Critical report on China-backed dam smothered

An internal report in 2009 by the China Power Investment Corporation, the company behind the hugely controversial Myitsone dam in northern Burma, that called for the lucrative venture to be scrapped appears to have been ignored, with work speeding ahead on a project set to displace thousands of people and cause far-reaching environmental problems.

The lengthy report detailed the environmental consequences of what will become Burma’s largest hydropower development, located on the Irrawaddy river in Kachin state, and which is now at risk from heavy fighting between government forces and insurgent groups.

Effectively compiled as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), a mandatory practice for Chinese companies before they push ahead with infrastructural projects both at home and abroad, the report says that “there is no need for such a big dam to be constructed at the confluence of the Ayeyawady [Irrawaddy] River”.

A synopsis of the report was carried last week on the website of Burma Rivers Network, which closely monitors the social and environmental impacts of the various energy initiatives that pockmark Burma’s waterways.

Upon its slated completion date in 2017, the Myitsone dam will become the world’s fifteenth biggest hydropower structure. Development of the dam is expected to cost close to $US4 billion.

Burma Rivers Network estimates that around 15,000 people will be displaced around the dam site, while the sizeable changes in the Irrawaddy river’s flow will “impact millions of people downstream who depend on the Irrawaddy for agriculture, fishing, and transportation”.

Those concerns appear to have been echoed by the authors of the report, 80 of whom were scientists from Burma and the rest from the Changjiang Institute of Surveying, Planning, Design, and Research (CISPDR) in China. Funding for the report was provided entirely by the China Power Investment (CPI) Corporation.

“If Myanmar [Burmese] and Chinese sides were really concerned about environmental issues and aimed at sustainable development of the country, there is no need for such a big dam to be constructed at the confluence of the Ayeyawady [Irrawaddy] River,” it said, urging instead for two smaller, but equally efficient, dams to be built above Myitsone.

“The construction of the dam on the Irrawaddy should be avoided due to the changes in downriver hydrology which may affect navigation, riverine ecosystem and delta ecosystem and will lead to negative impacts on the economy.”

It continued that the Myitsone venture risks the “disappearance and forever loss [sic] of the cultural heartland of Kachin people…”

Despite EIA’s being obligatory for Chinese companies, Burma has no environmental regulatory mechanisms, and the smothering of CPI’s report will do little to allay concerns that the EIAs demanded by Beijing are for little more than cosmetic purposes. This is the first time that this report has been made public.

“Chinese companies are increasing their investments in Burma yet they are not following their own standards” said Sai Sai, coordinator of the Burma Rivers Network. “While CPI Corporation is hiding its assessment from the people of Burma, construction of the dams is speeding ahead.”

China is closely watching the security of its energy ventures in northern and eastern Burma following months of heavy fighting in the border regions. Speculation has mounted that the Burmese government is looking to rout insurgent groups from areas close to such projects is hungrily tapping.

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