(October 22, 2011) The recent suspension of the Myitsone dam in Myanmar shows just how unpopular China’s international dam-builders are becoming. In recent years, China has built a spate of new hydropower projects on rivers outside its borders, without much concern for their ecological and economic impacts downstream. Myitsone is a sign of growing resistance to these projects.
A lesson dam lobby looks set to ignore; halt to construction of a barrage in Myanmar should be an eye-opener for its Chinese builders, but it’s unlikely to give dam boosters pause for thought
South China Morning Post
October 20, 2011
China’s growing ambition to tap into the latent power of international rivers hit a major snag when one of its largest hydropower projects abroad was unexpectedly halted in Myanmar late last month.
The suspension of the Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy River was seen as a rare victory in a nation long ruled by an authoritarian military regime. It was also read as the latest step in a diplomatic balancing act by Myanmar aimed at wooing the West and its Southeast Asian neighbours by showing the country is no longer so dependent on China.
The controversy should sound all too familiar to mainlanders, aside from the relatively happy result – for the moment – in the Myanmar case. But what lessons should be learned from the dispute over the Myitsone dam?
The fact that China has been snubbed by a long-time political ally that was once dependent on its political and financial support is extremely telling for environmentalists about how unpopular China’s reckless push for big dams and its keenness to flex its economic muscle beyond its borders have been.
Myanmar’s new president, Thein Sein, who visited China just five months ago after taking office in March, announced the decision to halt the US$3.6 billion project on the eve of China’s National Day, saying the dam was “contrary to the will of the people”.
The Myitsone dam, as part of a hydropower development deal including a further six mega dams on the Irrawaddy and its tributaries, was reportedly initiated in 2005 between Myanmar’s then junta chief, Than Shwe, and President Hu Jintao .
At a cost of US$20 billion and with a total capacity of 20,000 megawatts, the dams, being built or planned by China Power Investment Corporation (CPIC), were seen as a symbol of China’s growing regional influence. Mainland media dubbed them China’s overseas Three Gorges Dam project. But the Myitsone dam, in the ethnic Kachin region near Myanmar’s northern border with China, has long been a magnet for criticism, protests and even violence by local people and green groups.
Apart from concerns about potential ecological destruction on the Irrawaddy and the resettlement of 10,000 people, locals were aggrieved that 90 per cent of electricity generated by the dam was supposed to go to power-hungry China.
The dam, with a capacity of up to 6,000 MW, was allowed to go ahead in 2009 despite the CPIC and Beijing allegedly giving the cold shoulder to various local concerns.
Home to roughly half of the world’s biggest dams, China is the world’s largest producer of hydropower and the largest dam builder in the global market, according to International Rivers, a US-based NGO.
However, China’s dam builders and financiers – usually power companies with a national monopoly and banks that are often criticised at home for their blind pursuit of economic profits at the expense of environmental and community welfare – seem to have made little, if any, progress when it comes to business dealings abroad.