Giant Dams on Great Untamed River Spark Fears of Human Rights Abuses, Ecological Harm

They prayed separately but then joined together, Buddhist and Christian villagers, in vowing to fight the damming of their great untamed river which they fear will not only flood their native lands but draw violence, forced labor and relocation at gunpoint.

ON THE MYANMAR BANK OF THE SALWEEN RIVER — They prayed separately but then joined together, Buddhist and Christian villagers, in vowing to fight the damming of their great untamed river which they fear will not only flood their native lands but draw violence, forced labor and relocation at gunpoint.

"They will kill us or drive us out. We will be helpless. I prayed to God that they will change their minds," said Naw K'paw Say, a farmer who took part in recent protests to halt damming of Southeast Asia's last major untamed river.

But the villagers -- literally lonely voices in the wilderness -- are up against Myanmar's military junta, which has not hesitated in responding to dissent by gunfire, and power-hungry Thailand, which remains secretive about plans to jointly dam the river with Myanmar.

According to the Switzerland-based World Wide Fund for Nature, only a third of the world's 177 large rivers are still free-flowing, and the 2,800-kilometer (1,740-mile) Salween is one of them. Rising in Tibet, it runs through a stunningly beautiful, remote and ecologically rich region inhabited mostly by ethnic minority groups. But plans have been drawn up for as many as 18 dams and diversions -- 13 in China and five where the river runs inside Myanmar or forms its frontier with Thailand.

UNESCO, expressing grave concern, describes the river's course in China as perhaps the "most biologically diverse temperate ecosystem in the world," a home to over 7,000 species of plants and 80 rare or endangered animals. The agency designated a part of the region a World Heritage site in 2003.

But China's booming economy, projected energy needs in Thailand and poverty in Myanmar, whose capital suffers daily power outages, are driving economic planners into hitherto undisturbed areas in quest of hydroelectric power.

If all go up, the dams on the Nujiang, as the river is known in China, would generate some 20,000 megawatts of electricity -- more than its Three Gorges dam, the world's largest hydroelectric project.

Little of this, activists say, would benefit the nearly two dozen minority groups living along the length of the river. And those in Myanmar, like the Karen, Shan and Karenni peoples, stand to suffer at the hands of that country's military forces.

"The dams will bring all the things the Karen have already experienced -- torture, killing, rapes, military camps and refugees," says Nay Tha Blay, an exile from Myanmar who heads the Karen Rivers Watch, an environmental group along the frontier. "The junta uses this beautiful word 'development' but it's just exploitation of ethnic areas and their natural resources."

The generals have been widely accused of using forced labor, and in ethnic minority regions, projects such as logging or a natural-gas pipeline to Thailand have been preceded by brutal military operations to clear the areas of potentially rebellious civilians.

An array of ethnic insurgent groups rose up against the central government after Myanmar, then known as Burma, gained independence from Britain following World War II. Some, like the Karen National Union, are still fighting for autonomy.

The Karen Rivers Watch and others believe a current offensive in Karen State, in which villages reportedly have been torched and thousands driven from their homes, was mounted at least in part to pave the way for building the dams.

The government has acknowledged that a military operation is under way, but maintains it's directed against Karen "terrorists" who have perpetrated bomb attacks inside Myanmar. It consistently denies allegations by the United Nations, the U.S. and others that its forces are violating human rights.

The planning has been veiled in secrecy and the three governments have initiated no known consultations with the riverside dwellers whose lives will bear the direct impact of the dams.

Neither Thailand nor Myanmar has published an environmental impact assessment on the three dams likely to go up first -- at Tasang, Weigyi and Hutgyi. In China, an assessment was carried out -- and may recommend building only four dams -- but it hasn't been published as required by Chinese law, with officials arguing that security issues are involved since the river flows across international borders, according to the U.S.-based environmental group EarthRights International.

Chinese central and provincial authorities declined to comment and written queries were not answered. In Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, a senior Information Ministry official who demanded anonymity said, "Dams are constructed only after thorough feasibility studies and surveys. Some reports accusing the government of neglecting environmental impacts are too negative. We are trying our best in the interest of the country's development."

Even the Asian Development Bank, a major backer of dam-building in Southeast Asia, has spoken out against some of the blueprints.

The bank in 2002 studied the Tasang dam, slated to be the river's largest and the tallest in Southeast Asia, as part of a master plan for a regional power grid. But it backed away, voicing "serious socio-environmental concerns."

"It didn't pass our first filter. The dam would have a profound impact on the Salween River," says Rajat Nag, who heads the bank's Mekong Department. "The project would fragment a fragile river ecosystem, reduce the flow of nutrients and water downstream, reduce the biodiversity. Deforestation is likely and would lead to soil erosion in the rainy season which would exacerbate flood damage."

Notwithstanding, Myanmar and Thailand's MDX Group signed a US$6 million (euro4.7 million) agreement in April to build the dam in Shan State, where mass relocations of Shan villagers have taken place in recent years.

Construction of housing for workers at Tasang and Hutgyi, inside Myanmar in Karen State, has already begun, while a road is being cut through a national park in Thailand to reach Weigyi, on the river frontier.

"It seems like both upstream and downstream plans are moving closer toward construction," says Alisa Loveman of EarthRights International. "It wouldn't surprise me if the dams are built, but there is still a window of opportunity."

Opponents cite Thailand's current electricity surplus and a strong anti-dam lobby, Myanmar's empty coffers and security concerns as possibly stalling or halting some of the projects. In May a geologist from the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand lost a leg to a land mine at the Hutgyi site and some areas are still controlled by the Karen insurgents.

Along the Salween, the ethnic peoples are poor, uneducated and far from the international spotlight. But many of them came together from both sides of the river to take part in the March prayer and protest.

Naw K'paw Say, the protester, said she has lived in Weigyi for more than four decades, her family growing rice, beans and cardamon along the river. Her village and 27 others stand to be submerged, leaving some 3,000 people on the Myanmar side of the Salween homeless.

"We don't have enough strength to stop the dam," she says. "But we have no choice but to try because we stand to lose our lands, our livelihoods and perhaps our lives."

Source: Associated Press

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