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Despite protest, minister vows govt will continue dam project

 

We’ll never back down on dam, minister warns activists

By Ei Ei Toe Lwin and Aye Thidar Kyaw
September 19 - 25, 2011

Boats rest at anchor in shallow water at the confluence of the Malikha and Maikha rivers, the site of a controversial dam project about 27 miles (43 kilometres) north of Myitkyina in Kachin State. In comments that have angered environmentalists, Minister for Electric Power 1 U Zaw Min said last week the proposed Myitsone Dam would be built regardless of concerns over its impact on the Ayeyarwady River.
Pic: Becky Palmstrom

THE emotional debate over hydropower projects on the Ayeyarwady River shows no signs of abating, with the Minister for Electric Power 1 declaring last week that the government would “never give up” on the project.

A strong opposition movement has arisen in response to the project, particularly a dam at the confluence of the Maykha and Malikha rivers in Kachin State.

However, Union Minister U Zaw Min said the government had no intention of caving in to pressure from activists.

“Some media say we will retreat because environmental organisations are protesting but we won’t give up on it, this project is needed for our national economy to get electric power,” he said at a press conference on September 11.

“Some organisations are trying to sidetrack the project with environmental reasons but it is so clear they are just trying to block our country’s economy.

We don’t need to listen to the comments of those groups; we just do our job for the 50 million people of Myanmar.” The ministry signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China Power Investment Corporation on December 28, 2006. Under the project, the Chinese company will build seven dams on the upper reaches of the Ayeyarwady collectively capable of generating more than 13,000MW.

The largest – and most controversial – of the dams will be at the confluence of the Maykha and Malikha rivers, in the area known as Myitsone. U Zaw Min said that Myanmar would get 10 percent of electricity generated free of charge and would own 15pc of the project without investing anything.

He said the government would also charge withholding tax on the project, which was on track to be completed in eight years. “Some media say these [projects] are only profiting China. But this is the only way we can implement these projects because our country does not have the money.

If we had the money, we would do it ourselves,” he said. He said the government had paid local non-government organisation Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA) US$1.25 million to conduct an environmental assessment. While conceding that the assessment found the dam would have some negative impact on the environment and local residents, he said the “huge” benefits of the project outweighed these issues.

“We need to think which is bigger, the damage to the environment or benefits to our country. We are doing this project because the benefits are bigger than the anticipated damage to the environment,” he said. He said the dam would consume about 7pc of the river’s water supply, while 93pc would continue to flow normally.

He also revealed that he had written an article published in state media in August titled “We also love the Ayeyarwady” and said he would speak further about the project on September 17.

“This [Ayeyarwady] river is beginning to get degraded because nobody has maintained it, the river is not flowing steadily. Nobody maintained it because there is a lack of wealth, power and interest in the river,” U Zaw Min said.

“We shouldn’t say this river will die. Instead, we should just say how we will maintain it.” Both the substance and the tone of U Zaw Min’s comments incensed environmental activists, who again called on the government to reconsider the project.

“The Maykha-Malikha confluence is the birthplace of the Ayeyarwady. This place is like our mother: a mother takes care of us and feeds us and the Ayeyarwady supports the livelihoods of many people from its upper reaches to the lower delta. To me it feels like if they go ahead with this project, they are destroying our mother.

Even if they pass an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), they should not implement the project,” said Daw Daewi Thant Sin, an environmental activist and chief editor of monthly magazine Aung Pin Lae.

“The new government has so far accepted all the things that were [initiated] by the former government, regardless of whether they were good or bad … but it needs to think thoroughly whether this project is good or bad. The previous government was a military government, so it was not unusual that they never announced what they were doing.

But our country is changing to a parliamentary democracy, and the government should listen to the voice of the public.” “I am very disappointed at these comments from such a high-ranking official. It is very unexpected … the way he talked, it looked like a dictatorship. He is just continuing to do whatever he wants in spite of the widespread public criticism,” said photographer Ko Myint Zaw, who earlier this year held an exhibition titled “Watershed of Ayeyarwady”. “I think this project could damage the watershed of the Maykha and Malikha rivers, which are the sources of the Ayeyarwady River. We need to conserve the watershed so the river doesn’t disappear.

I think upper-level officials already know this.” Previously an environmental issue, the dam project has takne on a political dimension that some believe could tarnish the image of the new government. “This project should be postponed,” said U Khin Maung Swe, co-founder of the National Democratic Force.

“Even if we urgently have to implement this project to meet our electricity needs … the government should discontinue it and find another more suitable site somewhere else.” “Many people are worried about the environmental consequences, which could potentially affect a large proportion of the population. Experts say salt water could intrude more and more into the Ayeyarwady delta and more sandbanks will form [as a result of the project]. “If this occurs, it will have a negative impact on the agricultural sector and that would certainly not be in the national interest.”