Struggling to Keep a Wild River Free

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – Last 14 March, hill tribes along the Thai-Burmese border momentarily left their homes and farms and took part in an activity far removed from their daily routine: They joined artists and activists in prayer, dance, and song to celebrate the International Day of Action for Rivers.

The ceremony was a show of solidarity among the different groups in Thailand who are opposed to dams and are in support of the ‘Save the Salween’ campaign. The villagers from ethnic communities were among the 400 people who assembled on the banks of Salween River in northern Thailand to protest against the proposed Hatgyi dam on the Thai-Burma border. Village elders, schoolchildren, and other members of 39 Karen communities joined advocates and experts, monks, and artists in a meaningful programme and candlelight vigil. Together they made wishes and offered prayers for the protection of what is said to be the last ‘wild river’ in this part of the world.

Before reaching the Salween, the Pang divides into parallel rivers to surround mountains and and creating "a thousand islands" within the river.  The islands are only accessible by boat. (Photo credit: Burma River Network, BRN)
Before reaching the Salween, the Pang divides into parallel rivers to surround mountains and and creating "a thousand islands" within the river. The islands are only accessible by boat. (Photo credit: Burma River Network, BRN)
Another view of the thousand islands area of the Pang river.
Another view of the thousand islands area of the Pang river.
A map showing the locations of proposed dams in the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers.
A map showing the locations of proposed dams in the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers.
Anti-dam protesters hold a ceremony on the banks of the Salween to mark the International Day of Action for the Rivers on 14 March 2008. The activity was organized by the Karen Rivers Watch (KRW). (Photo credit: Southeast Asia Rivers Network, SEARIN)
Anti-dam protesters hold a ceremony on the banks of the Salween to mark the International Day of Action for the Rivers on 14 March 2008. The activity was organized by the Karen Rivers Watch (KRW). (Photo credit: Southeast Asia Rivers Network, SEARIN)
 
Karen children (an next photo)  participate for in a Free the Salween activity at the river banks of the Moe Ei/Taung Yin rivers which feeds into the Salween. (Photo credit: SEARIN)
Karen children (an next photo) participate for in a Free the Salween activity at the river banks of the Moe Ei/Taung Yin rivers which feeds into the Salween. (Photo credit: SEARIN)
River bank gardens provide food security to villagers living along the Salween on the Thai-Burma border. (Photo credit: SEARIN)
River bank gardens provide food security to villagers living along the Salween on the Thai-Burma border. (Photo credit: SEARIN)
Fisherfolk display their catch from the Salween river (also next photo).  (Photo credit: SEARIN)
Fisherfolk display their catch from the Salween river (also next photo). (Photo credit: SEARIN)
 
The protest ceremony  on the International Day of Action for the River in March 2009. (PHoto credit: SEARIN)
The protest ceremony on the International Day of Action for the River in March 2009. (PHoto credit: SEARIN)
Protesters participate in the Day of Action through song and dance presentations from each village.
Protesters participate in the Day of Action through song and dance presentations from each village.
A series of waterfalls can be found along the Pang River, near the Tasang Dam site, as it flows into the Salween. (Photo credit: BRN)
A series of waterfalls can be found along the Pang River, near the Tasang Dam site, as it flows into the Salween. (Photo credit: BRN)
 

Inside Burma on the same day, another 200 people showed up near the site of the proposed Weigyi dam, also on the Salween, to express their opposition to the project; communities affected by dams on other sites took part in peaceful activities as well.

“People across Burma are standing up today for their right to protect their rivers and livelihoods,” said a statement issued by the Burma Rivers Network to mark the occasion.

In March 2010, also in celebration of the International Rivers Day, about 500 Thai farmers and fishers gathered near the Salween River, which runs not only through Thailand and Burma, but also through China.  There Thai common folk shared their concerns about the impending construction of dams on the Salween while other groups joined in with performances and prayers to protect the river.

This and similar peaceful demonstrations in various places in Thailand over the past several years have had just one goal: to express the people’s opposition to big dam projects in the pipeline, and not just on the Salween. On the surface, the continuing mass actions by civil-society groups, farmers, fisherfolk and ethnic communities seem to have been successful in thwarting efforts by governments and private interests to push hydropower projects on different parts of Salween River. But Teerapong Pomun, director of the Chiang Mai-based Living River Siam, one of the nongovernment organisations in northern Thailand that have been keeping watch on the Salween, admits, “Whenever there is a public outcry against plans to build dams, governments and private proponents hold off the projects on the river.  But when all is quiet, they resume talks on these ventures.”

Thai environmentalists and activists are seen to be at the forefront of the movement to keep Salween River free from dams.  After all, no dam has been built in Thailand since the 1990s, in large part because of the country’s active anti-dam movement. The problem, however, is that conditions that have enabled the movement to gain ground in Thailand are not exactly mirrored in Burma and China. Ironically, too, protests against dams in Thailand have apparently led the country’s hydropower companies to merely look next door, where they have found hospitable governments.  Or as scholars Tira Foran and Kanokwan Manoram, referring to the increasingly frustrated state-owned Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), put it in the 2009 bookContested Waterscapes in the Mekong Region: Hydropower, Livelihoods, and Governance, “Developing hydropower projects in neighbouring countries – where public opposition is stifled and the rule of law weaker – enables EGAT to export the social and environmental impacts of energy production.”

Thus, while there would probably be no dam-building on the Thai side of the Salween for now and for at least a generation more,  the story may be totally different in Burma and China, where those involved in dam projects there include Thais. Indeed, many now fear that it is just a matter of time before the dam-building frenzy in Southeast Asia catches up with the ‘wild’ river. According to media reports, Burma and China (and Thailand not quite in the shadows) are preparing to go ahead with their plans despite the environmental risks and potential social and economic impacts.

A deluge of dam projects

At least 20 hydropower projects have been proposed for Salween River, with 13 of these on the Chinese stretch of the river. The rest are planned on parts of the waterway running through Burma, and specifically in areas where ethnic minorities live. For now, though, it looks like the Salween can still claim to be the last free-flowing river in the region.

One of the longest rivers in Asia, the Salween originates from the Tibetan plateau 4,000 metres above sea level and flows through the mountains of China’s Yunnan province before snaking through the Shan and Karenni states in eastern Burma. It then forms the border between Burma’s Karen state and Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province for some 120 kilometres before pouring into the Andaman Sea.

The 2,816-km-long river is known as Thanlwin by the Burmese, Salawin by the Thais and Nujiang by the Chinese. It supports the livelihood of about 10 million people including those from over a dozen ethnic groups in the three countries. These are the people whose lives and way of life will be affected by the proposed dam projects on Salween’s mainstream or tributaries.

Environmentalists say the projects will destroy fisheries and biodiversity zones, and displace indigenous communities and ruin their cultures. In Burma, say the environmentalists, the Hatgyi Dam in southeastern Karen State, in the country’s southeast, would inundate two wildlife sanctuaries. Tasang Dam, seen as the single largest investment project in Burma, would displace at least 60,000 people and flood pristine teak forests, including the ecologically unique Kunhing or ‘one thousand islands’ on Pang River in south-central Shan state. Meantime, Weigyi Dam on the Thai-Burma border would put swathes of the Kayah-Karen rainforests and Salween National Park under water, along with the western edge of Thailand’s Salween Wildlife Sanctuary.

In the case of China, critics of the hydropower projects have noted that building dams on a seismically unstable region is risky, and point in particular to a mountainous area where frequent earthquakes and landslides occur. The river is also part of UNESCO’s Three Parallel Rivers Heritage Site in southern China. UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation — says the heritage site is home to 7,000 plant species and 80 species of rare or endangered animals. The area is believed to support over 25 percent of the world and 50 percent of China’s animal species, even as it has become known for its cultural diversity.

Within Yunnan, the watershed is home to approximately five million people from 13 different ethnic groups, most of whom are subsistence farmers, says UNESCO. This is why conservationists have been fighting to prevent the Salween from going the same way as the two other rivers in the heritage site: the Yangtze and the Mekong, where dam after dam had been built despite opposition from environmental groups and affected residents.

Voices of protest

That Salween River has lasted this long without similar structures is already quite remarkable. For sure, it is not due to a lack of interest from two of Asia’s major hydropower players: China and Thailand, both of which have had harnessing the Salween for energy as and integral part of their respective development plans for years. Burma, meanwhile, has itself been keen to tap the river for hydropower, although the energy demand it seeks to satisfy seems to be more that of China and Thailand, in exchange for a hefty profit.

Opposition to the proposed dam projects on Salween River has consistently been strong in all three countries, with international green groups piping up regularly to help support the local anti-dam campaigns. Through the years, Thai activists have been teaming up with their Burmese colleagues to lobby against the proposed dams on the Salween. In 2009, for instance, Thai local and regional civil society organisations, including exiled Burmese groups and ethnic communities, submitted a petition to the Thai government at the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) People’s Forum then being held in Thailand, demanding an immediate halt to dam plans on the Salween.

Thailand is no stranger to anti-dam campaigns. Until now, many Thais remember the bitter battle fought by students, civil-society groups, ethnic minorities, and even members of the middle class against the government over the Nam Choeun dam project in the early 1980s. The opposition to the dam, which was to be on the Upper Kwae Noi River, proved so strong that EGAT was forced to abandon it. The experience, however, may have steeled EGAT’s resolve to push through with its next big dam venture, the Pak Mun project in the eastern province of Ubon Ratchatani, whatever the cost.

Between 1990 to 2000, thousands of villagers and civil-society groups protested against the Pak Mun dam project, pointing to the damage it would cause on the ecosystem and on the villages along the Mun River. Yet even when it was clear that EGAT was far from dropping the project, the protests continued without let-up — during and well after the construction of the World Bank-funded dam. Affected villagers took their protest to Bangkok, camped out of the Government House, and occupied areas around the dam to dramatise their opposition to Pak Mun Dam. In 2001, the protesters scored a minor victory after the government agreed to open the dam’s gates for four months a year to allow villagers to fish and the ecosystem to recover. Displaced villagers were also compensated.

To this day, there are still ongoing calls to have Pak Mun Dam decommissioned. But anti-dam campaigners in Thailand can at least comfort themselves that their efforts against the Pak Mun seem to have deterred further dam construction in Thailand. In addition, they have given invaluable lessons to those faced with similar challenges. “We learned from it,” says Sai Sai, coordinator of the Burma Rivers Network here in Chiang Mai, in the Thai north. He says that Thais know how to fight for their rivers, and so do the Chinese, who managed to suspend the construction of dams in their country.

“China’s public community is very strong,” says Sai Sai. “They undertake many campaigns to save the Salween River. The Thai community, having experienced the impact of dams, fight for their rivers.”

But he worries about the Burmese and the impact of the planned dams there on the Salween. He and other activists reserve the most concern for Tasang and Ywathit, because these are to be built in places in Burma that share no border with Thailand. The fear is that far from prying non-Burmese eyes, the Burmese government can decide as it pleases and would certainly be free not to consult or take into account its people’s sentiments on the projects.

Teerapong of Living River Siam shares Sai Sai’s observation, and remarks, “Compared with the more developed countries, developing countries are more likely to feel the impact of the dams because their community is weak. Compared to the United States, the Thai community will feel greater impact in the same way that Burma will get more impact than Thailand.”

The Chinese conundrum

Compared to Burma, China’s government is presumed to pay more attention to criticisms, in part because its newfound role as a global superpower has it in constant international spotlight. Aside from the fact that air pollution is getting worse in China’s major cities in the last decade, steady global scrutiny and criticism of China’s ‘dirty energy’ use has had the country thinking hydropower is the way to go. China has long argued that it has increasingly turned to hydropower in order to decrease its dependence on fossil fuels and to shrink its carbon footprint. But China has found out that building huge dams is not that popular a move either.

In 2004, China’s then premier Wen Jiabao even suspended the 13-dam cascade project on Salween River, since a then new law now required an environment assessment impact on it. Tellingly, however, by August 2005 in China, 61 groups and 99 individuals including Greenpeace and Friends of Nature, China’s largest environmental association, were signing a petition to stop dam-building on the Salween River. Some Chinese journalists also wrote articles critical of the project way after the suspension was imposed.  To their minds, probably, suspension was not the same as giving up the project altogether.

Indeed, many now-emerging accounts indicate that while no construction was started in any of the Salween River dam sites in China between 2004 and 2012, the projects were never really at a standstill and continued to progress from the planning to development stages. By early 2011, in fact, the Chinese National Energy Administration was announcing that the dam projects on the Nu or Salween were to move forward.

More recent news reports say that preparations for construction have begun on at least one of the dams — located at Liuku, in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. Two other dams proposed on the Salween have apparently been given the go-ahead because they were included in the country’s current five-year development program. This has prompted observers to comment that while dam building was halted under China’s 11th Five-Year Plan, it looks poised for a ‘Great Leap Forward’ under the government’s 12th Five-Year Plan. Once completed, the 13-dam cascade on Nujiang is expected to generate 22,000 megawatts of power a year.

In the meantime, China had been forging ahead with its dam projects in Burma, where it is involved in at least five such ventures on the Salween. These include Tasang Dam, which once completed will be the highest in Southeast Asia at some 228 metres – taller than China’s infamous Three Gorges Dam. Most of the power generated at Tasang are said to be slated to go to Thailand. Three state-owned Chinese hydropower firms, however, are known to be participating in the project, which has a subsidiary of Thailand’s EGAT among its major financiers. The same EGAT subsidiary is also pouring substantial investments into the Hyatgi dam project, along with China’s state-owned Sinohydro Corporation.

In December 2005, Thailand and Burma had signed a Memorandum of Understanding to build at least five dams on the Salween that would generate nearly 12,000 megawatts of electricity annually. Among the expected participants in these ventures were Chinese state-owned firms as well.

Thailand’s seemingly never-ending quest for energy stems from its determination to maintain its status as one of Southeast Asia’s economic powerhouses.  With manufacturing and tourism among its major engines of its economic growth, Thailand wants to ensure it will always have an uninterrupted power supply. In 2008, EGAT estimated that Thailand’s electricity demand would double to 58,000 megawatts by 2021. But critics of EGAT say the Thai state firm not only tends to exaggerate the country’s energy needs,  it also has yet to seriously consider other, less potentially damaging, sources of power.

Davids against Goliaths

Those opposed to dams inside Burma itself have not been just watching all these unfold. In December 2007, for example, over 50,000 people, including villagers from the proposed dam sites in Burma, signed a petition calling on Beijing to stop the construction of Chinese dam projects in Burma. Locals who live near some of the dam sites have also made their opposition to the projects known by way of ceremonies at the riverbank and other subtle acts of putting pressure on local officials.

When the new Burmese government headed by President Thein Sein in late 2011 surprisingly heeded local public opinion and announced it would not to go through with a controversial dam on the Irrawaddy River, many of those campaigning against the Salween dam projects most probably thought there was hope for their cause as well. Then again, there were also cautionary voices. Karen Environmental and Social Action Network media and information officer Ko Shwe, for one, thought that the Burmese government would probably not care as much about the sentiments of those who would be affected by the Salween dam projects. The online Burma News International quotes Ko Shwe as saying in an October 2011 article, “The Irrawaddy River flows right through the middle of Burma unlike the Salween River which runs through ethnic areas. Many of the areas along the Salween are in armed conflict zones — the government is likely to ignore it, as it is mainly ethnic people affected.”

At the very least, the foreigners – among them Thais and Chinese — involved in the Salween dam projects inside Burma showed no signs of letting go of these even after fighting broke out anew in the dam sites in the northern Shan State in March last year. The two dam sites there were then the only ones free of armed conflict, thanks to a 22-year-old ceasefire pact between Burma’s military regime and then Shan State Army-North. That pact, however, was broken by the Burmese military. Now that the political situation in Burma is much improved and has led to peace talks between the government and major ethnic armed opposition groups in the country, the dams’ foreign proponents probably see less reason to back down from their plans.

Thailand’s democratic set-up, of course, makes the forays of Thai firms – state-owned and otherwise – in questionable ventures abroad subject to public scrutiny and opinion. And when such ventures have a direct impact on Thais themselves, the Thai government has little recourse but to listen to the worries and views of its citizens. Whether it will accede to popular demand, however, is another matter altogether, as borne out by the Pak Mun Dam experience.

Being just 47 kms from the Thai-Burma border, Hyatgyi Dam became the subject of public hearings held in 2011 in the districts of Mae Sariang and Sob Moei, in the Thai northern province of Mae Hong Son. Mae Sariang and Sob Moei residents were concerned of the possible impact of the project on the river’s fish stock and general ecology, as well as the flooding of areas along the river.  But EGAT has yet to be swayed from pushing forward with its hydropower plans in Burma.

Hope springs eternal

Burma Rivers Network’s Sai Sai is still hoping that China and Thailand will not ignore public opposition to mega dams they are building or financing in Burma. He notes, “Our rivers, ecosystems, and communities are all connected.”

The global environmental watchdog International Rivers, meanwhile, has taken another tack in the campaign to save the Salween. It has launched a move through which citizens’ voices could be heard by way of letters to ambassadors of China, Thailand, and Burma who are based in their respective countries.

Based in Berkeley, California, but with personnel working across the globe, including in Southeast Asia, the organisation is urging people to “write to the Ambassadors of Burma, China and Thailand in your country asking them to halt dam projects on the Salween River and conduct a full Strategic Environmental Assessment of the entire basin”.  It has even prepared on its website a template of a letter intended for Chinese, Burmese, and Thai ambassadors, asking their governments to jointly carry out a comprehensive strategic environmental assessment of the Salween Basin, as well as to inform affected communities and the general public of all plans for hydropower development and include them in the decision-making process. International Rivers is also encouraging people to use social media – Facebook and Twitter – to spread the message about Salween River and the proposed dam projects on it.

Despite what seem to be growing odds against them, local and international environmentalists and grassroots organisations are not giving up their efforts to keep Salween River dam-free. Declares Living Rivers Siam’s Teerapong: “Our community will continue to fight for our river. We will never stop.”

Post script: In January 2013, China’s State Council gave Sinohydro Corporation the green light on five of China’s planned 13 dams on Nujiang.  Salween Watch, a coalition of NGOs working on Burma-related and green issues,  has reported that six dams on the Salween River in Burma have also been approved:  Upper Salween or Kunlong Dam, Mai Tong or Tasang Dam, Nong Pha Dam, Mantawng Dam (on a tributary), Ywathit Dam, and Hatgyi Dam by the Burmese government. Funding for these projects will be from Thailand’s EGAT International Co. Ltd., five Chinese corporations, and three Burmese companies.

On 20 March 2013, the non-profit Love Salween Group issued a statement condemning Burmese government “for denying local villagers their democratic rights by blocking them from organizing a prayer ceremony to mark the Global Day of Action for Rivers on 14 March 2013 at Wan Awn village, Pasaung township of Karenni state”.

 

[Khin Su Wai is acting editor at the Mandalay Branch of the Myanmar Times.]