Dam projects on the Irrawady in Myanmar could not only devastate livelihoods but add more conflicts to an already sensitive region. Saw John Bright, Author provided
Myanmar makes many headlines these days. While most of the focus has been on the Rohingya issue, the country is also heading towards an important economic and livelihood crisis. Myanmar was once called “Asia’s rice bowl”, and that label stuck for much of the 20th century. While the country is keen to reclaim this title, it’s doubtful this ambition will be realised soon.
At the centre of this looming livelihood crisis is large dams. In September 2011, now six years ago, Myanmar’s then-president Thein Sein surprised his countryfolk and international observers by suspending the construction of the Myitsone Dam project in northern Myanmar, the largest of seven dam projects to be built on the Irrawaddy River.
The project had, from its commencement in 2009, been extremely unpopular in the country because of its vast negative impacts on livelihoods, disrupting fisheries and local agriculture.
Even though Myanmar’s political system was extremely restrictive at this time, a major campaign had emerged against it, led by local communities and NGOs.
The Myitsone Dam’s suspension is widely considered as the main symbol of Myanmar’s political change from autocracy to democracy.
When I carried out field research in Myanmar last year a Burmese environmental activist told me:
This was the first time since the 1962 Burmese coup d'état that the country’s political leadership took public opinion into account
Originally, the Myitsone Dam project was supposed to be completed this year. Although a decision on its fate was supposed to be made last year by Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it remains suspended until today. Many fear, though, that construction may resume soon. The impacts on livelihoods would be devastating.
Protests against dams in Myanmar in 2015. Kyaw Nyi Soe, Author provided
The main purpose of the dams to be built on the Irrawaddy River is hydropower production. Myanmar’s hydropower potential stands at 108 GW – the largest potential of any country in Southeast Asia. But only 52% of households have access to electricity.
The country needs to harness its vast hydropower resources to change this, particularly since Myanmar’s renewable energy potential beyond hydropower is relatively limited. For instance, Myanmar has 3,400 km2 of land with wind speeds greater than six meters per second, the minimum needed for modern wind turbines. This equates to only 0.5% of the country’s total area. Hence, wind power will not be able to satisfy Myanmar’s rapidly growing energy needs. Myanmar is developing renewable alternatives to generate energy as it has only modest fossil fuel potential.
The planned projects on the Irrawaddy River have a combined capacity of more than 15 GW. For those to be resettled by them, they are so-called “Damocles projects”. This term reflects the constant threat hanging over villagers in the communities which are close to the dams: the fear of resettlement. Many of the (to be displaced) communities are Kachin, a Christian minority in Myanmar that has lived on these lands for hundreds of years already.
Such projects create tangible negative impacts on communities even if not implemented. For instance, communities invest much less in homes and businesses due to a fear of being resettled soon, while stress levels for resettlees are particularly high. Advocacy work against a dam project can also heavily consume people’s time and resources.
But the projects’ social impacts exceed far beyond resettlees. Almost 40 million people live in the Irrawaddy River Basin. This equates to two-thirds of Myanmar’s total population.