Myanmar urged to review hydropower dam projects seen damaging to rural communities

Myanmar's government must ensure the protection of ethnic communities amid hydropower projects that have "weak social and environmental safeguards,” say activists.

Myanmar sunset
Sunset in a village in Myanmar. Ethnic communities are fighting for their lives and livelihoods amid hydropower projects in the country. Image: Yoshitaka Ando, CC BY 2.0

The Myanmar government must undertake reforms in its hydropower sector to prevent dam projects from negatively impacting rural ethnic minority communities in southeastern Kayin state, where electrification rates are lowest in the nation, according to a report issued by two ethnic Karen NGOs.

The 31-page report titled “Development or Destruction? The human rights impact of hydropower development in villages in Southeast Myanmar,” issued in June by the Karen Human Rights Group and Karen Rivers Watch, notes the detrimental effects that proposed dams will have on Karen villagers.

The findings of the report, based on information collected in districts in Kayin state, discussions with focus groups, individual interviews with villagers, and legal research, conclude that instead of benefiting local communities, hydropower development in ethnic minority areas has diminished the livelihoods of those who rely on their land to secure their food and income.

Residents are usually forced from their land by companies involved in dam-building or by armed forces, are given little or no opportunity to give their input on the projects, and are later permitted limited access to natural, religious, or cultural sites where the dams are constructed, the report says.

Because of the dams, locals were forced to move out, and they lost their land and jobs.

Saw Thar Bo, Karen Environmental and Social Action Network 

The report also says that hydropower development in southeastern Myanmar often occurs without adequate consultation with ethnic communities or due process of law, and that villagers receive inadequate or no compensation for the land, homes, and possessions they are forced to give up.

“The prevailing model of hydropower development fuels ethnic minority grievances regarding land rights and autonomy over the use of indigenous land, [and] social and environmental injustices,” the report says.

“Ethnic minorities residing in and around proposed dam sites are likely to continue facing severe environmental and social consequences from hydropower projects until the Myanmar government strengthens the implementation of its legal and regulatory frameworks for the hydropower sector,” it says.

Because many hydropower projects in southeastern Myanmar are financed by private companies “with weak social and environmental safeguards,” strong national legislation is needed to ensure that ethnic communities living in areas where dams exist and will be built are protected, the report says.

Hydropower accounts for two-thirds of Myanmar’s electricity generation capacity, and most hydropower resources are located in ethnic minority areas, especially in Kayin, Kayah, Kachin, and Shan states where ethnic militias are engaged in armed conflict with the Myanmar military, it says.

Not all of the ethnic armed groups that operate in these states have signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA), which 10 of more than 20 militias have already inked.

After the initial pact was signed with eight of the 10 groups in October 2015, the government began planning more hydropower projects.

“Before the NCA, we had three dams—the Pa Thi, Thauk Yay Hkat, and Kyauk Naga in Karen and Mon states and in Tanintharyi division,” said Saw Thar Bo from the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN).

“Because of the dams, locals were forced to move out, and they lost their land and jobs,” he said. “They are still suffering now, and the government has new projects for power plants, mostly in the southeast. That’s why we are worried.”

Effect of hostilities

Myanmar now plans to build 50 large hydropower projects, 42 of which will be located in ethnic minority areas of the country, the report says. And of the 26 largest already built, 12 are situated in such regions.

In several cases the construction of dams in ethnic minority areas has resulted in conflict, had negative social and environmental consequences, and witnessed human rights violations, the report said.

Military confrontations between Myanmar forces and the Karen National Liberation Army and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army have occurred sporadically between 2014 and April 2018 near the site of the proposed Hatgyi Dam on the Salween River, known as the Thanlwin River in southern Myanmar, in Kayin state’s Hlaingbwe township. The project is currently in an exploration phase.

Thousands of villagers were displaced during the hostilities, and government forces eventually took control of the dam site. But landmines from the conflict have killed and injured about a dozen local residents.

Villagers staged a protest on March 14 against the proposed project at the site where the dam will be built, contending that it will destroy their lives and livelihoods and take away their ancestral lands and heritage.

“If they proceed with their dam projects in the same way that they have so far, this shows that the Burmese army and the government have no intention to build peace,” said KESAN director Saw Paul Sein Two in a short documentary video posted on Karen River Watch’s Facebook page on July 9. “Then building dams would just be a strategy to control and take over the land of our indigenous people, Karen, and other ethnic groups.”

Though Myanmar’s National Electrification Plan aims to provide electricity to all households i the country by 2030, most of the power that will be generated by new dams will be exported to neighboring countries, giving villagers more cause for concern that they will not benefit from the hydropower projects.

The two NGOs recommend that the Myanmar government provide better social and environmental safeguards for rural ethnic communities impacted by hydropower dams, increase accountability and transparency of the projects, and suspend planned dams until a comprehensive nationwide peace treaty is reached in conflict-ridden areas.

They also recommend that companies involved in building hydropower projects adhere to environmental impact assessment procedures to minimize the environmental and social impact the projects will have on villagers, guarantee that local communities can participate in project consultations, and ensure that residents receive fair compensation for their land according to national and international law.

Reported by Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

Copyright © 1998-2014, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036.

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