Author : Nilanjan Ghosh

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 04, 2022
The hydropower projects in Myanmar are riddled with challenges, therefore, a more holistic approach needs to be adopted, making sure all the stakeholders are on board.
Dams as displacers: A heavy social cost to incur

Hydropower in the Himalayan river system has traditionally been a contentious issue. This is more so because of the extensive knowledge gaps that exist in the context of its business economics, impacts of global warming and climate change on hydrological flow regimes, tectonic and seismic sciences, the critical ecosystems-livelihoods linkages, and most critically, the social costs associated with displacement, inadequate or lack of rehabilitation and livelihoods losses and eventually escalated conflicts. Hydropower development in Myanmar in the Salween river systems ticks all these boxes. With its origin in the Tibetan Plateau and passing through the three parallel rivers world heritage site in Yunnan, the river flows south and passes through the states of Shan, Kayah (Karenni), Karen and Mon in Myanmar before flowing out into the Gulf of Martaban and merging with the Andaman Sea.

There is no inkling on part of the beneficiaries that there is a need to compensate the affected when the natural ecosystem is also a stakeholder in this “dam game”.

The very sight of the hydropower potential in the Salween propelled the Chinese and the Thai governments to construct the proposed dams on the Salween’s mainstream: The Kunlong, Naung Phaand Tasang/ Mong Ton dams in the Shan state, the Ywathit dam in the Kayah state and the Hat Gyi dam in the Kayin state. Given that the potentially affected community was kept in the dark about these projects, the expropriation of lands of the affected ethnic communities without taking their interests into account resulted in dam-induced conflicts in the region.

At this point, it is important to have a look at a few overwhelming numbers of dam-induced-displaced people as shown in Table 1.

As stated earlier, there have been many such projects in the Himalayas that have not taken into consideration such social costs of conflicts. Like many other hydropower projects in the Himalayan ecosystem, the reliance on reductionist neoclassical cost-benefit analyses of hydropower projects in the Salween has failed to take into consideration its social, economic and environmental costs. This article highlights the reductionism in the paradigm that has led to such a conflictual outcome. This reductionism can be classified under various heads.

Inadequate compensation

Inadequate compensation follows from a half-hearted, fragmented, and partial approach to valuing the costs that the community must bear. This is the essence of reductionism here. As an example, in the Kayah state, the displacement of around 12,558 local inhabitants in the Lawpita hydropower project received a response of ‘insignificant’ damages caused. Even, the displaced 12,000 plus people from the Mobye dam received almost no Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) plans. There have been nominal efforts to minimise the negative environmental impacts of the dams. Having already suffered the impacts of these dam projects in the past, the Karenni community stands reluctant toward the construction of the proposed Ywathit dam on the Salween’s mainstream.

Inadequate EIAs

Access to the Naung Pha project remains a challenge, with only limited information available on the dam. Reports suggest that construction of the Kunlong dam has already begun in secrecy. Though an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Kunlong dam had been conducted, the details of the report have not been made public. Following the death of a few Chinese engineers who had come to survey the Ywhatit dam, remilitarisation of the dam site has prevented even environmental activists from gaining access to any information. The legitimacy of the Mon Ton dam’s EIA report has been questioned by civil society organisations in Shan. Likewise, outside reports go on to contradict the Hatgyi dam’s EIA conducted by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). It is to be noted that since there is inaccuracy in the analysis of environmental costs that shall be incurred as a result of these upcoming projects, a clear picture regarding potential losses in terms of ecosystem services, is yet to be considered within the cost-benefit matrix of these upcoming dams.

The changes in the flow regimes

Such hydropower projects are bound to affect the existing flow regime of the Salween trapping the river’s sediments, and negatively affecting aquatic life and fisheries. This, in turn, will affect the livelihoods of the local communities due to the decline in the ecosystem services because of changes in the ecosystem structure and functions. The changing integrated paradigms of river basin governance talk of incorporating these costs in the project impact analyses. There is no inkling on part of the beneficiaries that there is a need to compensate the affected when the natural ecosystem is also a stakeholder in this “dam game”.

 The social cost of conflict

Site relocations carried out by the Myanmar military go on to displace thousands of local inhabitants. Many have fled the conflict-ridden zone and ended up as internally displaced persons (IDPs) along the Myanmar-Thailand border. The Myanmar military’s attempt to secure the Ywathit Dam site to begin construction work led to violent clashes between the military and the ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), causing thousands of inhabitants in the nearby villages to flee in search of safety to the Thai border. The dramatic escalation of social conflicts as a result of site clearances has in turn escalated the social costs of these hydropower projects. Potential losses in revenue because of a delay in production are tantamount to the investment costs that had been estimated for the construction of these upcoming hydropower projects. Issues of sexual violence are also found to be mired in site clearances carried out by the Myanmar military. As per a report, most of the rape incidents have taken place in areas where more than 300,000 villagers in the Shan State have been forcibly relocated since 1996.

The reality: not helping the local cause 

As such, the proposed projects do not help the cause of domestic energy security. Ninety percent of the electricity generated by the Mong Ton dam and Hatgyi dams is to be sold for export, whilst the remnant 10 percent is to be used for domestic purposes. Likewise, 90 percent of the electricity produced by the Kunlong dam project in the Shan state shall be exported to China. Often, asymmetric bargaining is noticed in agreements between Myanmar and its neighbours, Thailand and China, with dam projects standing as no exception. 

A way forward

Given how the construction of dams on the Salween River has emerged as an important challenge in the Salween basin’s governance, there is a need for a collaborative governance institution, one that comprises an independent scientific community, officials of the junta government, ethnic armed organisations, civil society organisations and key economic actors that shall oversee hydropower development in the country. The knowledge gaps noticeable in terms of hydropower development in Myanmar must be addressed, by ensuring interactions amongst multiple layers of government structures and stakeholder meetings. Thus, it can provide scope for merging the distinct top-down and bottom-up approaches to decision-making, which in turn can provide scope for better-informed decision-making regarding hydropower development in the region.

The knowledge gaps noticeable in terms of hydropower development in Myanmar must be addressed, by ensuring interactions amongst multiple layers of government structures and stakeholder meetings.

The institutional mechanism of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) can provide lessons on this. MRC engages in collaborative practice amongst its three stakeholders—the private sector, government (or public sector) and civil society organisations. It follows a basin-wide planning process based on Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) principles, which seeks to develop and manage water resources by maximising economic and social welfare, without compromising the sustainability of ecosystems. The process of IWRM embraces three cardinal principles: Economic efficiency, social equity, and environmental sustainability. The holistic evaluation of hydropower projects must be guided by the process of IWRM to account for all its short-term and long-term socio-economic, political, and cultural costs. Given how such an evaluation is needed to be interdisciplinary, a synthesis of specialised knowledge and consequently, the creation of integrated knowledge, as enabled by the System of Integrated Knowledge (SINK) framework can help bring IWRM closer to practice in the country. This will help circumvent the prevailing practice of embarking on hydropower projects characterised by myopic economics, reductionist engineering, and knowledge uncertainties.

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Nilanjan Ghosh

Nilanjan Ghosh

Dr Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in India, where he leads the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED) and ...

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Prarthana Sen

Prarthana Sen

Prarthana Sen was Research Assistant with ORF Kolkata. Her interests include gender development cooperation SDGs and forced migration.

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