The Salween Dams and the problems of resource governance in Myanmar’s’ ethnic border areas

The Salween Dams and the problems of resource governance in Myanmar’s’ ethnic border areas

The Salween River originates in the mountains of Tibet and ends in Mon State of Myanmar, after a journey of more than 2,800 km. The river, which is known as Nu River in China and Thanlwin River in Myanmar provides benefits to almost 10 million people and is an important source for fisheries and sustains fruitful farmland. [i] In Myanmar many ethnic minority communities such as the Karen and Karenni, have lived along the banks for generations in areas which have seen the longest running civil wars on earth. Even though this conflicts are not yet peacefully settled the Myanmar government confirmed its plans in spring 2013 to construct seven dams along the Salween River/Thanlwin River in Myanmar: the Tasang, Nawngpha, and Kun Long (Upper Thanlwin dams) in Shan state; the Ywathit dam north of the confluence of the Salween River and Pai River in Kaya State (Karenni State) and the Dagwin, Weigyi- and Hatgyi dam in Karen State. These dams will cause severe impacts not only to the local people livelihood, but also to the surrounding environment. Also the prospect for a peaceful settlement of the conflicts between the central governments army and ethnic armed groups in this region decreased when the military forced people to relocate involuntarily, worsening the situation in these already conflict-stricken areas.[ii]

Myanmar’s incentives for exploiting its natural resources

With its natural resources endowment, Myanmar has become a big exporter of natural gas and energy. However, at the moment only 16 percent of the rural population has access to the electric grid[iii]. Blackouts and shortages are ever present in this resource-rich country ranked as having 46th largest gas reserves in the world. Electricity shortage has kept reoccurring in Myanmar and the problem becomes even more acute when the country pursues intensive economic development with higher demand for energy to run industries, tourism, transportations, and the like. The fact that the Myanmar government still exports its own energy and electricity to other countries while the peoples’ needs have never been met is a main target for criticism. A point raised by many scholars is that Myanmar government has the priority to serve military expenditures. Since 1988, the size of the military has increased from less than 200,000 to 400,000 staff. Thein Sein’s semi-civilian government still allocated $2.4 billion or more than 12 % of its total state expenditure on military development and weaponry procurement in 2013.[iv]

Another reason is that Myanmar is aiming to pursue democratic reforms to open up the country for market liberalism and integrate itself into the neoliberal world economy. As such, to catch up, Myanmar needs foreign currency reserves[v] and revenues from various projects including electricity sales in order to invest in the upgrading of infrastructures and other facilities. In this regard, it will attract more foreign investors and increase its competitiveness on the world market.  

Thailand’s incentives for purchasing energy from Myanmar

The persistence of the Thai government to seek out for more energy supplies in Myanmar by constructing mega dams on the Salween River tells something about the current Thai energy situation and its prospect. There are indeed two opposing opinions concerning the real incentives of Thailand to purchase electricity. On the one side the Thai government has raised concerns that Thailand has been encountering an energy crisis. The country’s power reserve is lower than it is supposed to be[vi]. It is also estimated that natural gas which contributes to 68 % of Thailand’s energy supply will run out within the next 15 years[vii]. Furthermore, Thailand’s actual production capacity is at approximately 27,000 MW, while the recent energy demand was at 26,589 MW which is considerably close, putting the country at risk of an energy shortage. According to Power Development Plan (PDP) 2010, Thailand then aims to produce as much as 70,868 MW according to the 2012-2030 plan. More importantly, for some the three-hour long energy blackout in 14 southern provinces of Thailand during the summer 2013 (due to the renovation of natural gas drilling platforms in Myanmar operated by the Petroleum Authority of Thailand) [viii] has disclosed Thailand’s vulnerable energy situation.

                On the other side the civil society criticized the overestimation of Thailand’s energy needs. Isranews agency points out for instance that during this year’s energy peak, the highest energy demand was indeed lower than predicted. This shows that if the government initiates a proper energy efficiency strategy and incentives for renewable energy sources, Thailand can highly improve its energy security without seeking new power generation opportunities abroad.

Who gets a piece of the cake?

The main stakeholders of the Salween Dams projects are from Thailand, Myanmar, and China. An agreement between the Myanmar Ministry of Electrical Power, Thailand and China was signed for the Hatgyi Dam project in Karen state (for 1360 MW). The Energy Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) is responsible for the construction process; meanwhile China’s Sinohydro Corporation is the major funder. By 2019, Thailand will obtain 75% of the electricity output from this dam. The agreement was actuated despite a report by an investigative committee on human rights and environmental violations demanding EGAT to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in accordance with legal standards of Thailand. In 2008, another agreement was made between China Southern Power Grid Corporation (CSG) and Sinhydro to develop the Tasang Dam in southern Shan State. The main gainer of this project is again Thailand, who expectedly will import 85% of the annual electricity output while the local population will gain little.

Dam construction fuels violent conflicts

Since Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948 with ethnic Burmans as the predominant political group, ethnic uprisings have been ever-present. This includes intermittent violent conflicts in Karen-State. After the Karen National Union (KNU) signed a ceasefire with the government in 2012[ix], activities at Hatgyi Dam construction site increased. The continued construction of the dam, despite resistance from KNU, has actuated fights between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Myanmar armed forces. Grenade attacks at the site in 2007 also killed one Thai worker and wounded several others. Another ethnic armed group that has also engaged in violent conflicts with the Burmese army is the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). The fight broke out when DKBA rejected the Burmese army’s command to abandon its base. Although KNLA and DKBA fought each other in the past, they tend to cooperate to fight against the Burmese Army and mega dam projects which can pose detrimental effects to Karen communities and environment. 

Another armed resistance group to be mentioned is of the Karenni. They also encountered with the Burmese Army’s militarization to safeguard Chinese workers at the Ywathit dam site.[x] In 2010, an ambush by Karenni troops led to a number of Chinese engineers’ deaths. That is why nowadays, special troops of the Myanmar armed forces are stationed in the area even prohibiting environmental activists’ accessibility for information. Later, the Karenni National Progressive Party signed a ceasefire agreement with the army attached with its specific request for greater transparency in operating the Ywathit dam project.

Local grievances

Since the seven dams are planned in conflict-stricken areas as aforementioned, there is a high risk that the projects will even worsen the situation of the local people.  The Burmese Army has displaced a large number of local people whereby many cases involved offensive acts in order to pave the way for construction. According to Salween Watch[xi], having started since 1996, the forced relocation affected 300,000 people’s lives surrounding the Tasang dam site. Many of them haven’t obtained proper compensations and even worse, systematic human rights abuses including rape, torture, and killings have been ever-present. Similar to the Tasang dam the military relocated 37,000 inhabitants from Ywathit Dam areas and many of them fled to Thailand and stay there up until now. These cases are only part of the calamity which local peoples in these areas have to face. More casualties may be expected, if the Burmese Army and ethic armed forces are still not cooperative in the search for a peaceful resolution which also takes into account hydropower development on the Salween River.  

In addition, the Salween dams can potentially spur health impacts among villagers and spill over into Thailand due to an inept health system and the change of river flow due to the construction. In such malaria-endemic areas, vector biology[xii] can be changed subsequently exacerbation of the disease transmission across the borders.  It is also feared that important historical sites will flooded by the dams.

Last but not least, there will be widespread environmental degradation. Given the example of the Weigyi dam[xiii], one study indicates that the dam and flooded zones will endanger the Salween Rivers documented 200 animal species of which 42 are endangered ones, and 194 plants species. Furthermore, the problem will spill over and cause many secondary effects in the forests outside the flood zone. The people that migrate from the flooded areas will encroach into other areas of the remaining forests. Trees will be cut to pave ways for building roads and to replace the inundated ones.

Transboundary issues

Since the Salween River, as mentioned earlier, is shared between China and Myanmar a transboundary management of its water resources is needed. According China’s 12th Five Year Plan, China aims to increase its non-fossil fuel energy source, thus dam building is included in its development agenda. Damming the Salween River is certainly one of China’s targets. In addition to its already persistent engagement in dam projects in Myanmar (such as the Myitsone dam) China’s plan to construct dams on the upstream rivers of the Salween River/Nu River will increase the accumulated environmental impact on the Salween River’s ecological system. Moreover, the diversion of water flow will add up the complication and could contribute to geopolitical conflicts among the adjacent countries that are first and foremost damming the river in their respective national interests. 

Good Governance & future energy direction

Energy governance is indisputably important for a resource-rich country like Myanmar as non-renewable natural resources will dwindle without substitutes if the government still carelessly exploits natural resources for an elite group’s benefits and those of foreign investors. Recently at the World Economic Forum (WEF) held in Naypyidaw in early 2013, the Deputy Energy Minister revealed that the government realizes the importance of energy reserves for future generation and national development.

But despite this positive statement there is not yet a clear sign that Salween Dams projects will be put on hold for a more transparent and accountable approaches to development. To pursue a good governance path, public hearings and clear details regarding the projects as well as proper compensations must be at first presented. Surely, Myanmar’s neighboring countries are hungry for energy supplies, but as a transboundary issue, regional cooperation must be conducted in order to counter conflicts of in the long run. More importantly, referring to the government’s promise for increasing energy supplies to meet its domestic demand, the government needs to start reconsider its position beginning with the case of Salween dams.

In conclusion the case of the Salween dams project exhibits the low tendency for local people to gain benefits at all and their voices are being muted in many instances. Not only that, the environment and livelihood of local communities are damaged and the natural resources are commodified for the benefits of a few. Also ethnic conflicts worsened in several areas due to the Myanmar army trying to secure control over the dam sites. Myanmar with its rich natural endowment has a good potential to meet its peoples’ demand and prosper, but without the three key terms good governance, bottom-up approach and sustainable development to be put into practice, the promising future is still out of reach.

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[i] International Rivers, 2013. Salween Dams. [online] Available at: <http://www.internationalrivers.org/campaigns/salween-dams> [Accessed June 2013].

[ii] Slaween Watch, 2013. Burmese military stokes war in northern Shan State to clear way for Salween dam. [online] Available at: <http://www.salweenwatch.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=327:burmese-military-stokes-war-in-northern-shan-state-to-clear-way-for-salween-dam&catid=36:campaigns&Itemid=64> [Accessed August 2013]

[iii] Roughneen, Simon, 2013. Energy Resources to Be Used for Domestic Needs in Future: Minister. [online] Available at: <http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/36665> [Accessed June 2013].

[iv] Global Post, 2013. Myanmar military handed $2.4 billion budget. [online] Available at: <http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130306/myanmar-military-handed-24-billion-budget> [Accessed June 2013].

[v] Larkin, Stuart, 2013. Why Myanmar needs its ‘cronies’. [online] Available at:  <http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/opinion/7630-bringing-in-the-big-boys-why-myanmar-needs-its-cronies.html> [Accessed July 2013].

[vi] Thairaht, 2013. บูรณาการ สร้างความมั่นคงชาติ ฝ่าวิกฤตพลังงานไฟฟ้า. [online] Available at: <http://www.thairath.co.th/column/eco/ecoscoop/347162> [Accessed July 2013].

[vii] สถานีวิทยุกองโทรทัศน์กองทัพบกช่อง 5, 2013. ชาติมั่นคง. [online] Available at: <http://app.tv5.co.th/viewClip.php?library_id=10924&pid=380&fromPage=index&sortby=> [Accessed July 2013].

[ix] Yan Naing, Saw, 2013. On Salween River, Growing Signs that Work on Hat Gyi Dam Resumes. [Online]. Available at: <http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/35277> [Accessed June 2013].

[x] Mang, Grace, 2013. China-backed dams escalating ethnic tension in Myanmar. [online] Available at: <http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/5823-China-backed-dams-escalating-ethnic-tension-in-Myanmar> [Accessed June 2013].

[xi] Salween Watch, 2013. Current Status of Dam Projects on Burma’s Salween River. [pdf] Available at: <http://www.salweenwatch.org/images/PDF/english-salween.pdf> [Accessed at August 2013].

[xii] Salween Watch, 2012. Dammed by Burma’s Generals. [pdf] Available at:  <http://www.salweenwatch.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=65:dammed-by-burmas-generals&catid=37:publications&Itemid=66> [Accessed August 2013].

[xiii] International Rivers, 2013. Salween Dams. [online] Available at: <http://www.internationalrivers.org/campaigns/salween-dams> [Accessed June 2013].

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Article by Wanwadee Erawan