The human cost of damming in Burma

Key Issues: 

Bangkok Post 12 September 2007

By PIANPORN DEETES

All five hydropower development projects on the Salween River are located in highly volatile areas where battles between the Burmese troops and ethnic forces have continued for nearly six decades

The blast at the Hutgyi dam construction workers‘ camp in Burma‘s Karen State on Sept 2, killed one Thai worker and prompted an evacuation of the other 42 workers to Thailand. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand‘s (Egat) staff were there as part of the survey team for the construction of the first dam on the Salween River, the only remaining free-flowing river in Southeast Asia. However, this was not the first fatal incident related to the Hutgyi hydropower development project.

Last year, in the same area, another low-ranking officer from Egat stepped on a landmine, lost his leg and later died of injuries. It was the first time Thai dam construction had resulted in death.

The dreadful outcome is a result of Egat‘s choice to build a dam in a war zone, ignoring pleas from civil society organisations both in and outside the country.

All five hydropower development projects on the Salween River in the recently approved 2007 Power Development Plan, including the Hutgyi dam, are located in highly volatile areas where civil war between the Burmese government‘s troops and ethnic forces have continued for nearly six decades.

Egat has evidently never taken the costs of this risk into account.

Like all other dam projects they have undertaken in Thailand, Egat at best only considers the human impact related to flooding. The recent bomb incident, however, proves that flood analysis alone is insufficient.

In a war-ravaged country like Burma, such a large-scale development project does not entail just the costs of resettlement, but also the lives of the investor‘s workers.

Besides, it is vital to consider the massive displacement of local ethnic people living around the project site who must choose to flee due to increased military presence or risk being killed, maimed, raped or enslaved.

During and after the dam construction, military forces and landmines must be deployed to provide protection to the power plant and electric grid.

As an example, at the Lawpita power plant built in the Karenni State 40 years ago, thousands of landmines planted around the power plant and the power line have cost many lives, and are still injuring local people.

Some landmine victims, far from receiving compensation from the Burmese authorities, have even been forced to pay for the mines as damage to state property.

Due to large-scale development projects like these dams, massive forced relocation in Burma has increased, particularly of the ethnic populations. Many of these people choose to flee to Thailand, causing a higher burden on the country‘s health, social and economic sectors.

We must ask: What is the logic behind placing our country‘s energy security in a politically sensitive and high-risk country like Burma?

Judging from the recent explosion at the workers‘ camp, there can be no guarantee that the power plant itself will be safe, if it is ever completed. The plant is situated in an active war zone, so Egat and the Thai government are gambling with national energy security by choosing such an unsuitable location for a major power facility.

Of gravest concern is that Egat officials have stated that they would not continue with this project until the workers‘ safety can be assured. This demand for increased security will translate into a presence of even more military forces in the area, and consequently, more intensive suppression of ethnic and local communities.The Salween dams are being used by the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) as another weapon in their war against local populations. And knowingly or not, Egat and the Thai people will be liable for supporting these dam projects on the Salween River, which is contributing to an environmental and social disaster.

Logically, in light of the recent developments and repeated calls by civil society organisations, Egat should scrap all energy projects in Burma and stop betting Thailand‘s energy security on inappropriate projects in war-torn and unstable Burma. In the short term, this will help save the lives of Egat‘s staff. In the long term it will pre-empt incalculable trans-boundary environmental and human impact.

The writer is with Salween Watch, a coalition of civil society organisations from Burma and Thailand that advocates the protection of the ecosystem and rights of locals in the Salween River Basin.