Can Myan­mar’s hy­dropower study truly be for the peo­ple?

The Myanmar Times - - News - PIANPORN DEETES news­room@mm­times.com

IN re­cent weeks, violent clashes in Kayin State have fur­ther dis­rupted Myan­mar’s frag­ile peace process. Fight­ing be­tween the Demo­cratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the govern­ment-spon­sored Bor­der Guard Force (BGF) in Mae Tha Waw ar­eas of Hlaingbwe township, and more re­cently near Kawkareik township, has dis­placed over a thou­sand peo­ple. En­tire fam­i­lies have fled their homes and are left stranded with lim­ited ac­cess to food and as­sis­tance, pro­duc­ing noth­ing short of a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis. Across the bor­der in Thai­land, nearly 60,000 peo­ple re­main in refugee camps, hav­ing fled on­go­ing con­flict over the past two decades.

The deadly con­flict is tak­ing place around the con­struc­tion site of the Hat Gyi hy­dropower dam on the Sal­ween River. The 1360-megawatt project is slated for de­vel­op­ment by a con­sor­tium of Thai, Chi­nese and Myan­mar com­pa­nies, with the elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated to be ex­ported to Thai­land. Fight­ing has es­ca­lated as plans to build the project move for­ward, with both groups strug­gling to wrest con­trol of the area.

Against this back­drop, in Septem­ber the In­ter­na­tional Fi­nance Cor­po­ra­tion (IFC), the pri­vate sec­tor lend­ing arm of the World Bank Group, to­gether with the Min­istry of Elec­tric Power (MOEP) and the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­ser­va­tion and Forestry (MOECAF), launched a Strate­gic En­vi­ron­men­tal As­sess­ment (SEA) for Myan­mar’s hy­dropower sec­tor in Nay Pyi Taw. The SEA falls within a broader pro­gram of wa­ter re­form in the coun­try, sup­ported by the World Bank. Last week marked the first meet­ing of the multi-stake­holder Ad­vi­sory Group the IFC has con­vened to guide the SEA process.

The stated aim of the SEA is to achieve “broad con­sen­sus” on the equitable and sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment of hy­dropower dams across the coun­try. The IFC has pro­posed a process of pub­lic en­gage­ment and ne­go­ti­a­tion, claim­ing this will avoid ma­jor en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial im­pacts and achieve wide­spread agree­ment on nec­es­sary trade-offs and ways to share ben­e­fits with those dis­placed or ad­versely af­fected by dams.

The SEA is an im­por­tant step. Given the high so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal costs as­so­ci­ated with the hy­dropower sec­tor, it is an op­por­tu­nity to build crit­i­cal knowl­edge for ac­count­able and in­formed de­ci­sion-mak­ing. If done well, the SEA could en­able the Myan­mar govern­ment and peo­ple to com­pre­hen­sively ex­am­ine the full range of op­tions avail­able for pro­vid­ing en­ergy while pro­tect­ing its rivers and com­mu­nity rights; and with this to­gether set the agenda for an in­clu­sive and sus­tain­able en­ergy fu­ture. This can only be achieved through a trans­par­ent and par­tic­i­pa­tory process, with the mean­ing­ful in­volve­ment of the most vul­ner­a­ble groups. Such peo­ple in­clude dis­placed per­sons and refugees, whose homes are poised to be lost to reser­voirs and hy­dro sta­tions, while their per­spec­tives are of­ten in­vis­i­ble in de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

Whether the SEA can achieve this re­mains an open ques­tion.

In ad­di­tion to Hat Gyi, other pro­posed dams are in ac­tive con­flict zones and ar­eas pop­u­lated by Myan­mar’s di­verse ethic peo­ples. The 7100MW Mong Ton dam on the Sal­ween River in Shan State will flood a war-torn area long sub­ject to mass dis­place­ment. The IFC’s Per­for­mance Stan­dards re­quire par­tic­i­pa­tory and trans­par­ent con­sul­ta­tions, the “free, prior and in­formed con­sent” of indige­nous peo­ples and sen­si­tiv­ity to the risks of op­er­at­ing in con­flict and post-con­flict zones. Lit­tle in­for­ma­tion is avail­able as to how these stan­dards will be ef­fec­tively im­ple­mented in sit­u­a­tions such as the cur­rent cri­sis in Kayin State or the refugee pop­u­la­tion in Thai­land, who are yet to re­turn home.

IFC stan­dards also man­date the as­sess­ment of the cu­mu­la­tive im­pacts of hy­dropower de­vel­op­ment. The Sal­ween is a trans­bound­ary river, orig­i­nat­ing in China and with stretches forming the bor­der be­tween Thai­land and Myan­mar. The Hat Gyi and Mong Ton dams, and other projects in a planned cas­cade on the Sal­ween, would have trans­bound­ary im­pacts in Thai­land, yet these ap­pear to fall out­side of the scope of the SEA, which will only in­volve as­sess­ment and con­sul­ta­tions in Myan­mar.

The hope is that the as­sess­ment will in­form fu­ture govern­ment de­ci­sions on in­di­vid­ual projects. With con­tro­ver­sial planned dams such as Hat Gyi and Mong Ton al­ready qui­etly pro­gress­ing, it is un­clear whether the SEA will be able to stop the clock to en­able mean­ing­ful and in­clu­sive de­bate about whether such projects should be built. In the case of the Mekong River, a com­pre­hen­sive SEA on main­stream dams com­mis­sioned by the Mekong River Com­mis­sion in 2010 rec­om­mended a 10-year mora­to­rium on dam build­ing to en­able fur­ther stud­ies, yet the ad­vice was dis­re­garded in the rush to har­ness the river’s hy­dropower po­ten­tial. The flurry of dam-build­ing has come at the ex­pense of the river’s rich re­sources and the in­ter­ests of river­ine com­mu­ni­ties.

Around 34 mil­lion peo­ple in Myan­mar lack ac­cess to elec­tric­ity, a deficit the IFC of­ten cites in dis­cussing the SEA. But many of the large-scale projects that will be ex­am­ined in the as­sess­ment would gen­er­ate ca­pac­ity for ex­port, not do­mes­tic con­sump­tion. Be­cause 70 per­cent of Myan­mar’s pop­u­la­tion live in off-grid ru­ral re­gions, pri­ori­tis­ing small-scale and de­cen­tralised en­ergy sources over mega-dams is a bet­ter way to meet the im­me­di­ate needs of lo­cal peo­ple. The SEA ap­pears to start from the as­sump­tion that large-scale hy­dropower is a given, rather than en­abling con­sid­er­a­tion of al­ter­na­tives that could in­form open dis­cus­sion on the best means of meet­ing Myan­mar’s en­ergy de­mands and pri­or­i­ties.

Myan­mar has an op­por­tu­nity to bal­ance equitable and sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment of the en­ergy sec­tor while pre­serv­ing rich ecosys­tems and eco­log­i­cally sen­si­tive ar­eas. Get­ting this right is com­plex. The SEA Ad­vi­sory Group must care­fully con­sider how to en­sure sen­si­tiv­ity to the coun­try’s com­plex his­tory and a process that is truly in­clu­sive of the needs and per­spec­tives of all its peo­ple.

Pianporn (Pai) Deetes works as the Thai­land and Burma Cam­paigns Di­rec­tor for In­ter­na­tional Rivers, an in­ter­na­tional NGO work­ing to pro­tect rivers and the rights of com­mu­ni­ties who de­pend upon them.

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