Damming Salween needs proper study first

Key Issues: 

Bangkok Post 14 March 2008

By Zao Noam

In honour of International Day of Action for Rivers today, it is worthy to highlight Southeast Asia's longest undammed river - the Salween-Nu River - which flows from Yunnan in China down through Burma, forming part of the Thai-Burma border. China's Nu River (Nujiang) has received extensive media attention due to the fact that - despite Beijing's official postponement of the Nujiang dams after domestic and international pressure - construction of the first dam (Liuku) has commenced with the apparent backing of the Yunnan provincial authorities.

Although an official environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the Nujiang dam cascade exists, it has never been publicly released as required by Chinese law, due to "national security" concerns. However, an EIA has yet to be done on the downstream, transboundary impact on the Salween, thus rendering the Nujiang dams' EIA incomplete and unsatisfactory. Downstream, the Salween River has five dams already planned, all of which involve planning, financing, and/or construction by a handful of international actors, prominently Chinese companies. Purposely absent, interestingly, are the conservation organisations, institutional bodies and watchdogs that dominate the playing field of Salween's neighbour, the Mekong.

Hut Gyi dam in Karen State is the only dam planned on the Salween to have had an EIA done.

This renowned international river would be wholly impacted whether dams are built upstream and/or downstream. Therefore, an EIA for any dam - including a cumulative one for the series of dams slated for both parts of the river - should consider upstream and downstream impact, including ecological, social, economic and human rights assessment studies.

For example, fish migration between the upper and lower Salween-Nu River would be decimated if dams are built anywhere between their migration routes. Furthermore, the Salween-Nu River downstream estuary in Mon State, Burma would be impacted by encroaching salinity upstream and disrupted seasonal water flows. Not only environmental concerns, but also human rights must be highlighted as the Salween dams are located within Burma's war zone, with reports of forced labour and relocation, new military offensives, and laying landmines in preparation for the dams.

Earlier this month the head of the Yunnan Communist Party, Bai Enpei, announced for the first time that the Burmese regime will need to be consulted in order to get Beijing to sign off on the Nujiang dams, effectively recognising the transboundary nature of the river and the potential downstream impact if the dams are built.

This consultation, however, should be expanded to include downstream villages, the Thai government (as Thailand shares the border with Burma along the Salween), and Thai and Burmese NGOs working on these issues.

In addition, there should at the very least be a cumulative EIA study for the Salween dams, and studies that also consider impact along the whole stretch of the Salween-Nu River, not just confined to the Nu in Yunnan or the Salween in Burma. The river should be cooperatively managed by all stakeholders to ensure its ecological health and cultural vibrancy.

However, an EIA - even when social costs are included - should not merely act as an inconvenience for developers, but rather as a legal mechanism to ensure public participation in decision-making, mitigation efforts, and to achieve best international practice.

The Chinese central government should regulate Chinese companies operating abroad, much like they do for domestic business. Last year, guidelines were set forth for Chinese logging companies working outside China, although they are not legally binding.

These positive first steps should have more bite, as well as be expanded to include other sectors, such as for hydropower development.

As Mekong River development remains exposed under a regional spotlight, the Salween-Nu remains obscured in the mist.

Zao Noam is a political ecologist, activist and writer based in the region for 10 years.