A Glimmer of Hope for the Salween? | Myanmar Times

Pianporn Deetes
Monday, December 12, 2016

Originally published in the Myanmar Times

China’s decision to shelve hydropower projects presents an important opportunity for Myanmar to re-evaluate their planned dams on the Salween.
China’s decision to shelve hydropower projects presents an important opportunity for Myanmar to re-evaluate their planned dams on the Salween.

At the end of November, China’s National Energy Administration published its Hydropower Development Plan for the next five years (2016-2020). In a noticeable turnaround from the last Plan, the roadmap - which identifies river basins where further hydropower projects will be built - no longer includes any dams on the upper section of the Nu/Salween River in China. This is a major reversal from government plans in 2013 to build five dams on the upper section of the river. It signals an important victory for the scientists and environmental groups in China who have worked for over a decade to document the biodiversity found along the Nu River and make a case for preserving one of the last free-flowing transnational rivers in Asia.

The Nu/Salween River flows through a protected World Heritage site in China, which UNESCO describes as “one of the richest temperate regions of the world in terms of biodiversity.” Scientists believe that the area supports over 25% of the world’s animal species and is home to more than 6,000 plant species. The river is a vital pathway for migratory fish, and 40% of all fish species in the river are endemic to the region. Given the remote geography of the river, researchers are still in the process of uncovering new elements of this important ecosystem. Earlier this year, scientists discovered a new species of monkey – the white-cheeked macaque - in southern Tibet along the Nu River.

Even a small change to such a complex ecosystem could have far-reaching effects, and the construction of large dams would be devastating. The recent decision by the Chinese Government to shelve plans for hydropower projects on the Nu River indicates recognition of the iconic nature of the river and the importance of preserving vital ecosystems supported by healthy river basins.

The importance of the Nu/Salween River does not end at the border. The lower stretches of the Salween, passing through Thailand and Shan, Kayah, Kayin and Mon States in Myanmar, is also ecologically rich and biodiverse, much of it undisturbed by resource exploitation and as yet undiscovered by the outside world. The Salween also supports rich fisheries and fertile farmland vital for the local communities living along its banks. Most of the population in the Salween Basin are ethnic minorities and indigenous people, and the river is central to diverse local cultures and identities.

Yet seven large hydropower projects are proposed for this lower stretch of the Salween River and plans for these projects are progressing. China remains a major player in the lower Salween projects, most of which will be jointly developed by the Myanmar government, Chinese State-Owned Enterprises and Thailand’s Electricity Generating Authority (EGAT). A number of dams are planned in fragile and war-torn areas, where the lives of communities have been defined by war and displacement for generations and where active armed conflict still rages. In September, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) reported daily fighting with the Myanmar army in Kayin State close to the site of the Hat Gyi Dam. Civil society groups have pointed to development of the dam as a catalyst for increased violence, driving thousands of people from their homes.

Despite the newly elected government’s prioritization of a nation-wide peace process, dam proponents continue to turn a blind eye to both the historic and present day violence along the Salween River. Plans to construct large dams on the river fail to recognize the importance of the Salween and how its preservation as a free-flowing river could contribute to building lasting peace and reconciliation among the country’s ethnic minority peoples. In response, some local leaders are promoting their own alternative vision for the river. In Kayin State, hundreds of Karen leaders, including representatives from three townships, united to establish a ‘Salween Peace Park’: a protected wildlife sanctuary housing tigers, leopards, and other endangered species, based on local people’s aspirations to manage the watershed sustainably and prevent its degradation. Similar models have been promoted in other parts of the world to link protected areas across borders, recognizing the continuity of transboundary ecosystems such as those found in the Nu/Salween Basin.  

While Thailand’s EGAT intends to purchase most of the electricity generated by the Salween dams, critical analysis of Thailand’s Power Development plan has questioned whether the country needs all the electricity intended for import from Myanmar and Laos, including the power from Salween projects. As well as recognizing the intrinsic value of the Nu River, China’s reversal on dams in the upper reaches of the river may also reflect a glut of energy in the context of the current economic downturn in China. Media reports indicate an energy surplus in the south of the country and plans to export large amounts of electricity, which may further undermine the need for proposed dams on the Salween.

China’s decision to shelve hydropower projects presents an important opportunity for Myanmar to re-evaluate their planned dams on the Salween. This includes the implications of these projects in hindering efforts to preserve the country’s rich biodiversity and achieve sustainable peace. The move signals an opportunity for new forms of transboundary collaboration, on the protection of Asia’s last major free-flowing river and the vitally important ecosystems it sustains across borders.