China plans 13 dams on Salween: Activists fear adverse impact downstream

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Bangkok Post 18 December 2003

By Kultida Samabuddhi and Yuthana Praiwan

More than 80 environmental, human rights and ethnic groups in Thailand and Burma have called on China to consult countries downstream of the Salween river before going ahead with its plan to build 13 large hydro-power dams.

The dams, planned for the upper part of the river in China's Yunnan province, would severely damage the ecosystem and livelihood of people in Thailand and Burma, who depended on the 2,800km-long river for fishing and farming, they said.

The groups handed a protest letter to the Chinese embassy in Bangkok on Tuesday.

The Salween, called Nu Jiang by the Chinese, originates high in the Tibetan mountains. It flows through Yunnan into Burma and forms part of Thailand's northern border with Burma before emptying into the Andaman sea. It is Southeast Asia's second largest river after the Mekong.

"Before making decisions on any dam projects, there should be consensus among the riparian countries on the terms of environmental and social impact assessments,'' the groups said in their protest letter.

"China is going to exploit the Salween, which is the last free-flowing international river in the region, like they already did to the Mekong river,'' said Chainarong Sretthachau, director of the Chiang Mai-based Southeast Asia Rivers Network.

"The downstream Mekong countries, including Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, have already suffered from the impacts of Chinese dams upstream. For example, a 60% decrease in fish stock, river bank erosions and severe water fluctuations.

"Downstream people do not want such damage to be repeated on the Salween river. That's why we are calling on the Chinese government to suspend the project immediately,” he said.

Mr Chainarong said the dams would block fresh supplies of nutrients and fish species, which were vital resources for downstream fishing and for fertilising large areas of cultivated land.

An environmental impact assessment was done only in China despite the fact the dams would affect the environment and livelihood of people in Thailand and Burma, he said.

Mr Chainarong quoted the Yunnan Daily newspaper as reporting that the 13 dams would have a combined capacity of 21,320 megawatts, and that they were expected to be completed in 20 years.

Surapol Pattani, director of the Water Resources Department's policy and planning office, professed no knowledge of the Chinese plan.

However, he said there was nothing the people downstream could do since the dams would be located in Chinese territory.

China, Burma and Thailand have no agreement on the utilisation of this transboundary river, thus allowing each of them free use of the river.

Mr Surapol also believed the dams could be beneficial to both Thailand and Burma “because they would slow down floodwater in the wet season and ease drought in the dry season when the dams release water for electricity generation.''

Thailand and Burma also plan to jointly build hydro-power dams along parts of the Salween river they share.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand has proposed building two dams, with the capacity to generate 4,540 megawatts and 792 megawatts respectively. Their construction would put at least 20,000 rai of prime forest in Thailand's Salween national park under water.