Salween dam project never sleep: Signs of a revival

The Salween’s standing as “one of the few remaining free-flowing international rivers” is being challenged once again. Many factors suggest that dam projects along the river are being considered anew. Signals come from the Myanmar government, investors, and Thai politicians. If projects move forward, related human rights violations are likely to emerge once again.

Salween River, a transportation route for villagers on both sides of the river
(Photo: Aphichet Sukkaew –Thai Society of Environmental Journalists)

“Salween Dams” refers to hydropower projects planned along the the Salween River.  In China, 13 dams are being built.  Along the lower Salween that flows through Myanmar to the Thai border, another seven dams are at different stages of development.

All have been temporarily put on hold due to opposition from  local residents and fighting between the Myanmar military and armed forces in the area.

According to the Salween Watch group, the Salween River is 2,800 kilometres long. It originates in the Himalayas on the Tibetan plateau and flows through southern China. Entering Myanmar, it cuts across the Shan and Karenni States to flow along the border of the Kayin State and Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province. It then turns back to Myanmar, flowing through the Mon state to enter the Andaman Sea at the Gulf of Martaban.

The reach of the Salween River which serves as the border between Thailand and Myanmar is still used as a principal transport route for villagers on both banks. A significant amount of trade occurs at temporary border posts. Moreover, people rely on the river for fish, riverbank gardens, and for cross-border flights to safety from ongoing conflicts in Myanmar.

Villagers from both banks transport goods in boats at the Baan Mae Sam Laeb Temporary Trade Border Post
(Photo: Aphichet Sukkaew –Thai Society of Environmental Journalists)

The 7 dam projects being developed on the lower Salween include:

  1. the Hatgyi hydropower plant, which will have a capacity of 1,360 megawatts and is located only 47 kilometres away from the Thai border. It is a joint venture of: the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT); the Ministry of Electric Power (Myanmar); Sinohydro, a Chinese firm; and International Group of Entrepreneurs Co, a consortium of Burmese companies.
    Currently, Hatgyi dam is on hold.  An environmental impact assessment was completed but the project still faces strong opposition from affected communities and the construction site is in a conflict area. In 2006 - 2007, engineers and staff sent from EGAT to survey the area returned home after some were killed by land mines and shot by anonymous armed groups.
  2. Dakwin Dam (Da-kwin) will have a capacity of 729 megawatts. A project pushed by EGAT, it is still being researched. The proposed site is situated on the Salween river around Baan Tha Ta Fang, Mae Sariang district, Mae Hong Son province.
  3. Wei Gyi dam, with a planned capacity of 4,540 megawatts, is yet another collaboration between EGAT (acting for the Thai government) and the Myanmar junta. Planning of a large-sized dam began in 2004 and if constructed, the area above the dam will be flooded up to Pai river, Mueung district, Mae Hong Son province.
  4. Ywathit dam, located around 45 kilometres away from the Thai border. Citing the Ta Tang Company from China, Salween Watch reports that the dam will have a capacity of 4,500 megawatts. It also mentioned that when the site survey was conducted, a teak concession area was opened and the Myanmar military stepped in to suppress local opposition and prevent environmental research and reporting.
  5. Mong Ton dam, also known as Ta Sang dam, some 40 kilometres away from the Thai border at Baan Arunothai, Chiangdao district, Chiang Mai province. The plant, which will have a capacity of 7,110 megawatts, is a joint venture between EGAT International and a consortium of Chinese and Burmese companies, some of which are also involved in the Hatgyi dam.
  6. Nong Pa/Nawngpa dam, which has a planned capacity of 1,200 megawatts. Located in the north of Shan State, it will sell 90% of the electricity it generates to China. Interestingly, Xi Jin Ping, while still Vice President, signed the agreement himself when he visited Myanmar in 2010. The project is a joint venture between the Ministry of Electric Power (Myanmar) and private Myanmar companies. The feasibility study was carried out by the Chinese company, Hydro China.
  7. Kunlong dam, with a planned capacity of 14,000 watts. It is located in Kunlong district, in the north of Shan State, close to the Chinese border. The project was being quietly implemented by Asia World (water resources) and Hanenergy Holding Group but came to a halt in 2015 as a result of a regional conflict.  As a result of fighting between the Myanmar military and the Kokang army, some 10,000 civilians fled to China for safety.

Map of dam sites on the Salween River
Source:
salween.info

The likelihood of revival

1. The Yuam River Diversion Tunnel 

Officially known as the Bhumibol Reservoir Inflow Augmentation Project, the Yuam River Diversion Tunnel, was initiated by a commission to study holistic water management under the House of Representatives, and the Royal Irrigation Department, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. As of today, the project has entered the cabinet for discussion.

The project includes a 69-metre high dam to create a 2,075 square rai reservoir on the Yuam River in Sob Moei district, Mae Hong Son province.  It will also have a pumping station and related structures, a 61-kilometre concrete tunnel that cuts through forest reserves in 3 provinces (Mae Hong Son, Chiangmai, and Tak), 6 debris dumping mounds, and a tunnel shaft at Baan Mae Ngood, Na Kor Ruea sub-district, Hod district, Chiangmai province. The cost of construction may run as high as a hundred thousand million baht.

A parallel project, the 230 Kilowatt Power Grid Lamphun 3 - Sob Moei, is being planned by EGAT to transfer 230 kilowatts of high voltage electricity in 2 circuits from Lamphun 3 High Voltage sub-station, in Lamphun Mueaung district, Lamphun province to Mae Suat sub-district, Sob Moei district, Mae Hong Son province. This will provide 400 megawatts of electricity for the large-scale water pumps at the diversion tunnel. The 40 metre wide power lines will cut across 147 kilometres of farmland and forests. 

That the diversion tunnel is linked to Salween dam construction was recently confirmed by Weerakorn Kamprakorb, a Nakorn Sawan parliamentarian and deputy chair of the commission to study holistic water management, who has long been a staunch advocate of the dams.

A Transborder News report of 4 March 2020 quoted him as saying that a Chinese company had offered to finance the entire cost of the tunnel in exchange for permission to finance and build 3 dams on the lower Salween. He reportedly informed the Prime Minister of the fact, adding that the harvested energy would be sold to the Thai Burmese governments

On 11 September 2021, at a conference organised by the Thai Society of Environmental Journalists entitled “Megaproject —Yuam River diversion to Bhumibol Dam: is it worth it for the Country?” Weerakorn explicitly stated that the diversion tunnel was part of a broader plan to pump water from the Salween to fill the Yuam River reservoir:  

“The first phase … is to pump and diverge 1,795 million cubic metres of water per year from the Yuam. The second phase will be to fill up [the newly created reservoir in the Yuam] with water from Salween. The river has a flow of around 130,000 million cubic meters per year. Its current is strong, even in the drought season. You can dip a bamboo into the river, and it will never reach the bottom. Your bamboo would probably break first too since the currents are very strong, because the water comes from melted ice on the Tibetan plateau. We won’t have to worry about using Yuam water to push keep salt water incursion from Salween … it does not need water from the Yuam, it already has enough” Weerakorn said.

2. EGAT’s plan to buy electricity from neighbouring countries

Thailand’s Power Development Plan 2015 - 2036 was created by the Ministry of Energy and EGAT to plan for the country’s energy production and procurement.

It was approved by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) on 6 May 2015. It was also approved by the Energy Policy and Planning Office (EPPO) and sent to parliament the same year.

Electricity sources discussed in the plan include domestic dams, reservoirs, biogas, and renewable energy. The plan also mentions procuring electricity from various hydropower plants in Laos PDR, and from the Hongsa coal-fired power station in Myanmar. All of Thailand’s external suppliers are explicitly named in detail.

However, for the last 10 years of the plan - from 2026 to 2036 - it states that Thailand will buy 700 megawatts of electricity each year from unidentified hydropower plants abroad, giving rise to speculation that the plants might be EGAT’s proposed joint ventures along the Salween.

PDP 2015 states that in 2026 Thailand will buy an additional 700 megawatts of electricity from unidentified overseas sources

Source: PDP2015

3. Myanmar military leaders support for the Salween dams

Another indicator comes from Myanmar news reports citing Senior General Min Aung Laing, leader of the military’s 2021 coup and the current head of the military government.

According to Transborder, on 2 June 2021 the New Light of Myanmar reported that Min Aung Laing was preparing to restart the Hatgyi hydropower project. The Senior General was said to have traveled to Hpa-An, capital of Kayin state, to meet with the Kayin Administration Council and discuss with its chairman U Saw Myint Oo various development plans in the area. These included electricity production and the Kayin state’s potential for hydropower production. 

Another report was published on 2 October 2021 on salween.info, a Burmese news website which was formed after the coup by Burmese journalists and the Burma Associated Press. It noted that the Myanmar coup leader had pledged to use the Salween river and coal to generate electricity. During a visit to Taunggyi, capital of the Shan State, Min Aung Laing reportedly reiterated that Myanmar, and the Shan state in particular, had great potential for generating electricity from hydropower and coal.

Pongpipat Meebenchamart, Chief Executive of Mae Sam Laeb Subdisctrict Administrative Organisation  (Photo: Aphichet Sukkaew –Thai Society of Environmental Journalists)

Pongpipat Meebenchamart, an activist turned Chief Executive of Mae Sam Laeb Subdistrict Administrative Organisation, Sob Moei district, Mae Hong Son province has been keeping a close watch on the Salween dam projects.

He believes that there is a possibility that the dams will be built as soon as circumstances allow for it.  For the moment, the decision is not entirely up to Myanmar military government. Project sites are currently under the control of different armed groups in regions that have long been conflict-ridden.

“The dam builders are not likely to give up but the situation on the ground remains unsettled. Different armed groups are still fighting so the projects cannot move forward … dam construction has been tucked away … but in the meantime, they have started work elsewhere … like the Yuam River diversion tunnel,” Pongpipat said.

Since the 2021 coup, there has been continuous fighting in the Kayin state and violent incidences along the border have flared. At times, tens of thousands of villagers have fled across the river to seek refuge on the Thai border.

Pongpipat believes that EGAT’s hydropower investments in Myanmar might exacerbate the problem, coming at the cost of many displaced people and stepped-up human rights violations.

“If the dams are built, villagers will lose their homes and will certainly flee to the Thai side of the border. They will not return to Myanmar’s side because the area is full of land mines and combat. Even those who fled to refugee camps in other parts of the country decades ago have not been able to return to their homes,” he added.

Salween dam projects and the suffering of people living along the river are connected, which is why people in the region have to keep an eye on the issue. 

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