Myanmar urgently needs to increase its electricity generating capacity to meet ambitious economic development targets and accommodate rising power demands from new foreign and local investment projects. Yet harnessing Myanmar’s hydropower potential will be a perilous process, as seen in the controversies surrounding current planned dams along the Than lwin river (also known as Salween river) as well as the geopolitically fraught and suspended Myitsone dam.
Many of Myanmar’s rivers are suitable for hydroelectric dams, which currently contribute the base load to the country’s energy supply. At the same time, dam construction alters the natural environment and usually requires the controversial relocation oflocal populations. Moreover, with the country in the midst of a tentative national ceasefire process, dam sites have the potential to stir latent or resurrect suspended conflicts.
Current planned and future hydropower projects across trans-boundary river systems also have the potential to spark diplomatic incidents with neighbouring countries, as the majority of the electricity generated from these projects is planned to be exported outside of Myanmar’s borders. The China-led Myitsone dam project, for instance, was scheduled to export 90 percent of its generated power for consumption in China. President U Thein Sein said at the time the suspension was in respect of the “people’s will”.
Access to water has long been a source of conflict in Myanmar. Multiple stakeholders, from farmers to factories, are often stretched across national borders, making equitable water management a nettlesome process. For Myanmar’s nascent legal environment, still governed largely by old structures of nepotism and patronage, regulating water-use is particularly difficult and will continue to be so as the economy adds new industry on riparian lands.
According to local media reports, Myanmar is now planning to build around 45 new hydropower dams. The need for infrastructure development in Myanmar’s energy sector is woefully apparent: the country has frequent power shortages; the commercial capital of Yangon is notorious for brownouts and blackouts. Remarkably, electricity output only reaches approximately a quarter of the country’s population, according to the World Bank.
As a result, power shortages significantly hamper Myanmar’s economic development as businesses necessitate consistent supply and a reliable power infrastructure. For the next 20 years, a business-as-usual estimate made by the Asian Development Bank forecasts a 3.1 percent annual growth of national energy demand. Within the same timeframe, about 20 percent of the generated electricity will come from hydropower, which is anticipated to have the fastest annual growth rate of all energy sectors.
Much of the newly generated energy is nonetheless set for export to neighbouring China and Thailand. The regulations for planned dam projects on the Thanlwin river reserve only 25 percent of the produced energy to Myanmar, while the Kunlong hydropower project, also known as the Upper Salween dam, will reportedly only transmit 15 percent of its produced energy into the domestic grid system.
Many of these planned projects, such as the Kunlong, have been tabled for the Salween river, a largely under-utilised, 2,800-kilometre waterway originating in the Tibetan Plateau that runs along Myanmar’s eastern border and epitomises the country’s huge untapped hydropower potential. Depending on the source, there are currently between six and 12 dam projects planned for hydropower production on the Thanlwin.
In September last year, U Maw Tha Htwe, the director-general of the Hydropower Implementation Department, disclosed that feasibility studies are ongoing for six hydropower projects on the Thanlwin – five of those are targeted to generate 1,000 megawatts (MW) or more.
Feasibility studies have been concluded for the dams near Kunlong, NaungPha as well as a smaller project near Manntaung, according to local media reports. The most ambitious project is the Tasang hydropower dam, which is projected to generate more than 7,000MW. Standing 228 metres high, the Tasang will be South Asia’s highest dam, exceeding the size of the massive Three Gorges Dam in China.
As the Thanlwin runs through Shan, Kayah, Karen and Mon states, all planned dam sites are situated in ethnic minority areas with resident armed groups fighting for varying degrees of autonomy. As such, construction sites are often within or nearby recent conflict zones. Some of the construction plans have been indirectly or directly interlinked with the ceasefire and peace agreement process.
This applies especially to those armed ethnic groups who demand economic concessions as part of anticipated upcoming peace agreements. This emerging peace economy in Myanmar, as explored by the author in previous work at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), also seems to be present in negotiations and conflict around hydropower projects.
For instance, a portion of the area surrounding the proposed Hutgyi dam site had long been under the control of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army Brigade 5 (DKBA-5; a splinter of the DKBA, an armed ethnic group). In April 2013, government forces clashed with the DKBA close to the dam site as the latter refused to leave their nearby base.
The Burma Rivers Network, an alliance of several local environmental activist groups, believe that up to 50 clashes between military forces and armed ethnic groups have occurred in connection with ongoing hydropower projects in the last three years. While this cannot be independently verified, it is nevertheless apparent that the ongoing peace process needs to address land rights and other issues that are directly associated with dam construction. As such, dam construction remains a bartering chip for ethnic groups, armed or otherwise, to use at the negotiating table.
Land acquisition has been a key driver for protests in dam construction across the country. This was most notable in the case of the Myitsone dam, a Chinese-backed $3.6-billion venture that was suspended by Nay Pyi Taw much to the chagrin of Beijing. The protests against the Myitsone dam, situated in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, have received the most attention in recent years.
Dam construction was blamed for the breakdown of the 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army in mid-2011. Clashes between the Tatmadaw and the KIA, who were concerned over the expansion of the dam, have led to a rising death toll. As construction remains suspended at the Myitsone dam pending further evaluation and negotiation, protests and clashes at other dam sites have also generated national and international media attention.
In addition to land acquisition, many of the local protests focus on the consequences for people’s livelihoods and the environmental impacts of the hydropower projects. Reports about the construction of Kunlong dam, for instance, mention that an area with 64 houses and 300 acres of agricultural land will probably have to be flooded. It remains to be seen if land and house owners will be compensated adequately for the expected losses.
Recent reports on the Upper Paunglaung dam, situated 50 kilometres southeast of Nay Pyi Taw, indicate that locals have allegedly not been informed about whether their village would be affected or not. Studies by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), involved in at least two large-scale projects, identified 13 villages to be partially affected while another six villages need to be relocated. Environmental rights organisations suggest that 30,000 people have been forced to relocate. Additionally, complaints about inadequate compensation have frequently been made public.
As well as issues with local residents, agreements between all riparian states – China, Myanmar and Thailand – are needed. Changes to upstream river systems can have significant effects on downstream users. A formal multilateral agreement would help the sustainable management of the river system. Such agreements can be a vital institutional step towards more integrative water management and averting transboundary water disputes.
In order to minimise conflict, the development of hydropower dams should focus on scientific and environmental assessments and community and regional engagement during the planning stages. The harnessing of Myanmar’s hydropower potential can and should be looked at as an opportunity for Nay Pyi Taw and traditionally opposed ethnic groups to work together for mutual benefit. While problems are likely, they should be handled through dialogue and negotiation aimed at sustainable and mutually acceptable development.
Elliot Brennan is a Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (Sweden) and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Pacific Forum-Center for Strategic and International Studies (USA). His research focuses on conflict management and resource security. He is currently based in Southeast Asia. Stefan Döring is a former intern at ISDP and is pursuing a Master in Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden. The article was originally published as a Focus Asia paper with the ISDP and has been republished with the authors’ permission.