The Burmese government has rejected calls to suspend construction of a huge Chinese dam project on the key Irrawaddy River despite opposition from ethnic minorities and environmentalists.
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi had also publicly opposed and called for a review of the multibillion dollar project undertaken by China Power Investment Corp. in northern Kachin state, saying it would cripple rice paddy production.
But Burma’s minister of electric power, Zaw Min, stoutly defended the project at the weekend, saying the government will "never stop the project before finishing.”
"As a politician, to say something like this is not only irresponsible, but rather idiotic," Win Tin, a central executive committee member in Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, told RFA.
"After all these protests and rejection from all over the world on this project, he should at least have said that they are looking at [calling for] a more comprehensive report [on the project], even if he does not reconsider."
The government, Win Tin said, should realize that "both the people of Burma and the world are against" the Myitsone Hydro Electric Project, a joint Burmese-Chinese venture involving eight dams.
Aye Maung, a senator and leader of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, said the government should seriously consider public opinion before making any final decision.
"This river belong to the whole country. It is necessary to inquire people's opinion."
At a press briefing at the Burmese capital Naypyidaw on Saturday, minister Zaw Min said the government is building the dam in the national interest and intends to complete its construction.
“We will finish this project within eight years, and I will answer ‘No’ to the question of the environmental groups who asked, ‘Will the project be stopped?’” Zaw Min was quoted saying by the Irrawaddy online newspaper.
“We hired a third party for the impact assessments and we paid U.S. $1.25 million for this. As we have done well with the impact assessment, I will say that we will never stop the project before finishing,” the minister said.
Green groups say that construction of the dam project, begun in 2010, will cause serious social and environmental problems and directly affect people living both upstream and also far downstream.
An environmental impact assessment, fully funded by the Chinese company and conducted by a team of Burmese and Chinese scientists, said that the dams will threaten the biodiversity of the local ecosystem, as well as impact millions of people who depend on the Irrawaddy River for their livelihoods.
A copy of the report was obtained by Thailand-based Burma Rivers Network, which said the Chinese firm had ignored its own study conducted in 2009. The findings of the environmental assessment were never made public.
Some groups believe the total estimated cost of building all the dams and hydroelectric development projects is about U.S. $20 billion.
Aung San Suu Kyi had warned in an appeal statement last month that fault lines in the vicinity of the dams and the sheer immensity of the reservoir raised the specter of "horrendous devastation in the event of an earthquake."
Another downside to such a project is the "serious problem" from a weakened flow of the waters of the lrrawaddy—the intrusion of salt water into the delta, the 66-year-old Nobel laureate had said.
"This is detrimental to paddy production and thus affects the whole population of the country for whom rice is the staple food," she said. "Moreover rice is one of our major export items, and any decrease in its production could affect foreign exchange earnings."
But Burma's state media had said the project would have no negative effect on the flow of the Irrawaddy, which starts in Kachin state at the confluence of the Maykha and Malikha rivers and follows a steady course to the south, where it disperses into a network of streams and rivulets before finally flowing into the Indian Ocean.
The dam project will create job opportunities for locals and "have no adverse effects whatever on the agriculture, business and social work," a commentary in the Myanmar Alin newspaper said recently.
It said the Myitsone Dam, the largest of the proposed dams, will utilize only 7.6 percent of the Irrawaddy's flowing water
But Win Tin said the dam project's "negative impacts on the country are greater than the benefits.
"It needs to reevaluated, reconsidered....[The government] needs to listen to the people's will. "
Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.