There are close to 200 large dams in Myanmar. Mountainous and home to several large rivers. Myanmar has a large hydroelectric power potential of 39,000 Megawatts (MW), with an economical exploitable potential is about 37,000 MW. Burma tripled its installed capacity of hydro plants, from 253 MW in 1990 to 745 MW in 2002. Total installed capacity in 2010 is at least 2,449 MW, 6 percent of potential. Several large dams are planned to increase future hydro utilization. [Source: Wikipedia +]

An Asian Development Bank’s October 2012 assessment of the energy sector in Myanmar reported on the country’s abundant hydropower potential, with 92 potential large hydropower projects already identified. Burma's hydro power development activities and plans include five-year short term plans and a 30-year strategic plan. This involves generating power for domestic use and exporting to neighboring countries, especially China, Thailand and India. Total planned hydropower development in Myanmar is 14,600 MW. Though the twelve large planned hydroelectic dams larger than 1,000 MW get much media attention, there are at least another twelve in the 100 - 1000 MW range and at least 27 smaller microhydroprojects smaller than 100 MW. The rest of the dams are generally lower height irrigation structures. +

Exploitable Hydropower Potential of Burma, State/Region, Number of Sites: 1) Kachin State, 39, 2,061; 2) Kayah State, 7, 3,909; 3) Kayin State, 21, 17,021; 4) Chin State, 22, 1,312; 5) Sagaing Region, 21, 2,399; 6) Tanintharyi Region, 14, 692; 7) Bago Region, 11, 387; 8) Magwe Region, 8, 123; 9) Mandalay Region, 17, 3,482; 10) Mon State, 10, 292; 11 ) Rakhine State, 14, 247; 12) Shan State, 83, 7,699, Total,.12, 267, 39,624. +

Atrocities have been linked with some of Myanmar’s dam projects. Richard Lloyd Parry wrote in The Times, “ When the Balu Chaung dam was built on the Balu Chaung River in the 1960s, 24 Burmese battalions moved into the area. Human rights groups have gathered numerous accounts of the rapes, forced labour and arbitrary killings and arrests that were inflicted upon the local Karenni population. Among the biggest victims were members of the Padaung tribe, famous for the “long neck”women who stretch their necks with brass rings. Numerous local people were killed or injured by landmines scattered as a security measure in the fields around the dams. But despite the energy generated by the hydroelectric plant, villages lying literally underneath the power lines received no electricity. “Instead of getting benefits from the dam, we will have only curses,” says Seem Wen, a local village head and a major in the Karen National Liberation Army. “Human rights abuses, forced labour, killings. There will be many more refugees. If the dam is built, we will definitely show a military response.” [Source: Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, March 23, 2006]

Salween River

The Salween River is powerful waterway even in the dry season. It runs 1,900 miles (3,060 kilometers) from the high Tibetan mountains to the Gulf of Martaban and the Andaman Sea, off Myanmar’s western coast. At Weigyi, on the border of Myanmar and Thailand, it produces a notorious whirlpool that is strong enough to pul a boat underwater. Locals leave offerings of rice, flowers and bananas to appease the god of the Salween and to thank him for vital water and prosperity he brings. The Salween is home to 70 species of fish including catfish, eel, featherback and carp who thrive in its surging rapids and deep pools. During the dry season the river dropes by 10 meters (33 feet) or more. [Source: Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, March 23, 2006 ]

Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnanm China is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here the upper reaches of three of Asia's mightiest rivers—the Yangtze, Mekong, and the Salween—flow parallel to one another within a 55 mile band, divided by high mountain ridges. The Yangtze river, known in this area as the Jinsha, marks the boundary between Tibet and Kham. The Mekong is known as the Lancang. The Salween is called the Nujiang. “Jiang” is the Chinese word for river. The area is stunningly beautiful but rarely visited because the terrain carved by the rivers is so severe and rugged.

Fed by monsoon rains, the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween all sweep east of the Himalayas then drop due south, parallel to one another, before heading off in different directions. The gorges of the upper Yangtze, Mekong and Salween are among the deepest in the world, each twice the depth of the Grand Canyon, and reaching three kilometers in some places. Each gorge is separated from the others by towering mountains with more than a hundred peaks over 5,000 meters.

The Salween River flows undisturbed through some of the most outwardly tranquil territory on earth. It is Southeast Asia’s longest undammed waterway. But if the Myanmar government and the Chinese have their way it won’t be that way that way for long, turning parts of it into still-water lakes to which many of species that thrive in the river are ill-adapted.

In Myanmar much it flows through territory occupied by the Karen minority. “As long as I have lived here my family has been totally dependent on the Salween for our livelihood,” says Htoo Lwee, a member of the Karen ethnic group that lives in the village of Hoekey, a few miles below the proposed dam site at Weigyi. “The river gives us a living from fishing and from boating. It is our life and our mother. If the dam is constructed we will not be able to live.”

Secret Plans for Thai-Backed Dams on the Salween

The Myanmar government is currently focused on two major hydropower dams – the Wai Gyi and Hat Gyi – on the Salween River. The Hat Gyi dam, the first to be built, is designed to power a 600-megawatt turbine. The dam is 168 meters (550 ft) high, according to green groups who fear it will form a lake stretching 380 kilometers (235 miles) through valleys controlled largely by rebel Karen, Karenni and Shan militias. China’s Three Gorges dam is 185 meters high.

Richard Lloyd Parry wrote in The Times, “They come in the form of yellow marks painted on the rocky banks and a concrete plaque laid by Thai engineers. If their plans go ahead Weigyi will be transformed from a jungle shrine into a massive hydroelectric dam. The rocky cliffs will be replaced by concrete walls and throbbing turbines. The jungle will be penetrated by rumbling roads and high security fences. Five dams are jointly planned by the Thai and Burmese Governments; far upstream China proposes building 13 more. If only a few go ahead, the Salween, the longest undammed river left in south-east Asia, will be chained. [Source: Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, March 23, 2006 ]

“Conscious of the potential for bad publicity, the Thai and Burmese Governments have kept secret their precise plans for dam building. But The Times has obtained a copy of the memorandum of agreement signed between that reveals that the first dam to be built will be at Hatgyi, south of Weigyi. This is an area firmly under Burmese control and 30 miles inside its territory. The guerrillas of the Karen National Union and independent observers will find it very difficult to observe its effect on local people. The dam’s opponents calculate that the reservoir will be 640 sq kilometers – the size of Singapore. But it is not only the Burmese...that will benefit from the dam. The 5,000 megawatts of electricity generated will be channelled into the growing and energy-hungry towns of neighbouring Thailand.

Ed Cropley of Reuters wrote: “According to the confidential agreement between EGAT (the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) and Myanmar, Thailand will receive a “certain percentage of free power” for building Hutgyi, the first of the planned hydropower projects. However, environmentalists and rights workers worry the company is blithely ignoring the human cost of the dams, in particular to the Karen, who number about 7 million, or just over 10 percent of Myanmar’s population. Thai Senator Tuenjai Deetes, who has been pushing EGAT to come clean on its plans, fears they could create another 100,000 Myanmar refugees in northern Thailand. “Their main idea is to make electricity for the lowest cost, and dams outside Thailand are the cheapest investment,” Tuenjai said. “EGAT has never been interested in human rights, especially those of our ethnic friends in Burma.” [Source: Ed Cropley, Reuters, June 17, 2006 ==]

“As with most things involving Myanmar, one of the world’s most secretive regimes, information is scarce and villagers have been told nothing by governments on either side of the river. However, Nay Tha Blay, who has to use British colonial-era maps from 1927 to sketch out potential flood areas, says survey teams have been spotted up and down the river. EGAT engineers began a feasibility study on a proposed 1,000 MW dam at Hutgyi, 30 miles inside Myanmar, but the utility refuses to discuss details, citing a confidentiality clause in its deal with Yangon.The study was suspended at Myanmar’s request last month after an engineer was killed in a land mine blast at the site, where Karen rights groups say ethnic minority people are victims of forced labor at the hands of the Burman-dominated SPDC — an allegation EGAT denies. ==

Chinese-Backed Dams on the Salween

Seven dams have been proposed for the Salween River. The largest of these hydropower projects is the 7,100megawatt (MW) TaSang Dam on the Salween River, which is to be integrated into the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Sub-region Power Grid. A ground breaking ceremony for the Tasang Dam was held in March 2007, and China Gezhouba Group Co. (CGGC) started preliminary construction shortly after. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 2006, Sinohydro signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Burma for the US$ 1 billion, 1,200 MW Hat Gyi Dam along the Thai border. In April 2007, Farsighted Group, now known as Hanergy Holding Group, and China Gold Water Resources Co. signed MoUs with Burma for an additional 2,400 MW hydropower project on the upper Salween, an area which Yunnan Power Grid Co. reportedly surveyed in 2006. The project was expected to be complete by 2010. +

In April 2008, Sinohydro, China Southern Power Grid Co., and China Three Gorges Project Co. signed a strategic cooperation framework agreement for the development of the hydropower potential of the Salween River. Despite China’s involvement in these large-scale dams on the Salween, most of the electricity is destined for export to neighboring Thailand. However, In May 2009, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao halted the construction of the Liuku dam on the Salween River in China’s Yunnan province, calling for more thorough impact assessments. +

Environmental Damage from Dams of the Salween

Addressing potential damage caused by the Wai Gyi and Hat Gyi dams, a report entitled “Khoe Kay: Biodiversity in Peril” released by the Thailand-based Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) says more than 40 rare plant seeds and animal species in the Salween River watershed are likely to vanish if the Burmese government completes construction of the hydropower dams. Ko Shwe, a spokesperson for KASEN, said, “According to our research, we found about 394 different species. Among them, there are 8 endemic species including plants and animals. If the dam is completed, these species will be totally vanished.” The report urged the government to conduct a professional environmental assessment as well as an environmental impact study before construction work begins on the hydropower dams. [Source: The Irrawaddy, September 30, 2008]

Richard Lloyd Parry wrote in The Times, “Hydroelectric dams on the Salween River will destroy the local way of life and flood the area with militia. The reservoir will destroy rice paddies, vegetable fields, 26 villages and two entire towns. Temples and palaces will be submerged; 22,000 people will lose their homes and 8,000 more will lose their livelihoods. It will destroy forever the towns of Pasaung and Bawlake, the historical capital of the Karenni people, and the site of royal palaces and Buddhist temples and stupas (holy sites). The traditional homelands of one entire tribe, the dwindling Yintalai, who number just 1,000, will disappear. The river’s backed-up waters will flood rice fields and the garden plots of beans, tobacco, and chilli with which families support themselves during the dry season. It will block what locals refer to as the “Salween highway” , and the trading boats which carry rattan, honey and buffalo from the Karen and Karenni territories across the river to Thailand. [Source: Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, March 23, 2006]

People Displaced by Dams of the Salween

The Wai Gyi and Hat Gyi dams are both located in areas traditionally occupied by the Karen minority. Ed Cropley of Reuters wrote: “The predominantly Christian Karen, who have been fighting for independence for more than 50 years, believe plans by Myanmar’s junta to dam the Salween are designed to destroy their jungle homeland and culture. The Karen and environmentalists also accuse Thailand, whose state power producer EGAT has signed a deal with Yangon to build the dams, of turning a blind eye to the plight of the Karen in a quest for cheap hydro-electricity. [Source: Ed Cropley, Reuters, June 17, 2006 ==]

“The dams are one of the weapons the SPDC [military junta] is using to clear us out,” said Nay Tha Blay, 33, of Karen Rivers Watch, a pressure group operating out of a bamboo hut in a secret valley in rebel-held territory near the Salween. “If soldiers burn the village, the flowers can still blossom in the forest. If the village is flooded, the flowers will have nowhere to grow,” he said, quoting a popular Karen folk song. ==

“On both the Myanmar and Thai sides of the river, dozens of villages are home to men, women and children forced out of the eastern Karen State by SPDC raids. At one makeshift refugee camp, new arrivals told Reuters of neighbors murdered and communities burned to the ground. Some used the word “myo dong.” In Karen, it means genocide. Sandwiched between the SPDC troops and Thailand — which already has 120,000 long-term Myanmar refugees and is loathe to take more — they see the Salween as a final hiding place. If the waters rise, they have nowhere to go. ==

“We will have to abandon our homes, our land, our lives, everything,” said Sein Win, a 56-year-old captain in the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), one of the many ethnic militias in eastern Myanmar opposed to Yangon. “If they build the dams, the KNLA will have to fight,” he told Reuters. Nipon denied any work was under way, but said the proposed 4-5,000 MW dam could be even higher than many already fear. “The upper one will be very high, if built,” he told Reuters. His only apparent concern was that the reservoir could affect the Pai river, a Salween tributary that flows out of northwest Thailand more than 240 kilometers (150 miles) upstream. ==

The Irrawaddy reported: “According to its research, about 5,000 reside in more than 20 villages in the upper Hat Gyi dam area will be forced to relocate if the dam is completed, he said. He said human rights abuses such as forced labour, forced relocation, the disappearance of culture heritage as well as environmental damage including deforestation and flooding are likely to occur.” [Source: The Irrawaddy, September 30, 2008]

Dams of the Salween, the Myanmar Military and Karen Rebels

The Wai Gyi and Hat Gyi dams are both located in area controlled by the Karen National Union and the area around them, according to Reuters “is fast becoming a front line in one of the world’s longest-running conflicts — the war between Myanmar’s military junta and the region’s ethnic Karen people.”

Richard Lloyd Parry wrote in The Times, “In the eyes of many of the locals, the dam project will draw into the area the notorious armed forces of the Burmese junta, which have been enslaving, raping and killing the local tribespeople for decades. “These dams will not only spell the gradual genocide of indigenous peoples, but will also inflict a death sentence on endangered animal plant and plant species,” says Pascal Khoo Thwe, author of the acclaimed memoir of his Burmese childhood From the Land of Green Ghosts. “There is no better way to destroy a country than by the combined power of guns and bulldozers. Show me a cup of dam water and I will tell you stories of human misery, and cries of dying animals and plants.” [Source: Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, March 23, 2006 ]

“This is one of the most isolated and chaotic corners of Asia, a place of guerrillas and refugees, where no government holds sway. The tribespeople of eastern Burma, particularly the Karen and the Karenni, have always resisted government by the rulers in Burmese capital, Rangoon, whether they be British imperialists or their successors, the generals of the military junta. Karen armed groups have fought a scrappy war against the Burmese since independence 48 years ago but have recently found themselves driven into an ever-narrower strip along the Thai border to where tens of thousands have fled the fighting. It is in one of these pockets, a sanctuary from the depredations of the SPDC, that the Weigyi dam will be built.”

Protests Against Dams of the Salween

The Hat Gyi dam project has drawn strong protests from nongovernmental organizations concerned about the potential environmental impact and the dam’s effect on the livelihood of villagers. On ant–dam activists in Thailand, Richard Lloyd Parry wrote in The Times, “The anti-dam campaigners are mobilising what few resources they have. A group of young people have formed a pop group, Salween Angels, and recorded songs protesting against the dam’s construction. Activists are sailing down the river, warning local communities and organising demonstrations. “Even if we cannot stop this,” says Htoo Lwee, “we have to try for the sake of our river.”

But they are a few thousand stateless, almost voiceless, people against two powerful governments, and they are realistic about their chances of success. If the dam at Weigyi is stopped, it will be a triumph of local determination. If not, then the rest of the world may hardly notice that the turbulent, vigorous god of the Salween has been reduced to a placid pond. [Source: Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, March 23, 2006 ]

Major India- and Japan-Backed Dam Projects in Myanmar

The Japanese help Burma build the large Baluchaung Dam in Kayah in the 1960s as part of war reparations. In recent years the dam has been unable to generate electricity due to problems with its turbines. When the regime began having secret talks with the opposition, Japan quietly approved a $28 million loan to help Myanmar get the large dam back online by helping to reconstruct the dam’s turbines.

In western Burma, just inside the Indo-Burmese border, runs the Chindwin River, where several potential dam sites have been identified that are likely to service export-oriented hydro-power plants. The sites include Thamanthi, Mawlaik, Homalin, and Shwezaye.

In August 2001, the Kansai Electric Power Company, or KEPCO, contracted with Burma to provide technical assistance for developing 12 hydro-power plants, including at least five sites on the Sittang River Yenwe, Khabaung, Pyu, Bogata and Shwe Gin.

Tamanthi Dam

India and Myanmar have drawn up plans to build the Tamanthi Dam in western Burma, just inside the Indo-Burmese border, on the Chindwin River. Brennan O'Connor wrote in Al-Jaazera, “The Tamanthi Dam, financed by India's National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), will be 80 meters high and flood 1,396 sq kilometers - an area larger than Hong Kong. According to the deal, 80 percent of the 6,685 gigawatt hours generated annually would be allotted to India, with the remaining 20 percent to be used at the discretion of the Myanmar government. Local human rights groups say the project will affect 6,880 hectares of fertile farmland, displacing a further 45,000 people. [Source: Brennan O'Connor, Al-Jaazera, March 31 2013 /|]

“The Tamanthi Dam project has suffered a number of setbacks and delays since the memorandum of understanding to build it was signed back in 2004. Late in 2012, a detailed project report found the construction financially unfeasible without additional government backing from either the Indian or Myanmar government. /|\

“The project is one of India's only stakes in the many existing and planned hydroelectric dams in Myanmar. The remaining dams are almost all Chinese, with some Thai, according to Sai Sai, coordinator for Burma Rivers Network - an umbrella organisation of many local conservation groups monitoring Myanmar's river systems.” /|\

Human Rights Abuses and People Displaced by the Tamanthi Dam

More than 2,400 Naga, Kuki and Shan ethnic groups living around the Tamanthi Dam site have been forcibly relocated since 2007 —some of them at gunpont—according to human rights activists and construction on the Tamanthi Dam hasn't even started yet. "The dam isn't even active yet but the villagers' lives have already been changed," Sai Sai told Al-Jazeera. "After they [the Myanmar government] relocated them, they destroyed their old homes. In the new areas, there is nothing, no township administration and nothing is developed for them." [Source: Brennan O'Connor, Al-Jaazera, March 31 2013 /|]

More than 200 soldiers regularly patrol the region from their main base in Tamanthi village. The tens-of-thousands who haven't been displaced remain anxious about when they too will be forced to move. Brennan O'Connor wrote in Al-Jaazera: “ John Laban, an ethnic Naga, used to live not far from the proposed dam site on the Chindwin River before moving to Thailand more than three years ago. The people who have been relocated are facing many hardships, according to Laban. Prospects for farming around their new homes are poor, unlike the opportunities provided by the fertile soil near the river, where the "fishing is good". /|\

“Laban said his people "have many problems", but "the government doesn't care". They were given neither compensation nor new homes, and now with their farms gone, they have no choice but to take work as day labourers, cultivating and selling someone else's fruit and vegetables - if they can even find the work. "At present they can't say when the villagers will need to move and they can't say if it will not happen," said Laban. "They are very sad - they don't want to lose their homes." /|\

“According to "Stop Damning the Chindwin", a report by the Kuki Human Rights Group, villagers who were forced to relocate were forced at gunpoint to sign agreements that stated they had volunteered to move. If compensation for their losses was provided at all, it was as little as $5 per family. As the army bulldozed their homes, cemeteries and churches, villagers from nearby towns were forcibly recruited to help. Many of the displaced were moved to a new village, named Shwe Pye Aye, after the country's former leaders General Than Shwe and Maung Aye. Kuki activists organised a river protection prayer ceremony in Leivomjang village, eight organisers were interrogated and beaten by military personnel, according to a joint press release from the Kuki Women's Human Rights Organisation and Kuki Students' Democratic Front. The organisers were forced to agree not to cary out any further activities against the Tamanthi Dam. /|\

“Displacements resulting from large industrial projects such as the Tamanthi Dam are common in Myanmar, according to David Scott Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "When you look at infrastructure projects over the last 20 years, most have involved forced relocations," he said. "Whether it is a road or a dam, the army is involved to either secure the area or enforce relocation orders." What's different now is that, in some cases, companies are at least paying token compensation to affected locals. /|\

Environmental Damage from Tamanthi Dam

Brennan O'Connor of Al-Jaazera wrote: The building of the Tamanthi Dam will not only affect people. The dam would flood the Tamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary and Hukaung Tiger Reserve, which are home to several endangered species, including tigers, elephants and the Batagur trivittata, or "Burmese Roofed turtle", which was believed to be extinct until recently. The few that do live in the wild find homes along the Chindwin River. "The official number is fewer than 25," said Steven Platt from the Wildlife Conservation Society. "But we think there are about 10 females. They used to be in all the rivers. They don't exist in any other country." [Source: Brennan O'Connor, Al-Jaazera, March 31 2013 /|]

“Engineering consultants AF-Consult Switzerland Ltd, hired by India's NHPC for the Tamanthi Dam, also provided consultation for the Chinese-financed Yeywa Dam on the Dokhtawaddy River. That dam, the third-largest roller-compacted concrete dam in the world, also caused forcible relocations, according to human rights groups. Alan Dredge, chief engineer and project manager for AF-Consult Switzerland, said in an email that steps have been taken to ensure the Tamanthi Dam would have minimal effects on the Batagur trivittata. He said an environmental impact assessment was carried out and the negative impacts of the project would be "more than balanced by improvements by the execution of the mitigation measures proposed". /|\

“The survival of the Burmese roofed turtle would be ensured "through project support to ongoing and any additionally required research and conservation programmes". However, Platt isn't convinced the recommended mitigation measures for the turtles on the Chindwin River have been implemented. All the known nesting sites along the upper river would be inundated by the dam, he said. "These dams inundate the nesting beaches, where they require deep sandy beaches for nesting," Platt told Al Jazeera. "If that dam is built, they're going to be extinct in the wild." /|\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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