China’s Salween plans in limbo in post-coup Myanmar

The Third Pole explores how the military coup will affect Chinese-backed dams along Southeast Asia’s last free-flowing river
<p>The Salween River in Myanmar is Southeast Asia&#8217;s longest undammed waterway (Image: Reuters / Alamy)</p>

The Salween River in Myanmar is Southeast Asia’s longest undammed waterway (Image: Reuters / Alamy)

Plans for seven Chinese-built dams along the Salween River have been a source of friction for Myanmar and China for some time. Prior to the military coup on 1 February, the elected party the National League for Democracy and grassroots campaigners were already locked in conflict. International isolation following the coup may now force the government to move closer to China than it would like, leaving indigenous groups more at risk.  

The future of dam building is now in the hands of General Min Aung Hlaing’s military regime. Last week, he met with State Administration Council members and departmental officials in Hpa-an, the state capital of Karen. Along with repeated claims of election fraud, he said that the Hatgyi hydropower plant will be built. He said nothing of the environmental concerns, only that “those objecting [to] the project for various reasons should understand the benefits.”

In response, Saw Kyaw, brigadier general of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, told news website The Irrawaddy: “The entire Karen population oppose the dam. Peace has gone in the area now. If the hydropower project is to be implemented, only our people will suffer.”

The Salween remains Southeast Asia’s longest free-flowing river in a region that has seen frenzied dam-building on the Mekong, upper Yangtze and other major waterways.

It flows 3,289 kilometres from the Tibetan Plateau to the Andaman Sea near Myanmar’s border with Thailand. In China, it is known as the Nu River. Crossing into Myanmar, the Salween, or Thanlwin, snakes through ethnic minority lands in Shan, Kayah, Karen and Mon states. It is an artery for immense biodiversity, providing sustenance for millions of people in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden regions.

The Hatgyi and Mong Ton dams are among the largest of seven mainstream dam projects planned by Chinese and Thai companies on the Salween. The 7,000-megawatt Mong Ton dam in Shan state is sponsored by Thailand’s EGAT and China Three Gorges Corporation, and could become Myanmar’s largest dam. Both Hatgyi and Mong Ton are in the planning stage. They would inundate land that is now home to villagers displaced by conflict in the late 1990s who have been unable to return. The Mong Ton site alone would displace at least 60,000.

Civic protesters silenced

The Save the Salween Network previously organised community resistance along the length of the river, using the International Day of Action for Rivers, 14 March, to amplify the opposition of different regions and ethnic groups in a unified protest. This year, activists along the upper and mid-reaches of the river in Shan state could not hold public events on 14 March.

“In Karen state, the organisation was able to campaign, as it was in the area controlled by KNU [Karen National Union, a political organisation]. In southern Shan state, that would be too risky,” a spokesperson from Save the Salween Network told The Third Pole.

The military coup has brought internet connectivity restrictions, a ban on international money transfers and continuing violence. Save the Salween Network continues to advocate for the river in whatever small ways remain. “Because we are not registered in the official registry, our… organisation is in a better position than others. We are off their radar. Despite this, I am in hiding,” the spokesperson said.

villagers protest against dams on the banks of the Salween River
Villagers protesting against dams on the Salween River on 14 March 2015 (Image: Hsa Moo / Karen Environmental and Social Action Network / dpa / Alamy Live News)

Air strikes have been carried out in the Salween Peace Park, a grassroots conservation and indigenous people’s initiative. In March, Myanmar’s military launched the first air strikes on KNU territory in 20 years after rebels killed 10 soldiers, Reuters reported. Attacks continued through April and May, killing dozens and forcing thousands to flee.

The military government has persisted in its claims of election fraud to little effect. Protests and violence continue across the country in the form of attacks on military positions and assassinations.

Waters rising

The current violence builds on disaffection between ethnic groups and the now-overthrown civilian government. “The NLD was so close to China and they did not share any information on any of the pursued projects,” so “ethnic people lost trust in this party,” the Save the Salween Network spokesperson said.

However, he said he expects the military to continue the dam projects, “not just for the sake of generating electricity, but for the militarisation of the area. The flooded area will destroy the base area of ethnic armed [militias].”

In the past the KNU has expressed strong opposition to dams, which has led to violence between the military, or Tatmadaw, and the KNU.

Some major dam sites, in particular the Hatgyi dam, are on the internal border of KNU-controlled land. This is now the frontline of an escalating conflict.

In Thailand, images have appeared of Tatmadaw camps ablaze from the Myanmar side of the Salween. These appear to confirm KNU claims of a successful 27 April attack. As dam sites become battle grounds, the river’s future depends on the outcome of the fighting along its lower reaches.

Who will build?

Six weeks after the military coup, the French energy company EDF suspended the USD 1.5-billion Shweli 3 hydropower dam project in response to the jailing of NLD leaders and shootings of protesters and journalists. Other international companies are likely to be equally reluctant.

“Much depends on whether the junta manages to establish its effective control of the country,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century. He added: “Chinese firms, which are less susceptible to the reputational pressures of Western companies, will gradually move in to fill the vacuum.”

Prior to the coup, U Aung Myint, general secretary of the Myanmar Renewable Energy Association, told The Third Pole: “Honestly, we want the government to cancel the agreements for big hydropower projects such as Myitsone and Tasang, but I think it will not happen for many reasons.”

Chinese companies feel the heat

The coup drew sanctions from other nations, yet China blocked condemnation at the UN and referred to the violent overthrow of the NLD government as a “cabinet reshuffle”. The comment was unpopular on the streets. The early days of the coup saw violence against Chinese-owned businesses and threats to Chinese-built pipelines, leading to pressure from China for the new military government to protect its assets.

“Violence against Chinese economic interests in Myanmar, including the oil and gas pipelines that bisect the country, would set off alarm bells at the top levels of the Chinese government,” Strangio said. “Of course, any situation in which Chinese economic interests are coming under attack from anti-military protesters would also be one in which China’s hydropower interests would also be vulnerable to attack.”

Unknown cost

Forgoing large hydropower projects on the mainstream Salween would avoid disruption to sediment distribution, aquatic ecology and local livelihoods, according to a 2018 International Finance Corporation strategic environmental assessment. However, the lack of studies on the Salween means there are many unknowns pertaining to environmental impacts.

“Unfortunately, because we don’t have good baseline or historical data on either the fish or the fisheries, we may never know in quantitative terms what the impacts of the dams are,” said Aaron Koning, a freshwater ecologist and conservation scientist at the Nevada-based Global Water Center.

Koning has spent seven years studying a grassroots network of community fish reserves in the Salween basin, and says hydropower dams could devastate the river’s ecology and fisheries. He worked with communities harvesting eels that migrate to the Indian Ocean to spawn; their life cycle would be upset by the Hatgyi dam, he says. 

“We don’t know much about the habitat requirements or migration patterns of most other Salween River fish species, some of which are endemic to the basin and found nowhere else on Earth,” Koning added. In the Mekong, Chinese-built dams have caused deep harm to fisheries.

Ignoring indigenous communities

China and Myanmar have been accused of ignoring ethnic groups when planning dams on the Salween. The people of the conflict-stricken river basin states of Shan, Karen and Kayah states have the most to lose from further hydropower projects. In Thailand, the Salween marks part of the border. Predominantly Karen ethnic communities living along the river, including refugees from Myanmar, rely heavily on its fisheries for nutritional security.

There is little hope civil society can mount a defence of the Salween’s ecology, given the Tatmadaw’s crackdown on dissent with tacit approval from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The NLD had faced calls from local and international environmental groups to halt and suspend dam projects such as those at Myitsone and Mong Ton (locally called Tasang). The military government that has replaced it is unlikely to listen.

Infrastructure versus inclusion

The hydropower plans are promoted as a way of dealing with Myanmar’s low access to electricity. Almost 60% of the population has no access to electricity, and the NLD had planned for nationwide electrification by 2030. A great deal of this was supposed to be from hydropower. Nevertheless local opposition persisted, even though the Salween region is one of those most deprived. Many living on its banks rely on small rooftop solar panels that provide only a few hours of electricity a day.

The National Electrification Plan’s first phase was set to end by mid-2021, U Maung Win, deputy director general of the Department of Rural Development, told The Third Pole prior to the coup, noting plans to provide electricity to 626,757 households in 5,080 villages far from the national grid.

Energy needs in Myanmar are expected to rise 15-17% annually. Although sizeable, Mong Ton would only provide around 10% of its energy output to Myanmar, with Thailand, the main investor, buying the rest. U Aung Myint told The Third Pole that Myanmar already relies on hydropower for more than 60% of its electricity generation.

Marriage of convenience

The Mong Ton and Hatgyi dams – as well as Ywathit, Weigyi and others planned for the Salween – have varying levels of Chinese investment and construction involvement.

The Chinese-funded Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy in Kachin state has been a point of friction between China and Myanmar for more than a decade. The plan would have dammed a sacred river, flooded an area the size of Singapore, displaced thousands of people and devastated both fish and wildlife populations. After much lobbying from environmental and Kachin groups, Myanmar’s democratic government halted the Myitsone project but never cancelled it.

Strangio said that if China believes that the junta will ultimately prevail over the protest movement, “then it will seek to work with the generals to advance long-standing strategic and economic goals in Myanmar.” That will lead the military government, possibly the one institution most suspicious of China, right into the arms of its northern neighbour.

“In that event, continuing international opprobrium would likely force the Tatmadaw into a heavier reliance on China than it would be comfortable with, but if that is the price of staying in power, I suspect the marriage of convenience would hold,” Strangio said.