Lessons from Myitsone Dam in Burma

Grace Mang
Myitsone Protest (courtesy of the BBC)
Myitsone Protest (courtesy of the BBC)

The success of Burma's civil society groups in halting the Myitsone Dam may come as a surprise to many, but it is a product of the depth and strength of opposition to the project. It is also an indication that a different type of Burmese government is now in charge. The Burmese government's decision to suspend the controversial project on the headwaters of the Irrawaddy also highlights the serious risks of not engaging with civil society critics.

The Myitsone Dam was one of the first projects to really "get under my skin" here at International Rivers. The environmental and social impacts were simply unbelievable. The Myitsone Dam was to generate some 6,000 megawatts of power – of which the majority was to be sent to China – while creating a reservoir the size of Singapore with a depth of a 66-story building. 12,000 Kachin people were expected to be relocated to make way for the dam and up to 20,000 would have been affected by its construction and operation.

Opposition on Many Fronts 

Around the dam site, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) was one of the most vocal and active opponents to the dam. The Kachin consider the site of the Myitsone Dam – at the confluence of the Mayhka amd Malihka rivers – their cultural heartland because it is the birthplace of the mighty Irrawaddy River. Over the years, the KIO wrote to the Chinese government stating that the impacts of Myitsone were unacceptable and that they could not be held responsible for the outbreak of conflict should the dam proceed. For the large part, the Chinese government and the Chinese developer, China Power Investment, were unresponsive to their attempts to establish dialogue and communication. In Rangoon, a brave and strong group of environmental NGOs – aware of the irreversible damage that the Myitsone project would cause – spent months organizing and persuading the highest levels of Burma's new government that the people could not be ignored and that not enough was known about the project. Aung San Sui Kyi's public plea in August to save the Irrawaddy catapulted the arguments of the dam's opponents to the international stage. Groups outside Burma, such as Burma Rivers Network, also worked tirelessly to build international public awareness.

With respect to these multiple campaigns, International Rivers supported local political organizers in the affected communities, provided technical analysis to Burmese NGOs, helped groups outside better engage with China Power Investment and worked to raise international awareness.

Learning the Lessons

The surprising success of civil society groups in Burma demonstrates that NGOs in host countries cannot be ignored. In many ways, China Power Investment's plans have become unstuck because it failed to engage communities from the beginning. As the project continued, it became clear to many that the project would only support Chinese demands for energy – not Burma's development.

The Irrawaddy River
The Irrawaddy River

Under the 2006 deal signed between the Chinese government and the Burmese military junta, 90% of the power generated from Myitsone would have gone to China. While China has commenced a dam-building spree on its rivers, it is now clear that other countries are not willing to sacrifice their rivers to meet its energy needs. In his statement to Burma's parliament, President Thein Sein said that the government had to act "according to the desire of the people." The Burmese people's rejection of the Myistone project will serve as an important precedent for several other large projects that Chinese dam builders are currently pursuing in Burma, Laos and Cambodia, including projects on the Irrawaddy and Salween basins in Burma, the US$2 billion Nam Ou cascade, and projects on the mainstream of the Mekong.

Opposition to the project also grew due to a complete lack of transparency around the environmental and social impacts of the dam. Construction at the dam site began long before any environmental studies had been finalized. While the Chinese developer felt it was good practice to do an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the report came too late, was not released until public opposition was high, and appeared to have been rewritten to play down the serious social and environmental impacts of the projects that were detailed elsewhere in the document.

On a broader note, the suspension of the Myitsone Dam is the latest sign that dams cannot be built at any cost. Earlier this month, the South China Morning Post reported that China Southern Power Grid Company withdrew from several controversial projects in Cambodia because it saw itself as a socially responsible company. This week, in the lead up to Sinohydro's Initial Public Offering on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, prospective investors, analysts and the Chinese state media discussed Sinohydro's draft environmental policy – its response to addressing the risks of its overseas business. In Ethiopia, media reported that the world's biggest funder of large dams, China EXIM Bank, was delaying financing for the Chemoga-Yeda Hydropower Project on the Nile River in response to concerns from downstream countries. Clearly, some Chinese dam builders and financiers are learning to address civil society concerns. Myitsone Dam serves as a reminder that if they fail to engage, they do so at their own peril.