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Turning point for China's dam builders?

Guest post by Grace Mang

On September 30, Myanmar president Thein Sein told his parliament that he was suspending development of the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam as a result of public concerns over the scheme’s potentially devatating impacts on the Irrawaddy River. For more information on the decision and its background, see chinadialogue article “Lessons from the Irrawaddy”.

The suspension of the US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam in Myanmar, also known as Burma, was the result of a long and sustained campaign by the country’s civil society. My exposure to the project began in late 2010, when local environmental NGOs reached out to International Rivers for analysis and technical support, but opponents have been waging battle on various fronts since 2006. Were it to go ahead, the Myitsone scheme would be the largest of seven planned Chinese-funded dams on the Irrawaddy River and the biggest hydropower scheme in all of south-east Asia.

 


Image from Immu shows the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar

For the Kachin people, the ethnic group living mainly in the hills of northern Burma, the Myitsone dam presents a threat to their cultural heartland. For environmental NGOs, concerns have focused on the significant and irreversible changes the Myitsone project and six other dams proposed as part of a 13,000-megawatt cascade, would inflict on the Irrawaddy delta, Myanmar’s rice bowl. An environmental impact assessment commissioned by the energy firm behind the project, China Power Investment, and carried out by Myanmar NGO the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA), recommended in 2009 that the Myitsone scheme be reconsidered.

Aung San Sui Kyi’s public appeal to save the Irrawaddy River in August 2011 catapulted the campaign onto the international stage. It also signified that, in Myanmar’s changed political landscape following last year’s election, there is now a strong national coalition against the Myitsone dam. At a government workshop on the environmental impacts of the project on September 17, an intended public display of confidence for the project broke into a debate on the pros and cons, and many ministers came forward and questioned whether Myitsone Dam was in fact in the national interest.

The Chinese government is now calling for open discussions on the future of the project. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei, said: “Relevant matters that have emerged during the implementation of the project should be properly settled through friendly consultations between the two sides.” 

But it would be unwise for China to seek a reversal of the suspension and deny Burmese civil-society groups their first major achievement in over 20 years. The decision is an indication of the desire of Myanmar’s new government to distinguish itself from the past. To what extent reform in Myanmar will calibrate with genuine democracy and political freedom remains unclear. Nevertheless, China Power Investment should not put itself on the wrong side of history by working against the will of the Burmese people.

Mistakes can be costly, but that is no reason to ignore the lessons. China Power Investment and other Chinese overseas dam builders such as Sinohydro, Gezhouba and China Three Gorges Corporation, would be wise to dissect the Myitsone project and learn from it. Myitsone is one of around 300 overseas dam projects in 78 countries in which Chinese dam builders and banks are involved. Amongst this number are mega projects proposed on vital rivers such as the Salween in Burma, the mainstream of the Mekong, the Nile in Sudan and the Omo in Ethiopia, all fiercely opposed by communities and civil society groups, who say that the social and environmental costs are too high. 

Myitsone brings into focus the need for Chinese companies to deal with key weaknesses in their current business model. Key questions dam builders should be asking themselves are: how can they effectively engage civil society groups in the countries they work? Are there untenable projects, like the Myitsone dam, in their portfolio that should be reconsidered? And how can they better manage their overseas political risks through company policies and procedures? 

In finding the answers, Chinese dam builders do not have to start from scratch. Sinohydro, China’s and the world’s biggest dam builder has developed a draft environmental policy which if adopted and implemented would make it a leader in addressing the concerns and grievances of affected communities and civil society in the host countries in which Sinohydro works.

As for the Myitsone dam, hopefully it will not now be remembered as south-east Asia’s biggest and most destructive project, but rather a mark of the strength of Myanmar’s civil society and the beginning of a new Myanmar.

Grace Mang is an environment and water lawyer who coordinates International Rivers’ China Global Program. Prior to this, she was an environment and water policy adviser at the Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
 

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