Sunday, 16 August 2015

Reward and ruin on the Salween River

One of the least developed countries in the region, only 16 percent of the Burmese population has electricity in their homes. In
last year’s census, questionnaires asked citizens which source of energy they mostly use for cooking. An astonishing 69 percent of
families answered that they still use firewood.
With the world shying away from coal, harnessing the Salween’s mighty power for electricity seems an obvious choice. Developers
scrambled to put forth ideas, and at the time of writing, there were no less than 28 hydropower dams in the planning process.
Once operational, the 241-metre tall dam is to generate more than 7,000 megawatts of electricity, of which 700 megawatts will be
used for local demand, with the remaining 90 percent of production earmarked for sale to Thailand and China.
However, as with most power plants, the Mong Ton dam is not without its drawbacks. The US$6 billion project is also expected to
flood around 676 square km of forest and farmland, putting more than 10,000 villages underwater and disrupting local fisheries.
“The reason why people are campaigning against the Mong Ton dam project is because it will not benefit our local communities, or the
country as a whole,” she said.
“On top of that, the social and environmental impacts will be irreversible – their loss simply cannot be measured in cash. It is not
worth it to get compensation and let these companies take our natural resources from us.”
These sentiments have been echoed, loudly and frequently, by non-governmental organisations across the country. On7 July, more than
120 environmental and community-based groups signed a letter of protest in support of the “Save the Salween” movement, citing
concerns such as ruined biodiversity and increased armed conflict should the project go ahead.
Their most pressing worry though, is how ethnic people living along the river will survive without their chief livelihoods,
agriculture and fishing. Many have no idea what they will do when their villages have been submerged by floodwaters.
In a statement released in late April, community group The People of Kunhing Township claim that the project will be “greatly
hazardous” to the township, one of 16 slated to be flooded by the mega-dam.
“Traditional customs, rich natural resources, and our thousand islands – all of these sacred sites and important things would be
destroyed,” they said.
“This will be greatly damaging to the lives of the people who have lived in this area for generations.”
In the face of such fierce public opposition, the Burmese, Thai and Chinese corporations involved have insisted that they have done
everything right.
Under intense public scrutiny, the corporations appointed Australian body the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC) to
conduct the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Social Impact Assessment (SIA).
At the first of the public consultation meetings conducted by SMEC on 10 March, villagers from Shan and Karen community groups took
the opportunity to protest what they believe to be simply a ‘rubber-stamping’ process by SMEC.
“I am amazed that you did the SIA and EIA in only two years,” exclaimed one young man protesting with environmental group Karen
River Watch.
“There are over 10,000 villages – how can you do it completely in just two years?”
Steve Thompson of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) similarly has little faith in the assessment process.
“They have to make it look like they’re going through the normal processes, and make it look like this is a normal project. We are
talking about the biggest, most expensive, most lucrative projects in the world,” he said.
“It’s very complicated assessing the impacts of the dams; some may be small, some may be large, and some may not happen decades into
the future. For the companies and the government, it’s much easier to talk about the electricity supply, jobs, and the idea of
In early June, an ethnic coalition of 16 Shan community-based organisations issued a statement further condemning the SMEC process,
leveling accusations of bribery and alleging that the EIA/SIA teams were avoiding communities unhappy with the project.
“It is becoming apparent that SMEC’s EIA/SIA process is simply a sham, aimed to rubber-stamp the Mong Ton dam plans rather than
objectively assess the project’s actual impacts,” declared the coalition, which featured signatories such as the Shan Human Rights
Foundation and the Shan Women’s Action Network.
“The SMEC field surveyors had angered local villagers by only explaining the positive impacts of the dam, giving them ‘gifts’ which
they saw as bribes, and persuading them to sign documents they didn’t understand.”
The Australian company maintains that there has been no breach of the corporation’s anti-bribery and corruption policies, but so far
has not provided reasons as to why township public consultations in May were cancelled.
Of the project’s stakeholders, China Three Gorges Corporation, China Southern Power Grid, Sinohydro, the Electricity Generating
Authority of Thailand (International) and Burma’s International Group of Entrepreneurs Company, none responded to DVB’s enquires.

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