Karennis Call for Cancellation of Hydropower Dams

Protesters in Malaysia chant slogans near the Burmese embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Sept. 22 as they call for a suspension of the Myitsone hydropower dam project on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State. (Photo: AP)

Encouraged by President Thein Sein’s recent announcement of the suspension of the Myitsone Dam in Burma’s northern Kachin State, the Karenni Development Research Group (KDRG) on Tuesday called for a suspension of the planned Chinese dams in nearby Karenni State, and a careful re-investigation of their social and environmental impacts.The ethnic Karenni community group urged the Burmese government to suspend construction of three large hydropower dams: the 600 MW Ywathit Dam on the Salween River; a 130 MW dam on the Pon River; and a 110 MW dam on the Thabet River, north of Loikaw, the capital of Karenni State.

The three hydropower projects are in their initial phases, and are contracted to the state-owned China Datang Corporation under an MOU which was signed with the Burmese regime in early 2010.

However, recent floods have stoked fears among Karenni communities of the impacts of the three planned new projects after more than 500 houses and 500 acres of paddy fields were submerged in September due to the unprecedented release of water from Burma’s first major hydropower dam at Moebye, which caused severe flooding around Loikaw.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, KDRG coordinator Khu Thaw Reh said due to the recent rains the water level of the Moebye Dam has reached dangerous levels. He said the authorities were opening the sluice gates every hour to release water, which has caused flooding in three villages.

“The older people in our village said they have never seen such flooding in their lifetimes,” he said. “It has a double impact because not only is there high rainfall, but the dam has released its water upon us as well.”

He said that many villagers have taken shelter in monasteries, churches and in friends’ and relatives’ houses in other towns.

In its statement, the KDRG said that Karenni communities have long suffered from increased militarization around the Moebye Dam, including the laying of thousands of landmines near the dam site and power plant. Some 12,000 villagers were displaced by the dam reservoir, while electricity from the dam was never made available locally but sent to Burma’s former capital, Rangoon.

An estimated 18,000 landmines were planted around the site, and thousands of Burmese troops were moved in to secure the project, resulting in abuses against the local population, including forced labor, sexual violence and extra-judicial killings, according to the KDRG.

According to a former statement by the same group released in March, if the dams go ahead, at least 37,000 people will be displaced including the Yintale, an ethnic group numbering only around 1,000. The Yintale live as subsistence farmers traditionally planting millet and sesame on the banks of the Salween and Pon rivers near the sites of two of the proposed dams.

“We fear worse disasters if the new dams are built,” said Khu Thaw Reh.

At present, 21 major dam projects are under construction around the country, in Kachin, Shan and Karenni states, and in Mandalay and Sagaing divisions. The total output of these dams, many of which are being built by Chinese companies, is expected to be 35,640 MW of electricity.

“No dams should be built in Karenni State without the agreement of local communities,” said Khu Thaw Reh.

Burma’s President Thein Sein announced on Sept. 30 that the controversial Myitsone hydropower dam on the Irrawaddy River will be suspended because it is “against the will of the people of Burma.”

Lu Qizhou, the president of China Power Investment Corp (CPI), the main investor in the $3.6 billion megadam project, said Burma’s sudden decision to halt the dam project is “bewildering,” and could lead to “a series of legal issues,” according to a report by Xinhua News Agency on Monday.

Campaigns against the continuation of the remaining hydropower dams in Burma have been growing following the announcement that the Myitsone project was suspended. A Thailand-based NGO, Burma Rivers Network, urged the Burmese government and CPI to immediately cancel the six other megadams planned on the Irrawaddy source rivers, saying they will have the same devastating impact on the nation.

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