Killing the Irrawaddy

Being neighbors with China is not something the people of Burma chose for themselves, but they have to heavily bear the repercussions. For many decades, China’s influence has intruded on their daily lives politically, economically, socially and culturally.

However, the relationship has now reached a tipping point, as this dominant neighbor is not only supporting the country’s ruling dictators and stealing the country’s vast natural resources, but also directly destroying the lives of the people of Burma.

In this land of pagodas, paddy fields and smiles, for centuries the people of Burma have proudly owned seven natural treasures gifted by Mother Nature. They are the three parallel chains of mountain ranges, called the Western Yoma (Rakhine Yoma), the Bago Yoma and the Eastern Yoma (the Shan Yoma), and the four major rivers, called the Irrawaddy (Ayeyawady), the Chindwin, the Sittaung and the Thanlwin. All are national landmarks of the country, and they have grown together with its people for countless generations. The Irrawaddy is the most important river among the four, and it is now under attack by the greedy autocrats, the Burmese regime and the Chinese government. If no efforts are made right now, the Irrawaddy will disappear from the map of Burma in coming decades. It will become a tragic memory of history for future generations in Burma.

The Irrawaddy was born at the confluence of the N’mai (Mayhka) and Mali (Malihka) rivers in Kachin State, northern Burma, where snow-capped mountains stand high guarding the country’s border with China. According to Kachin legend, the confluence is where the Father Dragon and his two sons Hkrai Nawng and Hkrai Gam were born and are settled.

Traditionally, the Kachin people believe that if the waterway is broken and the dragons are disturbed, they will be angry and create a natural disaster. A famous present-day author created another symbolic metaphor, writing that a young man (N’mai River with strong current) and a young woman (Mali River with steady flow of water) met here secretly, made love, and as a consequence a girl was born. This girl became the mother river of Burma.

Her finest waterways, and long journey of 1,348 miles (2,170 Km) from the mountains in the north to the Andaman Sea in the south, effectively and consistently help the livelihoods of millions of people in Burma. Many cities, townships, villages and ports are situated on the riverbanks of the Irrawaddy. It is an essential and vital factor in the nation’s transportation, fishing, weather and, importantly, agriculture, especially rice production.

In May 2007, the Burmese military regime and China’s state-owned “Chinese Power Investment Corporation” (CPI) signed an agreement to build seven large dams in Kachin State within 10 years, with the expected date of completion in 2017. One dam will be built on the Mali River, five dams on the N’Mai River and one at the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai, called “Myitsone” (junction of two rivers in Burmese). After completion of the seven dams, about 13,360 Megawatts (MW) of electricity will be produced annually and transported to Yunnan Province to feed China’s expanding energy need.

The Myitsone Dam at the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai is the largest among the seven dams, and is expected to produce 3,600 to 6,000 MW of electricity annually. It will become the fifteenth largest hydroelectric power station in the world.

The Myitsone Dam site is located just 2 miles below the confluence and about 24 miles away from Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. The length of the dam is about 499 ft (152 m) and the height is about 499 ft, equivalent to the height of a 50-story building. The surface area of the reservoir is about 295.8 sq mi (766 sq km), about the size of New York City (301 sq mi). A maximum water depth of the reservoir will be about 950 ft (290 m), approximately the height of a 66-story building.

The estimated cost of the Myitsone Dam construction project is about US $3.6 billion. The total cost for construction of the seven dams and hydroelectric development projects is about US $20 billion. The major construction contractor from the Chinese side is the China Gezhouba Group Corporation (CCGC), and from the Burmese regime side is Asia World Company. Asia World Company is run by the notorious drug-lord Lo Hsing Han and his son, Tun Myint Naing (aka Steven Law), who are under the targeted sanctions imposed by the US and very close to the regime’s powerful Vice-President Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo.

From the beginning, the people in Kachin State have known that the building of such a mega dam at the origin of the Irrawaddy River will effectively kill the river itself and drastically affect the lives of millions of people. The Kachin people and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), an ethnic armed group representing the Kachin people, have appealed several times to both the Chinese and Burmese authorities to abandon the dam project at Myitsone.

Also, a team of scientists from China and Burma, hired and funded by CPI, submitted its “Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) (Special Investigation)” to both Chinese and Burmese authorities in October 2009, in which they recommended the abandonment of the Myitsone Project. However, the appeals of the Kachin people and suggestion of scientists fell on the deaf ears of greedy and inhumane regimes. As such, construction of the Myitsone Dam has been active and ongoing.

After receiving complaints from the Kachin people, CPI hired a team of experts and scientists from the Chanjiang Institute of Survey, Planning, Design and Research (CISPDR) of China and the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA) of Burma to conduct the EIA on Hydropower Development of the Irrawaddy River Basin above Myitkyina, Kachin State. CISPDR was in charge of technology and quality of the whole environmental assessment of the project outside China. BANCA was responsible for the environmental baseline study and Biological Impact Assessment (BIA).

The agreement for conducting EIA special investigation was signed between BANCA and CPI (Southwest Hydro Division) on December 24, 2008. BANCA started its investigation on January 7, 2009 with 84 team members. Chinese scientists joined the Burmese team on January 14, 2009. They worked together for five months in Myitsone and other areas around the dam sites. BANCA submitted the EIA report to CPI in October 2009.

In its report, BANCA identified Myitsone as “nationally important, regionally significant and globally outstanding.” It also identified the Irrawaddy River as “the most important lifeblood in Burma. Millions of people are depending on the Irrawaddy for their livelihoods. It acts as a conduit of communication to over fifty million people.” The report claimed that, “The hydropower development in Kachin State by constructing a series of large and medium dams may definitely impact on the people of Myanmar [Burma] as a whole, in addition to adverse impacts on riverine, aquatic, terrestrial and wetlands ecosystems .”

The report further warned that, “The fragmentation of the Irrawaddy River by a series of dams will have very serious social and environmental problems not only at upstream of dams but also to very far downstream until the coastal delta.” The report also warned that “Loss of Myitsone will be a terrible tragedy for all of Myanmar people, especially the Kachins.”

The report also highlighted the danger of strong earthquakes: “The dam site is located less than 100 kilometers from Myanmar’s earthquake-prone Sagaing fault line. The highly sensitive Sagaing fault line runs north-south through Myanmar (Burma). Earthquakes have been experienced at places along the fault line. Dam breakage would be disastrous for Myitkyina, the capacity of Kachin State, which lies only 40 kilometers (24 miles) downstream.”

And the report made the following recommendation. “The best option would be to develop two smaller hydropower dams substituting the already proposed Myitsone Dam and its location at two appropriate locations above the confluence of the Malihka and Mayhka rivers.”

The authors of the report also requested that their report be made available to the public and said that public opinions and discussions should be invited. In addition, they requested that CPI make a full-scale EIA by conducting nine other assessments on effects of the dam, a procedure set up by the Mekong River Commission. However, Chinese and Burmese authorities have never made the report public, and have ignored the call to conduct the remaining assessments. As of today, they continue to kill the Irrawaddy by force.

The Chinese government has been a staunch supporter of the Burmese regime since 1989. China supplies weapons to strengthen the Burmese military, provides loans and financial assistance to the regime to run its governing machine, protects the regime in the United Nations and other international forums, and tries to kill or water down any UN resolution that will take effective action against the regime for its human rights violations.

Largely because of China’s strong protection and support, the Burmese military regime has survived to this day, under the disguise of a so-called civilian government, successfully weathering international criticisms and pressure. But the price the whole country has to pay back for Chinese protection of the military regime is enormous.

There have been many countries rushing to Burma to exploit its vast natural resources ever since the military regime opened its doors to a market economy. The reality, however, is that it is not real capitalism, but crony-capitalism. China is the most aggressive investor among them, and is sucking the country’s blood everywhere it can set foot. Centuries-old evergreen forests in Kachin and Shan States were rooted out by Chinese logging companies. Many mountains are being destroyed by Chinese mine companies to search for gold, copper, sapphire and jade.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced and hundreds of villages have been destroyed along the route of construction of two pipelines that transport natural gas and oil to China from Burma’s Rakhine (Arakan) State. Some major cities of Burma are now becoming like Chinese cities, as Chinese populations and their properties grow and expand dramatically. Actually, China has colonized Burma without shooting a gun and has sucked the life of the people of Burma with the help of the Burmese regime and its cronies. Now, they are killing the Irrawaddy River as well.

Tens of thousands of Chinese workers have been in Kachin State, using heavy machinery and building infrastructure for the Myitsone Dam project. Forests are being cut down. Valleys and plains are being dug up. Nearly 20,000 ethnic people are being forced to relocate. The Myitsone confluence will be destroyed and most of the major cities in Kachin State will be flooded and submerged when the dams are completed. But the harsh repercussions will be felt not just in Kachin state, but also downstream, as 60 percent of the people of Burma rely on the Irrawaddy’s watershed.

After completion of the dam, the water flow from the N’Mai and Mali Rivers will be stopped by the dam and saved in the reservoir to generate electricity. The N’Mai and Mali Rivers will not be the origin of the Irrawaddy anymore, but rather the dam will be. The amount of water to be kept at all the times in the reservoir will drastically decrease the amount of water the Irrawaddy receives, and the flow of water in the river will be much weaker.

It will create huge damage for the people living along the river, beginning with ships and vessels unable to sail in the shallow waters; fishermen unable to catch fish which can’t survive in the polluted waters; farmers unable to grow rice and vegetables due to frequent draughts and lack of sufficient and steady water supplies; the spread and epidemic of infectious diseases from using and drinking contaminated water and lack of clean water; permanent losses of vulnerable and endangered species of birds, flowers, plants and fresh water animals; significant changes of ecosystem and climate; destruction of mangroves; in addition to other extensive damages.

During the dry season, which lasts four months from February to May, due to the low volume of water coming from the upstream of the river, sea water from the Andaman Sea will flow back to the Delta region with high tidal water volume, and Burma’s major rice production area will be flooded with salt-water. The Irrawaddy River may disappear in ten years, like the Yellow River in China.

This will be a major catastrophe for the people of Burma in terms of food security, health, society, the economy, poverty levels and politics.

The Burmese regime will receive about US$500 million per year, 20 percent of the total revenue, when the project begins to generate and transport electricity to China. But this will amount to a tiny fraction of the losses the people of Burma will have to bear for generations.

The Chinese government has been aiding the Burmese regime in its crimes against humanity for many years. For decades, Burma’s military regime has been carrying out scorched-earth campaigns against its own civilian population, destroying over 3,700 ethnic villages, using rape as a weapon of war, enslaving hundreds of thousands of Burmese people as forced laborers, recruiting tens of thousands of child soldiers into its army, killing innocent civilians, and forcing over 2 million people to flee their homes as refugees and internally displaced persons.

Such flagrant crimes are not simply human rights abuses—they are mass atrocities, amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Compounding the brutality and magnitude of such international crimes is the system of impunity, which protects perpetrators and punishes victims.

Now the Chinese government has crossed the line, stepped up further to commit its own human rights abuses in Burma by attempting to kill the Irrawaddy. Killing the Irrawaddy is destroying the lives of the people of Burma—both in the present and in the future—physically and mentally.

The Irrawaddy River is the past, present and future of Burma and major bloodline of the country. It has many names, “Mother of Burma; Bride of Histories; the Great Magic of the Nature,” and so on, that symbolize the people of Burma’s great love for the river. Its water flow touches everybody’s life. Many wars and national affairs have happened on its shoulders. Many historic events have passed with its current. No artists can draw a picture well enough to show the beauty of it.

No composer can write a song sufficient to feel the magnificence of it. No poet can write a poem that demonstrates the sacrifice it made. No one will feel their lives valuable if there is no Irrawaddy in Burma. The people of Burma will stand up to protect their most beloved one. The Chinese government should stop building the Myitsone Dam and destroying the Irrawaddy before the growing anti-Chinese sentiment among the people of Burma dangerously explodes.

(Aung Din was a student leader during the 1988 popular democracy uprising in Burma and he served over four years in prison as a political prisoner. He is now the Executive Director of Washington, DC-based US Campaign for Burma.)