Overwhelming interest in sustainable hydropower practices

Of all the 167 participants joining the World Bank/International Finance Corporation workshop on hydropower, over 100 were local indicating the enormous interest in this subject.

It should be so given that the workshop was hosted in cooperation with International Hydropower Association to help set environmental and social standards in the hydropower sector for Myanmar, which plans massive hydropower projects to satisfy the energy thirst.

Other participants were mainly from Laos, Thailand, and China. Expats living in Asia, especially in Yangon, Bangkok, and Vientiane, also joined the workshop. They were representatives from government, private sector, and civil society.

The workshop mainly focused on six different topics_ opening regional interconnection, e.g. how Myanmar would connect with partners from the region; hydropower planning; challenges and opportunities to developing hydropower into the Myanmar context; sustainability approaches; resources management; and sustainable financing mechanisms.

“In all those sections, there were various discussions,” said Kate Lazarus, IFC’s senior operations officer for environmental and social standards in the hydropower sector.

“Some of them shared information from other places. Some of them shared about specific contexts. They shared information especially about the contracts and decision-making on hydropower. They also discussed the legacy issues about the projects and how to address those issues going forward. They were also passionate about hydropower sustainability, e.g. how we can use hydropower for the nation’s development in a sustainable way. They also discussed the responsibilities of the public and private sectors, and how to develop hydropower in the Myanmar context,” said Lazarus, adding that the context plays an important role in stakeholder engagement.

Funded by the Australian government, the two-day workshop in Nay Pyi Taw was part of the World Bank/IFC efforts to develop a more sustainable hydropower sector so that Myanmar can realise its enormous hydropower potential of up to 100,000 megawatt — almost 30 times the currently installed capacity of 3,500 megawatt. It engaged all, from international hydropower companies to local civil society organisations.

According to Lazarus, both the organisers and the participants were satisfied with the workshop, thanks to a lot of feedback from the participants and their hard work in the discussions on how hydropower can be developed in a sustainable way. While the locals learnt about experiences outside Myanmar, foreigners learn more about the situation in Myanmar.

“Many participants remarked during the workshop that this kind of interactive discussion did not take place before. This was the good chance for sharing their views. I think some of the key issues emerged were things around how to build trust between the government and the local people,” she said.

The workshop on January 19-20 was hosted at the time when Myanmar planned a number of dams across the country. According to the Ministry of Electric Power, 20 hydropower plants with combined generating capacity of 6,270MW are planned during 2016-2031. Local residents at some concerned areas, particularly along Thanlwin River, internationally known as Salween, have opposed the plans for fear of losing land and environmental impacts. About 30 per cent of households in Myanmar have access to electricity.

It is not surprising that the participants highlighted the urgent need for a policy framework that encourages sustainable hydropower development and the adoption of good international environmental and social practices in the industry. Highlights of the workshop will be presented in other global and regional forums on water and energy, including the World Hydropower Congress 2015 in Beijing, China.

“Legacy, trust, transparency are crucial to hydropower development in Myanmar. Maybe we can learn from other places around the world,” said Lazarus who is based in Vientiane.

More workshops are planned with close cooperation with the ministries of Environmental Conservation and Forestry and Electric Power. Aside from update of some of the policies and regulatory framework; tools, guidelines, and technical support are provided. Experiences from Laos are also shared, to create a good platform where both local and international hydropower companies can discuss the challenges of operating in Myanmar.

According to Lazarus, a sustainable hydropower sector will help mitigate environmental and social risks while realising Myanmar’s huge energy potential, contributing to economic growth and shared prosperity.

“The workshop is just a start for discussions. And we did not have expectations to have some kinds of major outcomes from the workshop. It was targeted as a technical discussion to hear the different views and to create a dialogue among all types of groups. We just aimed to know what areas are needed to focus on. We got some good ideas,” Lazarus noted.

Cameron Ironside, IHA’s sustainability director, said that it is essential to put a good political and technical framework in place to promote regional collaboration and make projects successful.

“Around the world, different approaches are applied to hydropower development to make sure hydropower is developed sustainably and for the benefit of all stakeholders,” he said.

Karin Finkelston, IFC’s vice president for global partnerships, said that electricity is fundamental to reducing poverty and improving living standards for Myanmar’s people, and hydropower is an important part of Myanmar’s energy future - but it has to be done in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

“Done well, hydropower offers cleaner, affordable, and reliable electricity access to help drive economic growth, poverty reduction, and sustainable development,” he said.

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