Facing heavy opposition from local groups and environmentalists, Myanmar’s government has approved the construction of dam that would flood and destroy a large area of land. The dam, currently under construction, is being built to supplement the country’s electricity needs.
Electric Power Minister Zaw Min states the dam “will finish this project within eight years, and I will answer ‘No’ to the question of the environmental groups who asked, ‘Will the project be stopped?'” He says the dam is being built for the interest of the country and its people.
The ongoing construction of the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River has raised concerns from environmental, social, and ethnic groups. Located in the Mizoram-Manipur-Kachin rain forest region, environmental groups argue that the dam will not only destroy the river, but also an area of great biodiversity. The dam is expected to submerge an area about the size of Singapore and nearly 800 square kilometers of rain forest. Additionally, social and ethnic groups say that historical Kachin churches, temples, and cultural sites will be flooded by water if the dam is completed.
Environmentalists also argue that the dam will also decrease the river’s ability to carry nutrients to the Irrawaddy Delta, where the country sources most of its rice. An estimated 60% of Myanmar’s rice is produced in the Irrawaddy Delta.
The dam, which will be the largest in Myanmar if completed, is capable of generating about 6,000 megawatts of electricity. Currently, the country uses 1,500 megawatts of electricity, and any excess electricity can be exported to other countries. So, in addition to this dam, the country may need to install power transmission lines to export the electricity generated from the dam. In an area considered to be a top eco-tourism destination, with its natural scenery and home to rare and exclusive wildlife, the addition of unsightly power lines could taint the conservational image of the county.
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi called on Myanmar and China to reconsider the project. She says the Irrawaddy is the “the most significant geographical feature of our country”, and the dam has already forced 12,000 people from 63 villages to move out of the area. The government, however, has reported a much smaller number: only 2,146 people from five villages were displaced.
Officials believe the claims of these groups are exaggerated. Zaw Min argues that current dams and hydropower sites operating in the country are still healthy and flowing and, at the same time, generating electricity.
Zaw Min does acknowledge that the dam may have possible negative impacts but also believes it will yield a great benefit to the country. The few people that will be negatively impacted will do so for the good of the country. Says Zaw Min, “There are a few bad things, such as there will be no place for the biodiversity and the people will be displaced because of the reservoirs, etc. But we have to compare this with the national benefits which we will get from the project. After we reduce those bad things, the project will definitely affect positively the 50-60 million people of the country.”
Unfortunately for officials and supporters of the dam, the economic benefits of the dam does not justify the possible harm it could bring to the river and the people, as shown by the great number of those steadfastly opposing and campaigning against the completion of the dam. From organizations to scientists, the Irrawaddy River is much more beloved to the country than any economic benefits. For instance, a petition entitled “From Those who Wish the Irrawaddy to Flow Forever” and backed by thousands of politicians, journalists, writers, artists, and film directors was sent to President Thein Sein.
Many believe the government is ignoring the true concerns of the people. Says Myat Thu, who campaigns for the preservation the Irrawaddy River, “They [the government] said that they represent the people. That’s why they have to respect the voice of the people. If the voice of the people is different from theirs, they have to change.”
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/sarahdepper/3899578554/