Salween dam project 'likely to go ahead without study'

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Bangkok Post 4 September 2006

The controversial Salween hydropower dam project is likely to go ahead without a social and environmental impact study to avoid interfering in Burma's internal affairs, a senior official of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) said yesterday. Thailand and Burma plan to build five hydroelectricity dams on the Salween river, which forms part of the Thai-Burmese border.

The 1,000-megawatt Hutgyi dam, opposite Mae Hong Son, would be the first one to be built. Under the memorandum of understanding signed between Burma's Hydroelectric Power Department and Egat last year, construction of the dam is due to start in November next year.

Egat recently signed a deal to co-develop the dam with a Chinese firm which had been studying the project's feasibility and inspecting fault lines along the proposed dam site, said the official. However, the social and environmental impact of the dam on the Burmese side would not be included in the study because they were considered Burma's internal affairs, he said.

''There should be measures to cushion the possible negative impact, but we are not in a position to tackle these problems,'' the official said on the sidelines of a recent seminar on the development of energy projects in neighbouring countries.

Egat has repeatedly claimed that Thailand would soon be dependent on electricity supplies from neighbouring countries, including Burma, to meet rising electricity demand in the country.

However, human rights advocates, environmental conservationists and ethnic minority groups have called on Egat and the government to carefully consider the dams' adverse impact on local communities and the ecological system of the Salween river, which is the last free-flowing international river in Southeast Asia.

Charm Tong, a representative of Burma's minority groups, has asked the Thai government to review the project, which could lead to forced relocation of a number of ethnic people living along the banks of the Salween river.

Under the current political situation in Burma, it was impossible for minority groups to voice concern about the dam construction, she told the seminar.

Nipon Pienpucta, vice-president of Egat's hydropower engineering division which is overseeing the project, vowed to also take into account the adverse impact of the dam projects on the Burmese side.

A team of engineers and environmental experts from some leading academic institutes which had volunteered to assess the social and environmental impact from the Hutgyi dam, had to halt work after an Egat staff member was killed by a landmine at the project site in May.

Last week Piyasvasti Amranand, chairman of the Energy for the Environment Foundation, urged the government to also take into consideration human rights issues before implementing projects in neighbouring countries.

The government might be sued by human rights groups if the projects are seen as violating human rights in Burma, he said.

''It's time to reconsider if the country should adhere to the no-interference policy when it comes to such sensitive matters because whatever bad happens on their soil will become our responsibility,'' said Mr Piyasvasti.