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Bulldozing Burma’s rivers

JJ Kim

July 28, 2009 (DVB), Intense militarization of Burma's river areas is a byproduct of the government's near obsession with hydropower, for which the only benefits will be felt by energy hungry neighbours and Burma's expanding military.

For as long as Burma has been under military rule, hydropower development has been high on the junta's agenda. It has attracted numerous foreign investors that have brought in unprecedented profits for the country's military regime, yet the livelihoods of millions living close to these rivers are perilously under threat.

Last year the government announced that 28 dams were under construction, adding to the 12 that already produce around 47 percent of the country's total electricity output. The ruling generals have plans for another 10, meaning that the country's three main rivers will soon be carved up by 50 hydropower dams.

All together these facilities have the potential to produce almost 25 times the country's current hydropower output. The majority of these projects are to be financed, built and ultimately used by foreign governments and corporations from Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh. The largest of these dams will be the Tasang on the Salween River in conflict-torn Shan state. When complete, it will be the largest dam in Southeast Asia, taller than China's Three Gorges dam and will produce more than twice the country's entire current installed capacity. However, according to the Thailand-based Shan Sapawa Environmental Group (Sapawa), this dam is inflicting considerable damage on the lives of local people.

"The worst impact is forced relocation," said Khur Hseng, from Sapawa. "Altogether 300,000 people from central and southern Shan state have been made to leave their homes. Many of these people have run away to Thailand and to this day some people are staying in the jungle." When the Tasang Dam is built they will be unable go back because their homes will be underwater, he added. "They are losing their culture, their livelihoods and their homeland."

Between 40 and 60 million people worldwide have been displaced by hydropower projects, according to environmental group, International Rivers. The issue of displacement is an all too common consequence of infrastructure projects in Burma that apparently necessitate intense militarization and land clearance.

"Those responsible for building the dam are perfectly happy to have the military depopulate most of the areas in the context of fighting so they don't have to pay compensation costs," said a spokesperson for campaigning group, Salween Watch. "These huge costs are then externalised, borne by other countries that take on the burden of refugee resettlement."

The Tasang is one of five dams to be built on the Salween river, which up until recently had been one of only a handful of the world's untouched major rivers, and Southeast Asia's longest undammed waterway. Most of the power from these dams will be exported to Thailand to fuel the rapid expansion of its industry and commercial sectors.

According to Burma environmental expert, Steve Green, Thailand's natural gas is running out. "They've had strong domestic opposition to hydropower developments in their own country so their policy is now to look beyond their borders to other people's energy sources," he said. "If they insist on continuing with the unsustainable growth paradigm instead of using demand side reduction and alternative energy, then basically they will keep taking energy from their neighbours."

Furthermore, the multiple agreements between the Burmese regime and foreign governments clearly state that high-level security will be provided free of charge in project areas. The Salween dams are "right in the heart of an active war-zone and they are very specifically part of the Burmese military’s strategy of occupation and control," says Steve Green, meaning conflict zones in eastern Burma will be further militarized.

Nowhere has this been felt more than in Shan state, where according to Khur Hseng, the number of army battalions surrounding towns near to the Tasang dam site has tripled in the past 13 years. Numerous cases of extortion, torture, rape and murder by Burmese troops have been documented in this area. "Between 1996 and 2001, there were hundreds of cases of rape within a 50 kilometer radius of the Tasang dam," said Khur Hseng.

The spectre of river damming is not new to Burma. The country's first dam was built during the reign of the country's first military ruler, General Ne Win. Shortly after he came to power in 1962, construction began on a hydropower installment at Lawpita falls in Karenni state, which led to water shortages, destructive floods and large-scale militarisation in the area. In 1964, 8,000 citizens of southern Shan state were forcibly displaced to make way for the Mobye dam, upstream from Lawpita falls, which subsequently flooded 114 villages. This started a trend that has continued to this day as the military regime persistently exploits Burma's waterways to make short-term profits, which are then largely used to fund their ever-expanding army.

Perhaps the most widespread and lasting impact these projects will have is the devastation of traditional livelihoods. The majority of Burma's population lives in undeveloped rural areas with minimal access to imported foods or modern infrastructure, and therefore rely heavily on local rivers for subsistence. Not only are they used daily for washing, drinking, cooking, water and fishing, but most of the nation's rice comes from the banks of rivers such as the Irrawaddy and the Kaladan. Indeed, access to local rivers is as essential for these citizens as electricity, transport and running water are to much of the world's population.

Hydropower dams disrupt river-based ecosystems, causing a series of knock-on effects which irrevocably decrease food supplies. According to Steve Green, one of the more serious impacts is caused by the trapping of sediment behind the dams, which stops the natural fertilisation of rice fields on the flood plains. "This gradually forces farmers to become dependent on chemical fertilisers and pesticides at huge financial and health cost," he said.

Furthermore, large hydropower dams can obstruct migratory paths of fish and alter streamflow and oxygen levels, damaging the natural habitats of many integral species. In many cases hydropower dams have also been reported to cause greater greenhouse emissions than even fossil fuel plants. This happens shortly after the dam is built, when a large area is flooded, causing trees and plants to rot and releasing harmful gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

Despite the sheer might of the corporations and governments involved in the implementation of these projects, opposition groups based outside Burma are making noticeable progress to protect Burma's rivers. "We are calling to the investors and shareholders to stop investing," said Khur Hseng. "The government gets the money and does not give it to the people. Instead, they use it to buy weapons and finance the development of military infrastructure, which is not beneficial to us at all."


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