RANGOON/NAYPYIDAW —The Burmese government is pushing ahead with the construction of a large hydropower dam on the Salween River and two dams on tributaries of the Irrawaddy River, senior officials have said in remarks to Parliament and interviews with The Irrawaddy.
They said the government will commission third-party, international consultants to study the environmental and social impacts of six dams that are being planned on the Salween River.
Deputy Minister of Electrical Power Maw Thar Htwe told Parliament on Wednesday that the Kunlong dam on the Salween River in northern Shan State and the Chibwe and Laiza dams on the upper tributaries of the Irrawaddy River in northern Kachin State are being constructed.
“Joint venture agreements with foreign investors have been signed and the Chibwe, Laiza and Kunlong projects are being implemented,” Maw Thar Htwe said, according to state-owned newspaper The Mirror.
The Kunlong dam, also known as the Upper Salween dam, reportedly has a capacity of 1,400 megawatt (MW), 90 percent of which will be exported to nearby China. In 2010, Chinese energy firm Hanergy signed an agreement with the then-military government and joint venture partner Asia World, a Burmese conglomerate owned by US-sanctioned businessman Steven Law, the son of the late drug lord Lo Hsing Han, to implement the project.
In 2007, China Power Investment (CPI) Corporation signed an agreement with the Burmese junta to develop a total of seven dams on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State, including the suspended Myitsone dam. The agreement included the 2,000-MW Chibwe dam and the 1,560-MW Laiza dam. The majority of the energy produced by the dams would be destined for export to China.
“By implementing these [three] projects, the state will earn annual revenues of US$367 million and we will be able to use 2,620 megawatt in the country. It will take at most seven years to complete these projects; the electricity will become available in the [fiscal] year 2021-2022,” the deputy minister was quoted as telling Parliament.
He added that Burma currently produces 4,362 megawatt in energy per year and will see an annual growth of energy demand of around 13 percent, some of which will have to be provided by hydropower dams.
In February 2013, state media reported that the government approved feasibility studies for six hydropower dams on the Salween River: the Kunlong, Naung Khar, Mann Taung, Mongton, Ywathit and Hatgyi dams.
Minister of Electrical Power Khin Maung Soe told The Irrawaddy in an interview in Naypyidaw last week that the government would commission international consultants to carry out environmental and social impact assessments for all planned Salween dams.
“Our government will not carry out these [assessments], nor the company that implements the project. We will ask a third party to ensure a fair assessment and will call a tender [for the studies] for transparency sake,” Khin Maung Soe said.
The ministry has previously said that Kunlong project would displace 418 people from four villagers in Kunlong Township in northern Shan State.
Deputy Minister Maw Thar Htwe told The Irrawaddy that a Singaporean consultant had been hired to carry out the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the Kunlong dam.
“We have a Singaporean group … doing the assessment. We will form a committee to provide compensation [and relocation] for the displaced villagers,” he said, adding that the committee would include representatives of various ministries, local authorities and company representatives.
Minister of Electrical Power Khin Maung Soe told The Irrawaddy that the Chibwe Dam was nearly completed, but added that the construction and operations of dam projects in Kachin State were being disrupted by the ongoing fighting between the Burma Army and Kachin rebels. The status of the Laiza dam remains unclear.
Civil Society Concerns
Hydropower projects are highly controversial in Burma due to their heavy environment and social impacts, while many large projects are located in ethnic conflict areas, such as some of the dams proposed on the Salween River, which runs through Shan, Karen and Mon states in eastern Burma.
A lack of information often surrounds the projects, many of which were first planned during the military regime and involve Chinese state-owned or Thai companies, and joint ventures with companies owned by Burmese tycoons.
Dam sites have often seen increased militarization, leading to human rights abuses against local civilians and clashes with ethnic armed rebel groups. Local communities losing land to the projects or access to water resources are often not properly consulted, nor compensated, activists have alleged.
Union Parliament Speaker and Union Solidarity and Development Party chairman Shwe Mann told the government during parliamentary discussions on Wednesday that developing Burma’s energy supply through new dams and coal-fired plants was “imperative” for the country’s future development.
He warned, however, that proper impact studies and compensation measures should be carried out, and added that those displaced by dam projects should be offered jobs.
Most of the energy generated by the planned dams is set for export to China and Thailand. A total of 64 dam project sites have been identified by the Burmese government in the past decades, 46 of these projects reportedly involve foreign investors.
Civil society organizations have long monitored the projects, but it has been difficult to establish the exact status of the projects, and whether official permission has been granted or if work on the ground has started.
“The energy generated from these projects is not intended for the benefit of our country, but to sell it to others,” said Khin Phyo Wai, a Burma project coordinator of the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network based in Thailand.
“We never hear whether they conducted an environmental or social impact assessment for these projects,” he said, adding, “Most of the projects are being carried out without the public knowing.”
The Burma Rivers Network has said that, “The six [Salween River] dam projects with a combined capacity of about 15,000 megawatts, planned by Chinese, Burmese and Thai investors, are threatening the future of the people and the rich biodiversity of the Salween basin.”
The group has called for an immediate halt to the Salween dam projects and in March 2014 it presented a petition opposing the dams that was signed by 30,000 people from ethnic areas, 130 civil society groups and political parties in eastern Burma.
“There is great concern that Asia World Company, notorious for poor construction standards, has been contracted to start building the Kunlong dam on the Salween River,” the Burma Rivers Network said in a statement last year.
“Already, communities in over 60 villages have lost lands and houses due to construction of access roads in preparation for the Kunlong dam in northern Shan State. Accelerated logging and mining by military crony companies is also taking place along the river in the potential dam flood zones,” the group warned.
Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze.