In September, spectacular drone footage revealed the beauty of the waterfalls, rapids, ancient temples and islets of the Nam Pang River, a tributary of the Salween in northern Myanmar’s Shan state known as Kun hing, or “thousand islands.”

The footage was part of a campaign documentary, Drowning a Thousand Islands, made by local activists to show the impact of the planned Mong Ton dam. If built, it will be the tallest dam in Southeast Asia and flood villages and pristine landscape which were, until recently, cut off from the outside world due to decades of civil war.

Mong Ton is just one of many controversial large dams underway in Myanmar where the government is betting on large hydropower to solve its energy crisis. But large dams have faced fierce resistance, seen by many as a symbol of military oppression, environmental destruction and part of a wider struggle over land and resources between the government and ethnic groups.

Myanmar’s energy crisis

Myanmar has the lowest per capita energy consumption in Asia. Only 34% of people have access to electricity in the country, and it is as low as 16% in rural areas. Even areas connected to the national grid face increasing blackouts as demand outstrips supply. Myanmar’s large gas and oil reserves are being piped for export to China and Thailand so an obvious solution is to tap its vast potential hydro resources – particularly on the Irrawaddy and the Salween rivers that flow down from the Himalayan glaciers.

So far the country has only developed about 3,000 MW of hydropower, but has 46,000 MW worth of projects in the pipeline, according to the Ministry of Energy and Electricity. The government has set an ambitious goal to reach 100% electrification by 2030 and third of new capacity will be provided by large dams, with the rest from natural gas, coal and a little from renewables.

Myanmar’s energy mix under the National Electricity Master Plan, developed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Toxic legacy

The previous military government signed deals with foreign investors – mainly from China and Thailand – to develop at least 50 more dams, many of which will produce power for export to neighbouring countries.

There are a number of major problems with Myanmar’s dam plans. First, the most lucrative hydro spots identified lie in the country’s rugged periphery – home to ethnic minorities and where prolonged fighting between the military and armed groups have perpetuated one of the world’s longest running civil wars. So far these projects have been led by the military with no public consultation or participation, causing forced displacement and bringing no benefits to local people.

Dams are simply stoking further conflict. “The Burmese army is trying to use the dam as a tool against the ethnic population,” said Saw Tha Phoe, a campaigner with Karen Environmental and Social Action Network or KESAN. Violence erupted again at the Hatgyi dam site on the Salween River after the project was given the green light as part of the energy master plan in August 2016. More than 6,000 people fled their homes and are still waiting for emergency aid.

Second, projects have been identified by foreign and private developers without carrying out proper risk assessments. As a result many of these large dams are planned on the mainstem of rivers, where they will cause the most environmental damage, or in areas of high earthquake risk.

Map information from the Ministry of Electricity and Energy, with geolocations where available provided by the Greater Mekong CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE).Map created by bethwalker22 bethwalker22

Third, these projects offer a terrible deal for Myanmar. Under many of the contracts 90% of the electricity will be exported to neighbouring China and Thailand – power that Myanmar so desperately needs. Harvard economist David Dapice calls these contracts “unequal and almost colonial in nature,” in a recent paper, pointing out Myanmar is getting a far worse deal even than Nepal and Laos from private hydropower developers.

Strategic review offers new hope

A fundamental overhaul of the way hydro is built is desperately needed. The International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, is supporting a government led strategic environmental assessment of the hydropower sector – the first of its kind in Myanmar. Some observers hope it will encourage the government to scrutinise projects and ensure developers adhere to international standards of practice in the hydropower sector and beyond.

“There has been no consideration of environment and social impacts in decisions about the energy mix,” said Kate Lazarus, team lead of the International Finance Corporation’s hydro advisory programme. “Some projects have not even considered economics.”

“The SEA [strategic environmental assessment] is groundbreaking for Myanmar, both as the first Strategic Environment Assessment but also as a holistic look at the proposed portfolio of hydropower projects” said Vicky Bowman, director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business. “It’s important that everyone with an interest makes an input. The expert analysis can be used as leverage to shift from the shelf to the bin those projects which are very high risk, and obviously contributing to ongoing conflict.”

Even Myanmar’s military elite has identified the risks. In 2013, former general and then president, Thein Sein suspended the controversial Myitsone dam – the largest of a cascade of seven dams on the Irrawaddy to be built and financed by China – in the face of countrywide protest.

Ruins of ancient pagoda on southern Inle lake in Sagar, flooded by Myanmar’s first large hydropower dam. ( Photo credit: Beth Walker)

After coming to power, Aung San Suu Kyi established a commission to give a final verdict on the dam in November 2016 – but the public is still waiting. While the project is widely condemned, a cancellation would throw up thorny questions on how to compensate companies involved in this and the myriad other large dam projects.

If it is cancelled, there is widespread fear among civil society that development will simply shift from the Irrawaddy to the Salween river – Asia’s last largely free flowing river – where dams have also been met with fierce opposition and mired in conflict. (China’s decision to suspend dams on the upper Salween, where the river is known as the Nu, raises further questions over the role of Chinese companies in developing destructive dams downstream).

“Rather than giving a green or red light on specific projects”, said Lazarus from the International Finance Corporation, the strategic review will provide a “bird’s eye review” of Myanmar’s river basins and a “tool to make better decisions and planning…and stop the government choosing projects that will get blocked.”

Community resistance

Not everyone is convinced. A coalition of community groups under the Burma Rivers Network boycotted International Finance Corporation consultations, claiming the workshops “are simply the latest move by international investors to initiate large scale hydropower projects on Burma’s rivers against the long-expressed wishes of local communities engulfed in civil war.”

Saw Tha Phoe at KESAN’s office in Hpa An near the mouth of the Salween River. ( Photo credit: Beth Walker)

“What we are calling for is a moratorium on dams”, said Saw Tha Phoe, who is leading KESAN’s campaign against the dams on the Salween. Locals displaced by the Myitsone dam staged protests outside an International Finance Corporation meeting in Myitkyina on the Irrawaddy basin in early February, also demanding a halt on projects until the fighting in Kachin has stopped.

Some civil society groups have little faith in the government led review process. “Consultation is not happening,” said Saw Tha Phoe. “People in Shan state haven’t seen the Kunlong Environmental Impact Assessment– [the Chinese company] Hanergy, the consultants and the Ministry have failed to follow national law.” Since 2012 developers required under Myanmar law to consult with local communities, carry out environment impact assessments and make them publically available. The approval of the Kunlong EIA – another major dam on the Salween River – came as a surprise to some civil society representatives attending an International Finance Corporation workshop in Yangon last month.

People from affected communities attending an International Finance Corporation workshop voiced similar concerns. They described the confusion about where and when dams would be built, the grabbing of cropland and the surge of illegal logging and pollution from mining around dam sites. “We’re not against dams. We need electricity” said one civil society representative from Bago region, “but please listen to local people.”

Local control over resources

KESAN have a more radical suggestion: to set aside 5,200 square kilometres to create a conservation peace park around the planned Hatgyi dam site, protected by local ethnic Karen groups.

“The idea of the Salween peace park is to integrate federal democracy, environmental conservation and cultural heritage,” said John Bright of KESAN who has been involved in drawing up a peace park charter in consultation with local communities and the Karen National Union. He explains the community could continue to live in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions and build small hydropower projects for local sustainable energy.

A growing environmental movement?

Wider popular sentiment is growing against large power projects. At a Green Energy Forum in Yangon in December 420 environmental NGOs called for a complete halt to coal power plants and mega hydropower dams and for the government to focus instead on distributed solar and wind.

Critics say that, given the size and the geography of the country, the government and donors won’t meet the ambitious 100% electrification goal by concentrating on large hydropower and extending the national grid. It will take too long and won’t help people in remote areas, said Aung Myint the secretary of the Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar.

Centralised grids and large dams are technology hangovers from the last century and other countries are shifting their approach, Aung Myint argues. “We want to focus on a decentralized grid – to create jobs and small investment to grow later,” he said. Many of the 70% of people who are officially documented as “off grid” have built their own small-scale energy solutions – such as diesel generators, solar battery packs and small-scale hydropower or buying power unofficially across the border from China and Thailand.

Household solar system by Inle lake, Myanmar’s Shan state. ( Photo credit: Beth Walker)

100% renewable energy is possible by 2050 in a report published late last year – but it is short on details.

Even those that support hydropower development are calling for a major rethink how these projects are implemented. “We need hydropower to give people a future but the previous government [did] this the wrong way by making contracts with Myanmar that give 90% of power to China and only 10% to Myanmar,” said U Win Aung, director of the Myanmar Environment Innovation Fund.

“China and Myanmar need to sit down and think about how to change the agreements to give Myanmar a better share of the profits and more benefits and opportunities for the people.”

Government inertia

One way to get better hydropower deals for Myanmar and the environment is by setting up a competitive bidding process that will overcome vested interests, said Vikram Kumar, Myanmar country manager at the International Finance Corporation. But the new government is struggling to do this.

Reform of the telecoms sector is one shining example in Myanmar where market liberalisation allowed foreign companies to break the state monopoly, transforming the market, with mobile connectivity rates jumping from about 10%-80% in a few years.

“In the power sector opportunities are being lost because of lack of focus,” said Kumar. “The government has no master plan – no grid development plan. The absence of this is a huge challenge. Even where there are regulations execution is the problem.”

This article first appeared The Third Pole.