China Ignores Own Irrawaddy Dam Study

The state-owned China Power Investment Corp. is continuing with the controversial Myitsone Dam on Burma’s Irrawaddy River despite its own 945-page environmental impact study calling for the project to be cancelled, according to a report by the Burma Rivers Network, which obtained a copy of the study.

The decision to ignore the negative environmental assessment is hardly unusual. A fondness for massive engineering projects on the part of China’s leaders, many of them engineers, has kept Beijing continuing to build, with the consequences to be dealt with later. The consequences have often been disastrous.

A case in point is the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River, the world’s largest hydropower dam, which also went ahead over the objections of environmentalists. In May, in a rare admission, the State Council issued a warning that a combination of environmental, construction and migration disasters is causing “urgent problems.”

While the Three Gorges dam has been beneficial to the region, the State Council said, “Urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and geological disaster prevention.” Among these problems are that water quality in the Yangtze is said to be worsening because the dam prevents dispersal of pollutants. Algal blooms continue to develop progressively and soil erosion is causing riverbank collapses and landslides.

In Burma, thousands of workers and equipment already have been moved to Kachin State and construction has begun on the Myitsone facility and a second one, the Chibwe, over the objections of local villagers, according to the Burma Rivers Network.

Six villages have already been forced to relocate from the catchment areas although villagers complain that the relocation camp provides inadequate health and education facilities and that there is neither enough farmland nor water. The dams are opposed by affected communities across Burma. China Power’s own assessment warned that “the majority of local races oppose construction of the dams” and called for consultation with and consent of affected peoples, according to the NGO.

Although finished in late 2009, the assessment has never been made public, the NGO said. It was funded by China Power and was conducted by a team of 80 Burmese and Chinese scientists, according to the Burma Rivers Network, which opposes the construction of the dam and six others planned by Chinese engineers on the Irrawaddy and its tributaries. The Irrawaddy is Burma’s most important river and one of the major waterways flowing out of the Himalayas. The report, prepared on data gathered by the scientists over five months from January through May 2009, dealt with proposed dams on the Irrawaddy, N’Mai and Mali rivers in Kachin State.

The team recommended a longer and more comprehensive environmental assessment, saying the fragmentation of the river by a series of dams would pose “very serious social and environmental problems not only at upstream of dams but also to very far downstream to the coastal delta.”

The study predicted severe negative impacts on plant diversity, key biodiversity areas and conservation corridors.

If the Burmese and Chinese governments “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 Ayeyawady (Irrawaddy) River, the NGO quoted the study as saying. “Instead two smaller dams could be built above Myitsone to produce nearly the same amount of electricity. Hence respecting the Kachin cultural values which surpass any amount of the overall construction costs.”

The Myitsone project, the report said, should be avoided “due to the changes in downriver hydrology which may affect navigation, the riverine ecosystem and delta ecosystem and will lead to negative impacts on the economy.”

China has been stubbornly pushing ahead with a series of dams, not just on the Irrawaddy but the Mekong as well over the objections of environmentalists who say the dams threaten to wreck the ecology of the rivers.

According to the Myitsone dam assessment obtained by the Burma Rivers Network, “the dams will impact millions that depend on the river and threaten biodiverse ecosystems: The fragmentation of the Irrawaddy River by a series of dams will have serious social and environmental problems not only at upstream of dams but also very far downstream to the coastal area.”

“Chinese companies are increasing their investments in Burma yet they are not following their own standards” said Sai Sai, coordinator of the Burma Rivers Network, in a prepared release. “While CPI Corporation is hiding its assessment from the people of Burma, construction of the dams is speeding ahead. China Power Investment is speeding ahead with its dam plans, ignoring Chinese and international standards for conducting proper assessments.”

The Kachin Independence Organization warned China’s government in March 2011 that construction of the Myitsone Dam might result in civil war. The warning came true. In June fighting broke out between Burmese Army and the Kachin Independence Organization, resulting in the shutdown of China’s Dapein hydropower station in Kachin State. Burmese soldiers, however, appear to have quelled the insurrection with overwhelming firepower.

The Burma Rivers Network urged that the dam projects be immediately stopped and that the economic, social, security and environmental impacts of dams throughout Burma be publicly disclosed.