Shan community groups are calling for the suspension of a Chinese-backed dam on the Salween River that they say risks exacerbating conflict and environmental problems in northern Shan State.
At a press conference held in Bangkok on Tuesday, the groups warned that preparations to begin construction on the 1,200-megawatt Naung Pha dam project, located between the towns of Lashio and Hopang in northern Shan State, appear to be going forward despite concerns about its impact.
The hydropower dam, backed by the Chinese state-owned Hydrochina Corporation and a local consortium called the International Group of Entrepreneurs, will export 90 percent of the electricity it generates to China.
In a statement released ahead of the press conference, the groups noted that the project is located “in one of Shan State’s most contested areas, where there is ongoing fighting between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups west of the dam site and a tenuous ceasefire with the heavily armed United Wa State Army to the east.”
Speaking to DVB after the press conference, Sai Khur Hseng of the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation (SSEO) said that dam could also have a damaging effect on the government’s ongoing efforts to end decades of civil war in the country.
“This dam will have an impact on the peace process as it is in the armed-group area,” he said, adding that there were also concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) being carried out by Australia’s Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC).
“Mostly they [SMEC] give short notice for the consultation and so only the local community finds out about it,” he said. “This is why we organised a press conference, as this is not a good process.”
In response, community leaders organised a rally against the dam on 5 August, attended by about 250 people from nine villages in Tangyan Township, as well as representatives of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy. On 21 August, community leaders from Hopang, Kunlong, Tangyan, Lashio and Hsenwi organised another protest.
DVB contacted SMEC for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Matthew Smith, founder of Fortify Rights, which has reported on human rights abuses in the region, also warned about the dangers of building a dam in an area of active conflict.
“We share the concerns of the Shan communities and our primary concern is the proximity of the dam project to the armed conflict area. There should be a lasting solution to the ongoing armed conflict before projects like these move forward.”
He said there is ample evidence that carrying out mega-projects in conflict zones only makes a tense situation worse.
“These multi-million or multi-billion-dollar projects can influence the decision-making of political leaders, and this can be a toxic cocktail of interests when you introduce these projects into areas of armed conflict,” he said.
SSEO’s Sai Khur Hseng also raised concerns about the environmental impact of the project.
“Recently in Hopang, there has been flooding, even without the dam. So if they go ahead with building the dam, the local people are scared that their villages will be further under water,” he said, adding that the area is prone not only to floods, but also to earthquakes. Hopang lies on the Nam Ting fault line and has reported several small earthquakes in the last few weeks, he said.