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Slowly, a few drops of water pool together in the caves of a glacier some 5,450 metres above sea level in the Qinghai Mountains of Tibet. This is the source of the mighty Salween River, at 2,815 kilometres one of Asia’s longest free-flowing waterways and lifeline to around seven million people.
From its tranquil birth on the Tibetan plateau, the Salween, or Nu as it is known in Chinese, careers southwards, through Yunnan and the Shan hills, briefly holding court as the official border between Burma and Thailand, then flowing out into the Andaman Sea at the port of Moulmein.
The Salween is only navigable 90 kilometres from its mouth, and then only in the rainy season. For the most part it runs across hundreds of miles of remote rainforest and canyons, untroubled by civilisation.
But while the Salween has flowed undisturbed for centuries through Burma, the rest of the country is undergoing an industrial revolution.
One of the least developed countries in the region, only 16 percent of the Burmese population has electricity in their homes. In last year’s census, questionnaires asked citizens which source of energy they mostly use for cooking. An astonishing 69 percent of families answered that they still use firewood.
President Thein Sein’s administration, which took power in 2011, pledged development and progress. To city-dwellers in Rangoon and Mandalay – accustomed to candlelit market stalls in the night’s streets and diesel-fuelled generators in offices – he promised electricity. Without power, international investors and bankers argued, there could be no economic reform.
With the world shying away from coal, harnessing the Salween’s mighty power for electricity seems an obvious choice. Developers scrambled to put forth ideas, and at the time of writing, there were no less than 28 hydropower dams in the planning process.
The largest and most expensive of all is the Mong Ton, or Upper Salween, dam, proposed for construction in southern Shan State, approximately 300km east of state capital Taunggyi. As with similar hydropower projects, it has been pitched as a sustainable method of providing electricity to Burmese citizens living off the grid.
Once operational, the 241-metre tall dam is to generate more than 7,000 megawatts of electricity, of which 700 megawatts will be used for local demand, with the remaining 90 percent of production earmarked for sale to Thailand and China.
However, as with most power plants, the Mong Ton dam is not without its drawbacks. The US$6 billion project is also expected to flood around 676 square km of forest and farmland, putting more than 10,000 villages underwater and disrupting local fisheries.
Regardless of the touted positives of the project, community organisations and environmental coalitions are skeptical of any promises.
Nang Shining, a Shan-based activist and founder of the Mong Pan Youth Association, remains unconvinced that the benefits will outweigh the costs, or if her community will even see any of the dam’s paybacks.
“The reason why people are campaigning against the Mong Ton dam project is because it will not benefit our local communities, or the country as a whole,” she said.
“On top of that, the social and environmental impacts will be irreversible – their loss simply cannot be measured in cash. It is not worth it to get compensation and let these companies take our natural resources from us.”
These sentiments have been echoed, loudly and frequently, by non-governmental organisations across the country. On 7 July, more than 120 environmental and community-based groups signed a letter of protest in support of the “Save the Salween” movement, citing concerns such as ruined biodiversity and increased armed conflict should the project go ahead.
Their most pressing worry though, is how ethnic people living along the river will survive without their chief livelihoods, agriculture and fishing. Many have no idea what they will do when their villages have been submerged by floodwaters.
In a statement released in late April, community group The People of Kunhing Township claim that the project will be “greatly hazardous” to the township, one of 16 slated to be flooded by the mega-dam.
“Traditional customs, rich natural resources, and our thousand islands – all of these sacred sites and important things would be destroyed,” they said.
“This will be greatly damaging to the lives of the people who have lived in this area for generations.”
In the face of such fierce public opposition, the Burmese, Thai and Chinese corporations involved have insisted that they have done everything right.
Under intense public scrutiny, the corporations appointed Australian body the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC) to conduct the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Social Impact Assessment (SIA).
Writing to DVB in June, SMEC said that their company’s position is neutral and that their assessments are being conducted in line with international best-practice.
The company added that they are dedicated to providing a balanced perspective of the project, and cautioned ethnic groups that disruption to their assessment processes could mean some concerns go unnoted.
“SMEC has tried to engage with local Civil Society Organisations on numerous occasions, with limited success,” the corporation told DVB.
“Disruption to the EIA/SIA process has the potential to adversely affect local communities, as their genuine concerns may not be able to be documented.”
At the first of the public consultation meetings conducted by SMEC on 10 March, villagers from Shan and Karen community groups took the opportunity to protest what they believe to be simply a ‘rubber-stamping’ process by SMEC.
“I am amazed that you did the SIA and EIA in only two years,” exclaimed one young man protesting with environmental group Karen River Watch.
“There are over 10,000 villages – how can you do it completely in just two years?”
Steve Thompson of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) similarly has little faith in the assessment process.
“They have to make it look like they’re going through the normal processes, and make it look like this is a normal project. We are talking about the biggest, most expensive, most lucrative projects in the world,” he said.
“It’s very complicated assessing the impacts of the dams; some may be small, some may be large, and some may not happen decades into the future. For the companies and the government, it’s much easier to talk about the electricity supply, jobs, and the idea of development.”
In early June, an ethnic coalition of 16 Shan community-based organisations issued a statement further condemning the SMEC process, leveling accusations of bribery and alleging that the EIA/SIA teams were avoiding communities unhappy with the project.
“It is becoming apparent that SMEC’s EIA/SIA process is simply a sham, aimed to rubber-stamp the Mong Ton dam plans rather than objectively assess the project’s actual impacts,” declared the coalition, which featured signatories such as the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Shan Women’s Action Network.
“The SMEC field surveyors had angered local villagers by only explaining the positive impacts of the dam, giving them ‘gifts’ which they saw as bribes, and persuading them to sign documents they didn’t understand.”
The Australian company maintains that there has been no breach of the corporation’s anti-bribery and corruption policies, but so far has not provided reasons as to why township public consultations in May were cancelled.
Of the project’s stakeholders, China Three Gorges Corporation, China Southern Power Grid, Sinohydro, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (International) and Burma’s International Group of Entrepreneurs Company, none responded to DVB’s enquires.
But while these bodies are set to sign a final memorandum of understanding cementing the proposal later this year, Nang Shining believes there is still time to save her beloved Salween.
“I believe in people power and social movement,” she said.
“If the local people are strong enough to preserve their environment, I am sure this project can be stopped.”