Myanmar’s Environmental Challenges

After eight years collecting dust on the planning shelves and also at the confluence of the Mali and N’mai Rivers in upper Burma, the Chinese are seeking to revive the Myitsone Dam, which has been stalled since 2011 after then-President Thein Sein, in an unprecedented about-turn, put it on hold amid massive protest.

In late 2009, as Asia Sentinel reported, a team of 80 Burmese and Chinese scientists and environmentalists conducted a 945-page environmental impact study of the Myitsone Dam for China Power Investment itself and concluded that the dam should never be built. Although the Chinese government ignored the recommendations of its own scientists, the Burma Rivers Network, which opposes the dam, obtained a copy of the assessment and made it public. Nonetheless, the Ministry of Electric Power-1 said it had done its own environmental assessment and the dam would be built regardless.

The Myitsone dam was opposed by a wide range of environmentalists, social activists, artists and others including Aung San Suu Kyi, who requested a review of the facility earlier this year. Thousands of people have been displaced from its catchment area, which is said to be as big as the island of Singapore. Beijing nonetheless sees Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis as a perfect opportunity to rekindle the dam, which would displace thousands of local people in Kachin State and flood a vast area of significant biodiversity and natural resources.

The proposed dam is located at the source of the Irrawaddy River and is viewed by many Burmese as one of the main lifelines of the country, one that should be protected and not sold out to their insatiable and gargantuan neighbor. The Chinese also likely see the Myitsone Dam as a key foothold in this long-secluded nation.

But the Irrawaddy isn’t the only river in Myanmar to come under threat. Sinohydro, the Chinese company with a long list of controversial tropical dam projects in Asia and afar, is eyeing the first dam on the Salween River, and they want it in northern Myanmar and it would be called the Hat Gyi Dam. Plugging up still-free flowing major rivers such as the Irrawaddy and the Salween rivers blocks fish migration routes and stops the flow of sediments and nutrients from the Tibetan plateau south to the rich fisheries of the delta region, where the illegal charcoal trade threatens the country’s mangrove forests.

Moreover, most if not all of the electricity from these dams would be exported to power-hungry China via neighboring Yunnan province, so the benefit to the people of Myanmar is questionable. To top it off, an estimated 119 tons of plastic flows down and chokes this river every day, where just 72 dolphins were counted this year.

Another major threat Myanmar’s natural environment is the Dawei Road project, which will connect the port of the same name with Bangkok, Thailand, cutting through some of the region’s last great forests and wildlife habitat on both sides of the border. Studies have shown that roads through tropical forests cause numerous problems, including the creation of new access for poachers and loggers, and they put additional stress on wildlife species that are particularly averse to human activity. Survey work has also commenced for a new railway that will link upper Burma with Yunnan, China, a project that will likely exact a similar environmental toll.

The international conservation community recently celebrated Global Tiger Day, but major challenges remain for this endangered species in Myanmar, including all the usual suspects—poaching, habitat destruction, conflict with humans. It doesn’t help that the country borders China, as the town of Mong La painfully illustrates.

Burma’s neighbors, on the other hand, have had much better success in preserving their tigers, with India claiming nearly 3,000 of the great cats (and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will even join Bear Grylls on a televised adventure through the country’s natural wonderlands), and with Thailand reporting a solid 250 tigers—an announcement that spurred Leonardo DiCaprio to praise the Kingdom’s efforts (though the above-mentioned Dawei Road project could quickly reverse these gains).

Just how many tigers remain in Myanmar is unclear, but in 2010 the government designated the Hukawang Valley, an area bigger than the state of Israel in the country’s north as the world’s largest tiger reserve with the help of the late conservationist Alan Rabinowitz.

The World War II era “Burma Road” (also called the Ledo Road) passes through this reserve, a treacherous engineering feat pushed through by US General Joseph Stillwell to stop the Japanese advance into the Indian state of Assam. Parts of Upper Myanmar were considered “unadministered territory” until the 1840s, with pygmy tribes known as the Taron and savage headhunters living in unknown mountainous jungle villages, some of whom preyed upon (and at times came to the rescue of) the Japanese combatants as well as downed Allied fighter planes during the war.

Sections of southern Myanmar and the Mergui Archipelago remain relatively unexplored to this day. Untold numbers of Japanese soldiers were devoured by fearsome saltwater crocodiles on Ramee Island during WWII, and they occasionally hunt locals elsewhere in the country to this day.

Myanmar was once home to three species of rhinoceros—the Indian, the Sumatran, and the Javan—but today perhaps just a handful of Northern Sumatran Rhinoceros hang on in some of the country’s final redoubts, though this is probably unlikely.

Elsewhere, dugongs still swim parts of the coast, while Karen are defending environmental treasures in the northeast. The newly-discovered limestone-lurking Shwetuang bent-toed gecko set the reptile community on fire and the country’s “orchid defenders” have the herculean task of protecting the plants from poachers who plunder for collectors. Golden deer are threatened by climate change and a military land grab, while efforts are underway to re-green a barren wasteland where the Rohingya have taken refuge near the Bangladesh border.

For many years Myanmar was thought of by many of as a mysterious country, sealed off from progress by a repressive dictatorship, making it a kind of Treasure Island filled with untold secrets of the natural world. The country is still somewhat mysterious today—at least in terms of biodiversity—but major efforts will be need by the government and the international conservation community to keep what remains.

Gregory McCann is the project coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor, available on Amazon in paperback for US$13.99 and for free on Kindle. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.