Ban the Dam, Say Activists

Violet Cho
Friday, March 14, 2008

Article from The Irrawaddy Online

Ethnic Karen people living along Burma's Salween River gathered today in colorful traditional dress to pray to the spirits of the river and the land around it for protection against the planned construction of a dam which threatens to devastate the area's fragile ecosystem.

Over 250 villagers from 18 villages in the area affected by the planned Hut Gyi Dam took part in the ceremony, which was organized to show respect for the river and to express opposition to the project.

They were joined by Burmese opposition politicians, environmentalists and student activists, who also called on Indian, Thai and Chinese companies to end their join-venture projects with Burma's military regime to construct dams on every major river in the country. (View the map of dams in Burma)

Thay Law, coordinator of the Burma River Network (BRN), told The Irrawaddy on Friday that Burma's neighboring countries should stop investing in dam-building projects in the country. "International companies should not build dams there because the Burmese government does not have effective environment impact assessment, public participation in decision-making or equitable benefit sharing," he said.

Several organizations campaigning against dams in Burma held events today to mark the International Day of Action for Rivers (also called "Anti-Dams Day"). They used the occasion to point out the various impacts and consequences of dams.

According to a joint statement released by BRN and the Kuki Students Democratic Front (KSDF), dam projects are causing large-scale displacement, militarization, human rights abuses and irreversible environmental damage affecting the livelihoods and food security of millions of people.

The statement also pointed to negative consequences for "the rich biodiversity and ecological balance in the region due to the dramatic changes in riverbeds."

Chinese companies have been involved in the construction of 25 massive dams on the Irrawaddy, Salween, and Sittaung Rivers and their tributaries. The dams will produce an estimated capacity of 30,000 megawatts and cost a total of more than $30 billion to construct.

The Karenni Development Research Group (KDRG), based in Mae Hong Song, has urged China to reconsider its investments, which the group says create problems for Burmese people.

In a statement issued today, the group claimed that since Chinese investors started construction on Karenni State's third power plant, there have been cases of forced labor in affected areas, including cases involving eight Karenni villagers who were injured by landmines when they were clearing land around the two Lawpita hydropower plants near Loikaw.

"The Lawpita hydropower projects have turned our farms into minefields. On this International Day of Action for Rivers, we urge China to consider the human costs of investing in such projects," said Moe Moe Aung of KDRG.

Burma's military regime has shown a strong interest in nationwide dam-building projects, as most of the electricity generated by the dam projects can be exported to neighboring countries, providing the junta with a long-term source of income.

Chinese and Thai companies are planning to build five dams along the Salween River in Burma, which will be permanently change Southeast Asia's longest un-dammed river and impact indigenous communities, including the Karen, Karenni and Mon people.

However, BRN's Thay Law expressed his deepest concerns over dams on the Irrawaddy River. "Based on the loss of sediment, sudden water releases and salt water intrusion, millions of people living along the Irrawaddy River, especially in the delta regions, will be badly affected by dams," he said.

Burma's military regime has plans to build seven hydropower projects on the Irrawaddy River. The largest, the Myitsone mega-project, would produce more than 3,600 MW, according to the state-run newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar.

The fifth most heavily silted river in the world, the Irrawaddy River flows through the country's heartland, passing the country's second largest city, Mandalay. It has been Burma's most important commercial waterway throughout the country's history.

The delta of the Irrawaddy consists of a large and fertile plain which provides nearly 60 percent of Burma's total rice production and supports more than three million people, according to a report by the All Kachin Student and Youth Union.

There are many issues tied together, making it difficult to predict the exact impacts of damming the Irrawaddy River, but environmentalists say there are plausible models which can give some idea of the consequences of building the dams.

One worst-case scenario would be an earthquake in a highly seismically active area in Kachin State or on the edge of the Shan Plateau. If this occurred, it could destroy a dam, unleashing devastation all the way down to the delta, according to Steve Green, a Thailand-based environmentalist.

Another, less dramatic, scenario could be equally damaging, said Green.

Once a dam is built, nutrient-rich sediment carried down from the forest will become trapped, leaving land that is flooded with nutrient-poor water unstable and infertile. Because of the lack of nutrients, people will be forced to depend more on chemical fertilizers, which is a big problem for people who depend on farming for their living.

If the flow of fresh water decreases, it could lead to a rise in sea level, which would in turn result in climate change, he added.

The Irrawaddy originates at a confluence of two rivers in Kachin State, both of which start in the southeastern Himalayas.

The Irrawaddy is one of a the world's thirty high-priority rivers, supporting a high biodiversity and high vulnerability to future pressures, according to the United Nations Environment Program's World Conservation Monitoring Centre. The river is a dwelling place to 79 known fish species and several endemic bird areas in the basin.