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River Irrawaddy becomes political factor of Burma

It was notable, the Chairman of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), Lanyaw Zawng Hra sent an official letter dated May 16 to Hu Jintao, the President of the People’s Republic of China urging China to stop the controversial Myitsone dam construction on Irrawaddy River in Kachin State, Northern Burma, Kachin News Group (KNG) said on 23 May, 2011.

In the open letter the KIO warned Myitsone and six other hydroelectric power plant projects could lead to civil war between the KIA, the armed wing of the KIO, and the Burmese Army because Burmese troops have been deployed to the KIO control areas to provide security for the dam-construction projects.

According to Kachin News Group, numerous complaint letters concerning construction of the Myitsone dam have been sent to the Burmese and Chinese governments by local people, the Kachin National Consultative Assembly (KNCA) and the KIO. However, no action has been taken to tackle the worries expressed by the Kachin community.

KIO’s official letter to Hu Jintao says, “Except the Dam Project in Mali-N’mai Confluence (Myitsone dam), we have no objections against the other six Hydro Power Plant Projects. However, we have also informed the Asia World Co Ltd to make a decision only after assessing the consequences of the Dam Construction”.

The Kachin Development and Networking Group (KDNG) has warned publicly that the Myitsone dam construction is going to displace 15,000 neighboring Kachin natives and millions of people living downstream of the dam construction location because of inundation.

According to the environmentalist group, thousands of people have been forced to move from their home villages near the 6,000-megawatt dam construction project site.  The displaced villagers have to struggle finding new livelihoods, adequate healthcare services and education for their children at new villages, the watchdog group said.

In the past, Kachin people had made an official plea to the former junta’s boss Senior-General Than Shwe to stop the project due to environmental damage. But he always turned a deaf ear to the call. The junta boss regularly obeys the rules of the Chinese authorities over the dam projects.

Construction at Myitsone began December 21, 2009, led by China’s state owned China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) in cooperation with Burma’s Asia World Company (AWC) and the Burmese government’s No. 1 Ministry of Electric Power. Remarkably, AWC owner is former drug lord Lo Hsing Han.  As a result, the KIO warned CPI employees not to enter its area in the dam construction sites north of the Mali-N’mai Rivers. The reason was that KIO has stopped cooperating with the Burmese government when the government discontinued the 1994 truce on September 1, 2010.

Environmental activists and researchers say the project will force Kachin villagers to abandon their homes and could face inundation an area the size of Singapore, all caused by the government’s eagerness to satisfy China as it needs more power for its growing industrial zones.

According to Burma River Network, the Irrawaddy River provides vital nutrients to wetlands and floodplain areas downstream including the delta region which provides nearly 60% of Burma’s rice. Changes to the river’s flow and the blocking of crucial sediments will affect millions farmers throughout Burma and decrease rice production.

The watchdog network also pointed out that the dams will forever change Burma’s main river ecosystem and an important Asian river. Eighty-four percent of the Irrawaddy River’s water originates above the dam sites and will be affected by these dams. The network said that the dam is located 100 kilometers from a major fault line in an earthquake-prone area; if the dam breaks, it will flood Kachin State’s capital city of 150,000 that lies just 40 kilometers downstream of the dam.

In a statement issued on 11 August (Thursday), Burma’s Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said the dam endangers the flow of the Irrawaddy River, which she described as “the most significant geographical feature of the country.” She warned that 12,000 people from 63 villages have been relocated, although an article in the government-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper Wednesday reported that 2,146 people had been ordered to leave their homes and relocated.

Suu Kyi has been calling on promoters of the Myitsone dam project to reassess the plan, pointing out concerns that dams on the Irrawaddy River damage the environment, decrease rice production, dislodge ethnic peoples. Besides, it would hurt livelihoods of local communities and there is a risk of possible destructive earthquakes.

“We believe that, taking into account the interests of both countries, both governments would hope to avoid consequences which might jeopardize lives and homes,” Suu Kyi emphasized. “To safeguard the Irrawaddy is to save from harm our economy and our environment, as well as to protect our cultural heritage,” she added.

One can find an environmental impact assessment on Thailand-based Burma Rivers Network web-site which was conducted by a team of Burmese and Chinese scientists.  The 945-page “environmental impact assessment,” fully funded by China’s CPI Corporation and conducted by a team of Burmese and Chinese scientists, recommends that the Irrawaddy Myitsone Dam not proceed. “There is no need for such a big dam to be constructed at the confluence of the Irrawaddy River” says the assessment.

Building of dams has become also a rising political issue in China’s relations with countries in Southeast Asia, a region increasingly dependent on the watercourse of rivers may perhaps reduce their capacity to irrigate paddy fields.

The Burmese government state media has continued saying that the Myitsone dam project will not produce negative impact on the watercourse of the Irrawaddy or on the livelihoods of the native inhabitants.

But, local ethnic populace has been displaced from their homes to make way for dams and reservoirs. Nevertheless, construction companies close to the authorities benefit from those dams. They receive millions of dollars for designing and building dams. The government officials also gain black earnings in many ways – illegal taxes, kickbacks and inducement – during building of a dam.

Anyhow, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s most distinguished opposition figure, may heighten international reaction of the Myitsone dam project which seriously disapprove by environmental and human rights groups. The dam projects are, however, creating widespread political criticism countrywide for national interest.

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Comment by Francis Bagambilana on August 24, 2011 at 13:59

I wish the project could create a win-win situation for its stakeholders!

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