Communities in northern Shan State have grown worried over two large hydropower dams planned on the Salween River and its tributary, after government officials and representatives of a Burmese and Chinese company informed them about the projects last month, Shan NGOs said Tuesday.
“We are very concerned about the likely negative impacts of the projects on the environment and on the communities that live along the length of the river,” five ethnic Shan NGOs said in a joint statement, which also included a list of 3,000 signatures collected in more than a dozen Shan villages.
Ministry of Electricity officials and representatives of Burma’s International Group of Entrepreneurs (IGE) Co. Ltd. and HydroChina Corporation held a public meeting in Tangyan township on March 17 with about 100 villagers from 10 villages situated within a roughly 60-kilometer radius of the two project sites, according to the NGOs.
Villagers were reportedly informed of the local benefits of the 1,200 mega-watt Nawng Pha (Nongpa) dam planned on the Salween river and the 225-Mw Mann Taung dam planned on the Nam Ma river, a tributary of the Salween.
“It was promised that impacted villagers would be provided with new houses, schools, healthcare centers, roads, and farmlands, which would ensure better living standards,” said the NGOs, which include the Tai Youth Network, the Shan State Youth Network Committee and the Shan Students Union-Thailand.
The NGOs said villagers living in near or inside the planned project areas were not invited to the public meeting for some reason.
Those in attendance were told that HydroChina Corporation had signed an agreement with the Ministry of Electricity to build the dams and operate the hydropower stations under a 40-year concession. The vast majority of the generated power, about 90 percent, would be exported to nearby China, company representatives supposedly told villagers.
Burma’s government signed an agreement with China over the construction of the Nawng Pha dam during the 2010 visit of then Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping.
The Burmese company partnering with the Chinese firm on the hydropower projects is IGE Co Ltd, a conglomerate with business interests in banking, timber, oil, gas and mining. IGE is owned by the sons of Aung Thaung, the Ministry of Industry under the previous military regime and currently a lawmaker with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Company workers have begun clearing the ground in project areas and IGE told local communities that 430 people in two villages would lose 3,307 acres of land to the Nawng Pha dam, while 5,566 acres of forest would be lost. The Mann Taung project would flood 677 acres of farmland belonging to 285 people and 7,640 acres of forest.
IGE promised support for the relocation of local communities, but details on the projects are scarce as environmental and social impact studies have yet to be carried out.
Shan NGOs said local communities had received little information about the project and will probably not be properly consulted over the heavy environmental and social impacts of the dams, nor adequately compensated for loss of livelihoods. They also believe that the number of people who will be displaced by the dams will be larger than the companies’ estimates.
The groups said “the deteriorating situations of relocated villages of the Irrawaddy Myitsone dam and the Paunglaung dams near the capital Naypyidaw” offered a warning of how the Shan dam projects might be implemented if companies are not held to international project standards.
Local communities, however, do not speak out against the projects out of fear for retribution from local authorities and the well-connected companies. “The people in those dam sites – our ethnics inside the country – dare not to talk about their concerns,” said Ying Harn Fah, an activist with the Shan Community Based groups.
The NGOs said communities are also worried that the massive, government-approved investments would lead to an influx of Burma Army soldiers to secure the area, a situation that could result in human rights abuses against the population and clashes with ethnic rebel groups.
The projects sites are located in areas that are partially under control of the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA) and other Shan rebel groups, including the Shan State Progressive Party.
Sai Khur Hseng said, “Building those dams will only hinder the peace process as they are still fighting over these resource-rich areas.”
The Minister of Electricity told Parliament last year that the government has plans to build six large dams on the Salween River and one on its tributary.
The projects would affect tens of thousands of people from various ethnic communities living along the length of the river, which runs from China through eastern Burma’s Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon states.
Last month, on March 14, the International Day of Actions for Rivers, 131 Burmese civil society groups and 34,000 people called for the suspension of all Salween River dam projects during a public event in Moulmein, capital of Mon State.