Sinohydro, the Chinese state-owned contractor for Myanmar’s suspended (for now) Myitsone dam project near the headwaters of the Irrawaddy river and China’s leading dam builder, faces a new environmental and reputational challenge now the government in Naypyidaw has approved construction of the controversial Hatgyi dam on the Salween river.
The isolated Salween is one of the world’s longest free-flowing rivers. It rises on the Tibetan plateau and courses through the canyons and gorges formed when the plates of the Indian subcontinent and Asian mainland met. For much of its 2,800 kilometers, the river flows through Yunnan, where it is called the Nu Jiang. Then it cuts through the eastern edge of Myanmar and marks 120 kilometers of the border with northwestern Thailand, a portion of which is shown in the photo above, before turning back into Myanmar to reach the Andaman Sea at the old teak trading port of Mawlamyaing.
En route, it flows through the watershed known as the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan, a UNESCO world heritage site. The river is so environmentally sensitive and biodiverse that local protests forced Beijing in 2004 to cut plans to build 13 hydroelectric dams along its own stretch of the river to four, and then in 2009 to suspended even those pending a still uncompleted environmental review. One of the proposed dams would have been bigger than the Three Gorges dam.
The $1 billion 1,200 MW Hatgyi dam is one of at least five hydropower plants planned for the Myanmar leg of the Salween by a partnership of the Myanmar and Thailand state electric utilities (see map, right, from the environmental group, Salween Watch). Hatgyi’s go-ahead follows the signing of a peace deal between Naypyidaw and ethnic Karen rebels. Sinohydro, which was given the contract to build the dam in 2006 before fighting stopped construction starting, has reportedly been stockpiling equipment and material at the site since mid-April in preparation for a resumption.
Environmental groups are gearing up again to block construction, saying it will destroy traditional village life along the ecologically fragile river, forcibly uprooting local populations and flooding farmland. Periodic local protests against the project have been staged since 2004, the most recent in March.
Sinohydro is also the contractor for another proposed dam on the river that could now go ahead following a peace agreement between Naypyidaw and a different group of ethnic rebels, in this case the Shan. The $6 billion 7,100 MW Tasang dam is planned to be the one of the highest in southeast Asia, taller than the Three Gorges. China’s state-owned Three Gorges Corp., which built and runs the Three Gorges dam, is a sub-contractor to the Tasang dam project. Some 60,000 villagers will have to be relocated to build it. Sinohydro has reportedly started surveying work there. As with Hatgyi, most of the power generated will be sold to Thailand and China.
The Tasang, Hatgyi and Myitsone dams are just three of 56 hydrodam projects in Myanmar proposed, under construction or completed that Chinese companies are involved in, according to a count by International Rivers, a riverine NGO. Sinohydro is involved in at least 17 of them, equivalent to one in eight of all its 132 current dam projects outside China. The international expansion of its business is leading the company to be more environmentally and socially responsive than it was in the past. The extent to which it will need to be in Myanmar may most depend on how rapidly the government in Naypyidaw wants to push ahead with opening the country to rapid development, and how well the economic rationale for projects originally intended to provide export earnings to fund a military dictatorship that has now stepped back from power hold up.