Irrawaddy “we are worried about our village, which is in the downriver area, so we want to be consulted if the new dams are to be built.”
“These can not be done without the proper public consultation,” she continued. “We also want the current government [newly sworn-in today] to consider carefully before implementing any dam projects.”
Sai Kham Myat also told The Irrawaddy that in addition to their environmental concerns, the villagers in Ta Long have not yet received the compensation for farmland which was seized in order to build road infrastructure for the new dam projects.
Community environmental groups first informed locals about the Namtu dams in 2014. Nang Lao Kham explained that they then sought solutions and input from local authorities at the township and district levels of their respective towns, but after two years, they still have not received a response.
In February, locals enlisted help from the Shan lawmaker Sai Kham Aung from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD). He represents Hsipaw’s constituents in Parliament, and shared their appeal, speaking on their behalf regarding forced relocation as a result of the planned Namtu dam projects.
In Wednesday’s statement, Sai Khur Hseng of Shan Sapawa is quoted as saying “For Naypyidaw, to push ahead with large dams in conflict zones against the wishes of local ethnic communities, is thumbing their nose at the peace process.”
“If the new NLD-led government wants to build peace, they must immediately stop dams on Namtu River as well as other rivers in the conflict-affected ethnic areas,” he added.