The invisible costs of the Salween dam project

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Article from The Nation: A special Op-Editorial

Pianporn Deetes is a campaigner for the Living River Siam-Southeast Asia Rivers Network.

The Salween River is set to become a new source of energy for Thailand.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), has been touting at least five dam projects on the Salween River inside Burma and along the Thailand-Burma border as potentially enormous sources of “cheap” energy. Still, there are unseen costs behind the electricity that have not been fully taken into account by those promoting the dam projects. Environmentally, the cost of the dams is far too great. The Salween is the last longest free-flowing international river in Southeast Asia. Pristine forests along the border are home to rare and endangered animals and plants species. The denudation of forests following logging once the dams are in place, infrastructure development and inundation from reservoirs would destroy enormous tracts of invaluable natural resources.

More importantly, an extensive impact on human beings would be inevitable. No one knows exactly how many people will be affected, however Salween Watch says the conservative estimate is that at least 83,000 people will be uprooted from their homeland in the Shan, Karenni, and Karen states in Burma, and Mae Hong Son province in Thailand.

Over the past five decades, Burma’s Salween River basin has been plagued by successive civil wars. In recent years, an increase in militarisation by the Burmese army in future reservoir areas in the three states has been reported by various sources. This has brought about human rights violations systematically waged by the Burmese army against the ethnic minorities including forced labour, forced relocation, torture, rape and massacre.

“The dam is death for us,” said a Karen internally-displaced person (IDP) sitting in the jungle under a makeshift bamboo shelter after the Burmese army attacked her village. For vulnerable IDPs, the Salween forests are the last hiding places available to them, serving as temporary refuge while they anxiously wait to go back home once the Burmese army retreats. However, there will be no place to hide if the jungle, their only safe place, is submerged.

Do not be mistaken – this is not just an internal affair for Burma. Social injustices are trans-boundary in nature and they would be exacerbated by Thai investment in these mega-dam projects.

If the dams are built, Thailand will not be able to avoid the inevitable influx of new ethnic Burmese refugees from the dam-affected areas. At present, Thailand already hosts at least 140,000 refugees registered in temporary shelters along the border, plus more than 1 million migrant workers from Burma.

Many of these people will become permanent refugees when their homeland is forever flooded by the reservoirs and is then guarded by army garrisons.

All planning and decision-making has been conducted discreetly. The deals have been brokered with no public participation or transparency. Egat has refused to disclose the agreements it has made with the Burmese junta claiming it is under obligation to keep them confidential. This is not to mention ordinary villagers who will be directly affected by the dams – they have not been kept informed by the state.

Thai Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand’s claim to the effect that the dams are still far away contrasts with the reality on the ground. Preparatory work at dam sites in Burma’s Karen and Shan states has been ongoing and has never once ceased. Chulalongkorn University’s Environmental Research Institute was commissioned by Egat to conduct an environmental impact assessment in Burma in November of last year (the very same month that Piyasavati claimed the dam plan would not be reassessed by his government).

Dam builders do not want to accept that the dam sites are situated in a war zone. This is despite the fact that an Egat staff member died last year after stepping on a landmine near the Hut Gyi Dam site, the first in a series of dams to be built in Karen state. Teams of experts are still risking their lives conducting studies in the area accompanied by armed Burmese military escorts.

Even though state authorities from the two countries have shown no concern for marginalised ethnic villagers, those living along the Salween cannot just sit back waiting for their final destiny. Today, representatives from dam-affected villages both in Thailand and Burma, together with activists in 14 major cities around the world, will concurrently demonstrate to demand the cancellation of the controversial dam project.

If all of the social and environmental costs of the Salween dams were fully considered, we would never think of making this absurd investment. We have many other alternatives to cope with rising energy demands. Demand-side management, renewable energy sources and a decentralised system, are just a few of many options that should be pursued.

If Thais realise that our future “cheap electricity” will be generated at the expense of sacred land, lives and the blood of our brothers and sisters across the Salween River in Burma, I strongly believe most of us would not support this dangerous plan.