Dam builders, listen to the people

On March 14, in the Karen minority village of Sab Moei in Northern Thailand, hundreds of villagers gathered on the riverbank and split into three groups, according to their religion, to pray for the Salween River.  There are three religions practised locally: animism, Buddhism, and Christianity.  Yet the villagers all express the same worry:  “A dam is to be built on our Mother River; this is akin to strangling us to death.”
Known in China as the Nu Jiang, the Salween River (alternately Salawin in Thai; Thanlwin in Burmese) flows from its source in the Tibetan plateau and through China’s Yunnan province before continuing into Myanmar.  It briefly demarcates the border between Myanmar and Thailand, but after flowing through this Thai village, it immediately re-enters Myanmar.

If the planned Chinese-led construction of the Hatgyi Dam 47 kilometres downstream in Myanmar goes ahead, the village will be submerged under the floodwaters and lost forever.

As villagers untie a rope which has fastened a roofed bamboo raft to the riverbank, the vessel is sent downstream, carrying a striking poster emblazened with the slogan: “Let The Salween Flow Freely”.

Even today, there are still many who believe that hydroelectricity can solve the poverty problems of local communities.  This argument is one hydroelectric companies love to use, and love to hear.  But such arguments are nothing more than the rose-tinted imaginings of a bureaucrat sitting in a far away office.  Hydroelectric companies’ aim is making money; their method is making money; and their end result is making money.  Their work has nothing to do with helping the poor.  Not only do their projects frequently go against the will of the local people who will be affected, but the compensation offered is usually inadequate.  As a result, poverty through resettlement is a common phenomenon.

As Tang Chuanli, head of the Reservoir Resettlement Bureau at the Ministry of Water Resources recently disclosed, China’s total relocated population now stands at over 23 million (and climbing), of which one third still lives below subsistence levels.

Can it really be that in modern China, the nation with the world’s second highest GDP, citizens relocated due to hydroelectricity projects are left without the means to meet the most basic needs, enough food to eat and clothes to wear?  Are these projects really helping poor communities – or are they themselves creating poverty?

Some might argue that these problems are now history; that things have changed for the better.  Then I invite them to come down to this riverside settlement, to look at the lives of the people here, and to listen to their concerns.

Hanyuan, in Sichuan Province, witnessed large scale uprisings in recent years in protest at forced relocation policies due to hydropower projects on the Dadu River.  Later, a resettlement site was built in a landslide zone; over 20 deaths were caused by debris flow, and the new town was destroyed.  More than 100,000 people would be relocated in the Jinsha River Valley if ambitious plans to build a dam at Yunnan Province’s Tiger Leaping Gorge go ahead; the backlash from local residents there has also come close to resulting in mass unrest.  The Ludila Hydroelectric Project, also in Yunnan Province, on which work was started illegally in 2007, will also cause forcible relocation; tens of thousands of people will be uprooted.

These sites share a common feature: the land surrounding each is fertile, and the standard of life is relatively high; but after relocation, poverty inevitably comes.  As the Yangtze River’s last remaining protection zone for rare fish prepares to be swallowed up by the Xiaonanhai Dam, another 100,000 people are destined to suffer a similar fate.

The selfish motives of special interest groups leave them clinging obstinately to their own course.  The result is that millions lose their homes and are left struggling to survive, and the nation is faced with a serious social crisis.  On another note, investing in hydroelectric projects is a risky business.  Take for example the Chinese-led Myitsone Dam Project in Myanmar, which was forced to suspend construction last year in the face of intense opposition from local communities, causing huge financial losses to the state-owned company involved.  If work really is to begin on the Hatgyi Dam on the Salween, it is hard to predict what the outcome will be.

So I say to those in charge: come to riverside villages like Sab Moei, and listen to the pleas of local people. If you really knew the losses these people would suffer as a result of a dam being built on their homeland, and if you really knew the strength of their will to protect their homes, perhaps you would consider your proposed projects more thoroughly.

Translated by chinadialogue volunteer Charlotte Foster.

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