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Myanmar Myitsone Dam – Damming of the Irrawaddy River

Myitsone dam construction goes ahead despite Kachin conflict

 

CHIANG RAI TIMES – Environmental activists say Chinese firms are pushing ahead with construction of the controversial Myitsone dam even though fighting is going on in the area.

In a press release issued on Wednesday by the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), work on the dam in Northern Kachin State continues despite fighting between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Burmese government.

At present, “700 Chinese labourers are working day and night shearing off hilltops, laying tunnels, and building embankments at the Myitsone,” according to the report.

The dam construction project was briefly halted in June when the 17-year cease-fire between the Burmese government and the KIO ended and fighting broke out. But according to KDNG, construction began again in July and is moving ahead at a fast pace despite the fact that fighting has damaged supply roads and halted normal business activities in the area.

Ethnic Kachin protest against conflict in northern Burma and the damming of the Irrawaddy river

The Myitsone Dam is the first of seven dams planned on a tributary of the Irrawaddy River to harness the hydropower of Burma’s largest river.  Located at the confluence of the Mali Hka and Nmai Hka where the two rivers converge to form the Irrawaddy River, the dam’s critics say the dam will irreversibly destroy a site sacred to the Kachin people.

KDNG predicts that the creation of the dam’s reservoir will flood an area larger than Singapore and will displace scores of villages with an estimated population of around 15,000 people while also destroying ecologically sensitive areas.

The dam which will be 152-metres high when completed is a major source of friction between the Burmese regime and the KIO.  In a letter sent to China’s government urging a halt to the dam project, the KIO said it had told the Burmese “military government that the KIO would not be responsible for the civil war if war broke out because of this hydropower plant project and the dam construction.”

When completed the dam will flood a large portion of the KIO territory where it has bases. The KIO has urged that both the Chinese and Burmese governments construct the dam farther upstream and not at the Myitsone.

A 900-plus page Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) commissioned by the Chinese firms involved in the project and completed last year also suggested that dam be built farther upstream and not at the Myitsone site because “there is no need for such a big dam to be constructed at the confluence of the Ayeyawady [Irrawaddy] River.” The EIA, which was only leaked to the public this year, suggested that the dam would have a potentially devastating impact on life for people in the Irrawaddy delta where a majority of Burma’s rice crop is grown.

According to the report, construction on the Irrawaddy “should be avoided due to the changes in downriver hydrology which may affect navigation, riverine ecosystem and delta ecosystem and will lead to negative impacts on the economy.”  The EIA also said that the dam would seriously impact the river’s fish population, a source of food for thousands in Burma.

Ah Nan, a spokesperson and researcher for KDNG, told Mizzima that the rush to resume construction of the dam was yet another example of the Burmese regime pushing an environmentally destructive project that will harm many people.  According to Ah Na, “We can see that this government is ignoring the will of the people, and they are in fact encouraging the Chinese company to destroy the Myitsone.”

China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), a state-owned electric company, is leading the construction and financing of the dam.  CPI has hired Sinohydro to build the dam and the Sindohydro website has pictures from July and August showing construction activity taking place at the Myitsone.

The two Chinese firms have also joined with Burma’s state power utility Myanma Electric Power Enterprise (MEPE) and the Burmese conglomerate Asia World on the project.

An article in the industry journal Power in Asia published last September said that the massive seven-dam project on the Upper Irrawaddy will generate a combined capacity of 16,500 megawatts, slightly less than the present 18,200 megawatts generating capacity of China’s huge Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest dam.

However, the benefits of the dams for Burma appear to be limited to royalties for the Burmese government. According to an article in China’s state-controlled Kunming Daily in October 2008, when the project is finished the “majority of the electricity” generated by the dams will be exported to China.

Thomas Maung Shwe

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