Time may be running out for Southeast Asia’s last major undammed river - the Salween, also known as the Nu in China and Thanlwin in Myanmar, which originates high in the mountains of Tibet and flowing south for 2,800 kilometers through the east of Myanmar into the Andaman Sea. There are plans to construct 19 dams along the length of the river and its tributaries.
While visions of harnessing the river for hydropower are decades old, various setbacks including vocal opposition from environmental and human rights groups - over a dozen ethnic minority groups live along the river’s banks - as well as ongoing conflict in Myanmar’s restive eastern states, have so far prevented their realization.
This could be set to change with the riparian governments’ increasing determination to bring the dream to fruition.
In October last year, the NGO Karen Rivers Watch reported a number of clashes between Burmese military troops and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army - an ethnic armed group in Karen State in the east of Myanmar.
Although such reports are difficult to independently verify, it is speculated that the militarization of the area on the Salween River may have been prompted by plans to secure the area around the proposed Hatgyi dam - one of six proposed dam projects slated for Myanmar’s section of the river. It was reported last month, however, that official permission for the dam had yet to be given by the government for the 1,360 MW project.
Further upstream, in neighboring Shan State, it was announced that the government had approved cooperation between Myanmar’s IGE Company and China’s Three Gorges Corporation for the construction of the huge 7000 MW Mongton dam.
In China, meanwhile, the government in 2013 reversed a moratorium on dam construction due to social and environmental concerns, and is determined to press ahead with the building of five dams (out of a total of thirteen planned) on the Nu flowing through Yunnan Province, which borders with Myanmar.
With preparatory work underway, it is estimated that construction of the dams could take between four and ten years to complete, though serious protests or renewed conflict in Myanmar could incur significant delays.
Exploiting hydropower figures in the national development priorities of all the states concerned. For Myanmar its hydropower potential is seen as essential for the country’s economic development and a means by which to lift its population out of poverty. It is estimated that 70% of the population, mainly residing in rural areas, do not have access to electricity, with the country’s electrification rate being the lowest in Southeast Asia.
However, belying the above benefits is that much of the energy set to be produced from the river’s dams is slated to be exported to neighboring Thailand (the river forms a border between the two countries for 120km) as well as China. Of the six proposed dams, all involve joint ventures between Burmese investors, Chinese corporations, and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.
For China, exploiting hydropower is seen as central to lessening China’s dependency on fossil fuels, as stipulated by the country’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015). With hydropower already constituting nearly a quarter of China’s energy needs, it is hoped that power generation will increase to 420 GW by 2020, representing an additional increase of 50% on current levels.
The largest river in China yet to be dammed, so the Nu is thus a key piece in Beijing’s hydroenergy plans.
Ecological and human disaster?
From an environmental perspective, the dams will have serious consequences for the river basin’s unique biodiversity. UNESCO has declared the upper headwaters of the Salween, together with the Mekong and Yangtze, as “one of the richest temperate regions of the world in terms of biodiversity,” and it was accordingly inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2003. That status is now under threat should the dam developments go ahead.
Similarly in Myanmar, the Salween river basin’s valuable temperate rainforests have been documented to support a rich flora and fauna. According to the World Wildlife Fund, one-third of the river’s fish species are found nowhere else on earth.
In terms of the human impact, it is estimated that around six million people live within the watershed of the Salween River. The damming of the river will not only displace thousands of people, but also affect fish stocks and fertile farmland dependent on the flow of sediment.
There are also seismic risks at play, especially on the Nu in China which is situated on a major fault-line. And while not conclusively proven, there is mounting scientific evidence that large dam constructions could also exacerbate the risk of triggering earthquakes. In 2008, an earthquake in China’s heavily dammed Sichuan Province killed over 80,000 people.
The river’s status as Southeast Asia’s longest undammed river cuts little ice with governments and developers who see only its utilitarian value - thus subordinating its biological, cultural, and even spiritual value for the people who live along its banks.
Indeed, national development priorities are such that governments see little alternative but to harness resources on a large scale through megaprojects - and more specifically mega-dams. In so doing, alternative sources of energy or lessening impact through smaller scale initiatives are not considered viable compared to the perceived large-scale gains of hydropower.
Discussing alternatives or questioning the rationale of mega-dams aside, it is clear that there is urgent need for better social and environmental impact assessments of proposed projects involving close consultation with local stakeholders. While lip service has been paid to doing such, the reality is that such efforts are markedly missing. International Rivers, an NGO campaigning against dams on the river, argues that such projects often proceed with minimal consultation with violence often directed at protesting communities.
Furthermore, while feasibility assessments may be made, they are rarely made public with the secrecy and lack of information further heightening suspicions of intentions and likely impact. The absence of revenue-sharing proposals from profits accrued from dams also serves to alienate local populations. Accordingly, it is often those most affected who perceive they have the least to gain and everything to lose from such projects.
Worryingly, there is a fear that the dams could derail Myanmar’s fragile peace process with ethnic minority groups who rely on the river for their livelihoods. The clashes reported in recent months could escalate further if the government and military continue to neglect local concerns.
While damming of the Salween has long been mooted, it may now only be a question of time until the wild waters of the Salween have been tamed. Whether the people living along its banks will be so easily tamed remains to be seen.
Alec Forss is a freelance writer who specializes in social and environmental issues.