A Turning Point for Chinese Dam Builders

Grace Mang

What was destined to be Southeast Asia's biggest hydropower dam, the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam Project on the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River, has been stopped by the "people's will." On September 30th, the President of Burma, Thein Sein told his Parliament that he had suspended the Chinese developed project because of public concerns of the devastating effects of the dam on the Irrawaddy River.

Behind the Scenes

The suspension of the Myitsone Dam was the result of a long and sustained campaign by Burma's civil society. While my exposure to Myitsone dam began in late 2010 when local environmental NGOs reached out to International Rivers for analysis and technical support, opposition to the dam has been waged on various fronts since 2006.

For the Kachin people, the Myitsone Dam would have destroyed the birthplace of the mighty Irrawaddy River and their cultural heartland. While villagers in the Kachin communities sought to organize themselves to resist resettlement, the political organization of the Kachin, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), sought to negotiate with the Chinese government and the Chinese developer, China Power Investment, to reduce the impacts of the dam. China Power Investment never responded to the letters of the KIO or any other Burmese civil society groups.

In Rangoon, environmental NGOs sought out more information about the impacts of Myitsone Dam and the other six dams proposed in the 13,000 mega-watt cascade. It became obvious despite the lack of transparency around the environmental and social impacts of the dam, that the Irrawaddy Delta - Burma's rice bowl, would under go significant and irreversible changes. A 2009 environmental baseline study commissioned by China Power Investment confirmed the environmental NGOs' worst fears. The study recommended that Myistone Dam should be reconsidered given the serious impacts on Burma's environment and cultural heritage.

Aung San Sui Kyi's public appeal to save the Irrawaddy River in August 2011 urged for the Myitsone Dam to be reassessed, and catapulted the campaign onto the international stage. It also signified that there was now a strong national coalition against the Myitsone Dam. At a government workshop on the environmental impacts of the project on September 17, an intended public display of confidence for the project broke into a debate on the pros and cons, and many ministers came forward and questioned whether Myitsone Dam was in fact in the national interest.

By then it was clear that the national coalition opposing the Myitsone Dam, which ranged from the villagers along the Irrawaddy River to government ministers in Naypyidaw, could no longer be ignored.

Suspension a Surprise for China

China Power Investment was shocked by the President of Burma's decision. In an interview with Xinhua News Agency, the President of China Power Investment, Mr Lu Qizhou, said that he was "totally astonished" by the decision. It appears that the President's surprise was genuine. China Power Investment's decision to ignore and dismiss civil society's concerns and rely on the muscle of an authoritarian regime had created blinkers around the company. It had no idea how united and strong the opposition movement had become and therefore, unable to anticipate or monitor the serious and increasing political risk to its' dam project. Following the disastrous government workshop in September 2011, China Power Investment chose to fight the public relations war with propaganda and film, rather than dialogue and discussion. The release of propaganda films in the dying days of the project only infuriated those in opposition to the dam.

Getting on the Right Side of History

The Chinese government is now calling for open discussions on the future of the project. China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei commented, "Relevant matters that have emerged during the implementation of the project should be properly settled through friendly consultations between the two sides."

Both the Chinese government and China Power Investment have pointed to the completed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as a basis to dismiss opposition to the dam. Actions however speak louder than words. For China Power Investment, the EIA was more a decoration than a tool for assessing the viability and sustainability of the Myitsone Dam. The company's decision to commence construction before the EIA was finalized was evidence of this.

It would be unwise for the Chinese government or China Power Investment to seek a reversal of the decision to suspend the dam and deny Bumrese civil society groups their first major achievement in over twenty years. The decision is an indication of the Burmese government's desire to distinguish itself from its past and signals the potential for a new political beginning for Burma. To what extent reform in Burma will calibrate with genuine democracy and political freedom remains unclear. Nevertheless, China Power Investment should not put itself on the wrong side of history by working against the will of the Burmese people.

A Costly Lesson

Mistakes can be costly but that is no reason to ignore the lessons. China Power Investment and other Chinese overseas dam builders such as Sinohydro, Gezhouba and China Three Gorges Corporation, would be wise to dissect the Myitsone project and learn from it. In doing so they would find that China Power Investment's failure to engage civil society and its failure to create a transparent and participatory process for assessing the dam's environmental and social impacts were among the crucial mistakes made during the development of Myistone Dam.

Myitsone is one of around 300 overseas dam projects in 78 countries in which Chinese dam builders and banks are involved in. Amongst this number are mega projects proposed on vital rivers such as the Salween in Burma, the mainstream of the Mekong, the Nile in Sudan and the Omo in Ethiopia, which are being fiercely opposed by communities and civil society groups, who say that the social and environmental costs of these projects are too high. Myitsone brings into focus the need for Chinese companies to deal with key weaknesses in their current business model. Key questions that Chinese dam builders should be asking themselves are how can they effectively engage civil society groups in the countries they work? Are there untenable projects, like Myitsone Dam, in their portfolio that should be reconsidered? And how can they better manage their overseas political risks through company policies and procedures?

In finding the answers, Chinese dam builders do not have to start from scratch. Sinohydro, China's and the world's biggest dam builder has developed a draft environmental policy which if adopted and implemented would make it a leader in addressing the concerns and grievances of affected communities and civil society in the host countries in which Sinohydro works.

The Myitsone Dam was one of the most disturbing projects I'd worked on during my time here at International Rivers. The environmental and social impacts were simply unbelievable. Thankfully, Myitsone Dam will not be remembered as Southeast Asia's biggest and most destructive project, but rather it will be seen as a mark of the strength of Burma's civil society and hopefully the beginning of a new Burma.

More information: 

An edited version of this blog entry was published at chinadialogue 

Media coverage of the suspension of Myistone Dam