Myanmar, the birthplace of two major southeast Asian civilizations, is a land of contrasts. It inhabits a particularly resource-rich corner of the Asian continent, and yet due to decades of war, dictatorship and civil unrest, it has become one of the poorest, most undeveloped nations in the world. Its lush landscape is filled to bursting with valuable deposits of copper, tungsten, tin, petroleum, natural gas and precious stones as well as vast hardwood stands and saltwater fisheries. At the same time, it lacks basic infrastructure such as paved highways; its train system hasn’t been updated since the late 19th century.
Not unsurprisingly, Myanmar also has a very poor record of environmental protection, and the controversial $3.6 billion Myitsone Hydroelectric Project on the Irrawaddy River highlights its weak-to-nonexistent regulatory system.
Led by the Ministry of Electric Power in conjunction with China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), this massive dam would create a reservoir the size of Manhattan on top of a major fault line, fundamentally altering the flow of the nation’s main waterway and impacting millions of rice farmers downstream. Additionally, the dam would lead to the displacement of thousands of local villagers and drown at least one site of major cultural significance.
In 2009, when the Myitsone project was already moving forward, CPI belatedly contracted with a Burmese non-governmental organization (NGO) to conduct an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). The report’s findings were not pretty. Describing the dam’s massive environmental, social and economic impacts, including deforestation, erosion, cultural resource eradication, ethnic minority displacement, large-scale floodingx and major seismic risks, the EIA strongly recommended choosing an alternative site or scrapping the project altogether.
“If the Myanmar and Chinese sides were really concerned about environmental issues and aimed at sustainable development of the country, there is no need for such a big dam to be constructed at the confluence of the Irrawaddy River,” the report notes. “Instead two smaller dams could be built above Myitsone to produce nearly the same amount of electricity.”
The Myanmar government was not pleased. Ignoring the EIA’s recommendations, it allegedly forced researchers into silence. The report was concealed from the public for two years, until it was leaked by Chinese environmentalists this summer.
Opposition to this project has been growing, and now, some people can smell progress in the wind. In early September, a major environmental conservation bill, initially developed by the United Nations in 1998 and then shelved for unknown reasons, underwent tremendous overhaul and was approved by the several key legislative players. Last week, U Win Tun, the Minister for Environmental Conservation and Forestry, called the law “within arm’s reach.”
U Win Tun also commented on the Myitsone dam and pledged to reassess the original EIA. However, it remains to be seen both whether he will follow these words with action and just how this new environmental law would impact the project.
Everyone agrees that it is important for impoverished nations to find viable sources of clean energy to encourage economic growth. However, the Myitsone project contains an unacceptable level of risk, deeply impacting Myanmar’s environmental resources and its most vulnerable populations.
Take action, Care2 members. Sign this petition to urge Electric Power Minister Zaw Min to learn from the tragic mistakes of other industrialized nations, to continue to implement stricter environmental policies, and to stop this project. Progress at the expense of irreplaceable ecological resources is not progress at all.