World Rainforest Movement

Burma: Dams in the Irrawaddy River Basin to displace thousands of people in rural areas

In a country already suffering severe economic hardship and repression under its military rulers, thousands of people mainly in rural areas face losing their homes and lands to seven large dam projects planned for the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) River Basin in Northern Burma’s Kachin State.

The dam projects are being built under a joint agreement between the Burma’s military regime and the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI).

The electricity generated from the dams would be sent via China’s Yunnan power network to feed the western region and eastern coastal areas of China. The electricity revenue to the Burmese junta from China is estimated at about US$500 million per year.

The Ayeyarwady or Irrawaddy River – Burma’s largest river (about 1350 miles or 2,170 km long) and its most important commercial waterway, with a drainage area of about 158,700 square miles (411,000 km²) – flows through Burma starting in Kachin state, at the confluence of the Mali Hka and N’Mai Hka rivers. The headwaters of these two rivers originate in the southeastern Himalayas.

After coming together as the Irrawaddy, the river flows south through Burma’s central heartlands and the country’s second largest city of Mandalay, down to the delta – comprising a fertile plain as well as an intricate system of mangroves that is 290 km long and 240 km wide. The Irrawaddy delta supports a population of more than 3 million people and provides nearly 60% of Burma’s rice production.

At the confluence where the Irrawaddy begins, inspection work and dynamiting of the riverbeds is underway for the largest of the 7 dam projects – the Myitsone dam. Located 26 miles north of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, the Myitsone project will generate 3,600 megawatts of electricity.

In addition to the Myitsone on the mainstream of the Irrawaddy River, another six dams are planned on the N’Mai and Mali Rivers north of the confluence, including: 2,000 MW project in Chibwe, 1,600 MW project in Phizaw, 1,700 MW project in Khaunglanphu, and 1,560 MW project in Laiza in Kachin state. Upon completion, the Irrawaddy dam projects would generate about 13,360 MW making it the biggest hydropower venture in Burma, far more than the controversial 7,100 MW Tasang dam in Shan state planned with Thailand.

Work has also started on the Chibwe hydropower project on the N’Mai Hka River near Chibwe town. The villages in Washapa and upper Nyawngmawpa valley near the Chibwe project site are being pressured by the military and the project contractor, Asia World Company, to relocate their homes near the project site. So far villagers have held out from moving – a grim standoff that may not last long under the fierce armed might of the Burmese military.

True to the highly secretive nature of Burma’s military regime, little information is known about these dam projects or their potential impacts on people, livelihoods and ecosystems. No economic assessment or environmental study has been done; the people of Kachin state have no idea of the scale of these project reservoirs and inundation areas.

Eyewitness reports from the area say that currently Chinese engineers and the Asia World Company have begun geological inspection activities at three different places along the N’Mai Hka watercourse between Chibwe and Sawlaw towns; Asia World is also constructing roads using several bulldozers and excavators and has hired local villagers in the construction site. A worker is paid Kyat 5,000 (US$4) per day as the minimum wage.

Meanwhile downstream at the Myitsone project, over 1,000 Asia World construction workers are settled at the project site, according to local villagers near Myitsone, and dynamite explosions occur regularly underneath the riverbed at the project site since the last two months. Soldiers from the Burmese Army’s No. 121 Infantry Battalion are stationed to provide security for the company work camps near Myitsone.

The scale of the displacement from the dams is not fully known, but estimated at more than 10,000 people presently living in the Washapa and Nyawngmawpa valleys situated west of the N’Mai Hka River. At least 47 villages would be fully submerged under the dam waters. Apart from people in Kachin State, another 3 million in the Irrawaddy delta – Burma’s rice bowl – could also feel the impacts of the dams due to changes in seasonal water flows and flood levels in the delta.

The ecological impacts though even less understood promise to be severe as the large-scale dams will inundate huge areas of forests and affect plant and riverine biodiversity. The Irrawaddy River Basin is located between two of the most biodiverse and threatened ecological regions – the Indo-Burma and South Central China regions – which contain at least 1,500 species of vascular plants as endemic species. The confluence of the Mali and N’Mai Rivers falls within the Mizoram-Manipur-Kachin rainforests. Logging is already going on in areas between the Irrawaddy River and Mogaung Town with hardwood species called Tarmalan and teak felled and sent to China.

Endemic bird areas follow the Irrawaddy’s watercourse; there are at least 4 known endemic bird areas in the basin. The central Irrawaddy is an important wintering and staging area for waterfowl from Tibet and other areas north of the Himalayas. Changes to water quality and fish species will impact bird life.

The Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), one of the 4 species of river dolphins in the world and listed as critically endangered species by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), is also under threat by loss of prey from disturbances in fish migration patterns, degraded water quality and changes to river hydrology by the dams.

The Irrawaddy dolphins are found to range around 300 km south of the dam site from Myitkina. Local people venerate the dolphins and fishermen have a cooperative fishing method with them. The dolphins respond to signals from the fishers by swimming in ever-tightening semi-circles to help herd fish schools. But the dolphin’s habitat in the Irrawaddy has already declined nearly 60% in the last century and the best estimate of the current population is just 59 individuals.

By Amraapali N. who is a writer in the Mekong region, email: amraapali@gmail.com

A full version of this article will appear in the upcoming issue of Watershed magazine. More information on the Irrawaddy dams is available from “Damming the Irrawaddy,” published by the Kachin Development Networking Group (available at www.salweenwatch.org).