Guest Column

Our Rivers Are Not for Sale

By Hsa Moo 16 March 2015

When the government in Naypyidaw looks at the Salween River and other rivers in Burma, they don’t see their beauty: they see Thai baht, Chinese yuan, US dollars and Indian rupees.

For them, the rivers flowing through the lands of our ethnic communities are nothing more than a potential source of revenue. Not revenue for local people, but for the central government: they want to dam our rivers, sell most of the energy they generate to neighboring countries, and keep the money for themselves. This money will be partly used to continue the modernization of the Burmese military, which is expanding its presence in the country’s ethnic hinterlands and still committing human rights abuses. We ethnic peoples will still be sitting in the dark, and paying for our own repression.

When we Karen look at our rivers, such as the Salween, we see more than short-term profit. The Salween River has a special place in our history. Thousands of years ago it guided our people into what is now Burma. It plays a vital role in the local environment, both for people and for wildlife. We don’t want our rivers dammed.

Even if there were peace and stability in Burma, the case for damming our rivers is not strong. Fifteen years ago the World Commission on Dams (WCD) published its comprehensive report on dams. WCD’s membership includes the hydropower industry, major donors such as the World Bank, and environmental organizations.

The report cast serious doubts on the long-term effectiveness of building dams to provide energy, and highlighted a wide range of environmental problems they can cause. It made ten key recommendations to be implemented when any future dam was being considered, including consulting and involving local communities, assessing long-term economic benefits, and assessing the environmental impact. The report should have settled once and for all the many controversies around dam building, and several reports since have also cast serious doubts on whether dams are effective for promoting development, but none of their recommendations are being followed in Burma.

Most proposed dams in Burma are in areas of recent or ongoing armed conflict. Military offensives over many years have caused massive displacement in areas where many of the dams are now planned. With the prospect of peace, refugees and other displaced people will naturally wish to return to their lands, but dams and associated military zones will make this impossible. Repeated ceasefire violations by the Burmese military and its proxies close to dam sites demonstrate that dam building is undermining the fragile peace process.

Big dams are also a disaster risk. The dangers of dam failure are multiplied on the Salween, where over 30 dams are planned for the river in Burma and China. Each extra dam on the river, which runs through one of the world’s earthquake hotspots, adds to the chances of failure. It is significant that the Salween hydropower developments are being driven by China, where the failure of the Banqiao dam cascade in 1975 led to the death of over 150,000 people. News of this catastrophe was kept secret in China for decades. Are the people of Burma prepared to accept the risk of a giant wave crashing down the Salween valley?

Secrecy and misinformation from the Burmese government and foreign companies have shrouded the dam projects. Despite these tactics, many thousands of people have signed petitions and demonstrated to show that they understand the consequences and do not consent to these dams and the impacts they will cause.

There have been no consultations in downstream communities, where farming, fishing and other livelihood activities will be radically impacted by major changes in water flow, level, temperature, nutrient content, sediment load, and salinity. River, delta and offshore ecosystems will be so altered that many local species of fish and other marine organisms will be unable to survive. Large islands in the river will be rapidly eroded as a result of rapid changes in water flow. Vast areas of forest rich in wildlife will be flooded by the dams or destroyed by the logging that accompanies dam building. This means that besides putting millions of our people and their livelihoods at risk, our country’s rich natural heritage will also be in jeopardy.

Economically, politically and environmentally, dams are not the right choice for Burma. They will continue to provoke conflict, human rights abuses, environmental destruction, and increased marginalization and impoverishment of affected communities. They will not help the development of our country; they will hinder it. Rather than selling our rivers in return for a meager financial reward, our country needs a long-term energy policy based on clean, renewable energy.

Hsa Moo is an ethnic Karen and advocate for environmental, social and human rights issues. She is currently working as the media coordinator at Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), a leading non-profit environmental organization based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.