Myanmar’s government is working to find a solution on how to proceed with the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project in Kachin state, suspended in 2011 amid heavy public opposition to its environmental and social impact, according to a government minister.
Thaung Tun, Myanmar’s minister for Investment and Foreign Economic Relations, told reporters at the Invest Myanmar Summit in the capital Naypyidaw on Tuesday that a government project commission is discussing downsizing the U.S. $3.6-billion dam, relocating it, or offering the operator an alternative project.
The minister also tried to justify the resumption of the project, saying that companies have already invested heavily.
He also tried to curtail public contention over the project’s unequal power distribution set forth under a previous agreement that gave China 90 percent of the electricity, by saying that China now produces enough power to exceed its domestic needs, so it would return the electricity to Myanmar.
China has been pushing the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government to allow the project to resume. A commission comprising senior government officials had been set up earlier in the administration to review the dam project and issue a report.
During a visit to Kachin state in late December, Hong Liang, China’s ambassador to Myanmar, told Kachin political leaders that his country is ready to move ahead with the hydropower dam on the Irrawaddy River.
He also said the Myitsone project was needed to generate electricity to implement China’s One Belt, One Road infrastructure initiative in Myanmar, part of President Xi Jinping’s U.S. $1 trillion global infrastructure-spending program.
The Kachin Democratic Party (KDP) cannot accept the dam project whether small or large because the Irrawaddy River is a vital water resource for the entire country, KDP chairman Gum Grawng Awng Hkam told RFA on Wednesday.
Ethnic Kachins do not accept the hydropower project because the river is a vital part of their history and heritage, while people in other parts of Myanmar consider it the property of the entire population, he said.
“As we are Kachin residents, we know very well about rivers and tributaries in Kachin state,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “We know which one is rough and wild, and which one is not. We are not against building dams in Kachin state. What we want is to have talks with local residents on how to do it and how to get a solution that’s acceptable [to both sides]."
Though environmentalists, civil society groups, and Kachin state residents have protested the project, the Ayeyarwady Confluence Basin Hydropower Company Ltd. (ACHC) — the Sino-Myanmar joint venture responsible for the Myitsone Dam — is trying to implement the project by providing support for locals and pressuring officials in various ways, sources said.
Not suitable for dam building
Some who oppose the dam cited the findings of a report issued in November 2018 by Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, and China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), the Chinese state-owned company that committed most of the money to build the Myitsone project, that suggested that the dam not be built in its current location.
“The report mentioned the type of river basin that’s suitable for building dams, and said that Myitsone is a place where a dam should not be built,” said Myanmar environmental expert Thein Maw.
“Although this is just what one report said, the government should pay attention to its suggestions,” he told RFA.
The report also said that if the dam is built on tributaries, there would be less environmental damage, and it would still generate around 11,000 megawatts of power, according to Thein Maw.
“This option would be a win-win situation,” he said.
Myanmar writer Khin Maung Nyo said he is amenable to the idea of building hydropower dams on tributaries, as long as they did not include those of the Irrawaddy, Mali, or N’mai rivers, the latter two of which converge in Kachin state to form the Irrawaddy.
“We have other rivers, such as Duttawaddy, Zaw Gyi, and Paung Laung rivers,” he said. “We can build dams on them.”
“By doing proper surveys, we can decide which river is good to build a dam on as a new project, so that we don’t even need to talk about moving the Myitsone Dam to a different location.”
NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt said the government will weigh the pros and cons of the issue and announce its decisions publicly.
“We will look at the advantages and disadvantages of what we are doing on the Myitsone Dam project with transparency,” he said. “After that, we'll publicize the findings and move forward according to people’s wishes.”
“The entire world has accepted expert views that building smaller dams on tributaries instead of huge ones on main rivers is less harmful to the environment,” he said. “We should make a decision not based on emotions, but based on looking at the interests of the people and the country.”
The 6,000-megawatt dam was put on hold by former Myanmar President Thein Sein amid protests over its enormous flooding area and detrimental environmental impact, as well as anger over the fact that most of its electricity would be exported to China.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who as opposition NLD leader at that time was one of the dam’s most vocal opponents, assured Beijing after the party won the 2015 general elections that Myanmar was willing to come up with an appropriate resolution that would suit both countries.
But the lack of a decision on whether the project can proceed has strained relations between Myanmar and China.
Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.