By Panchali Saikia
As divergence continues over river-water sharing between China and lower riparian countries in the Mekong subregion, a new concern has emerged over the Longjiang dam on the China-Myanmar border. With a considerable increase in trade and Chinese infrastructural developments in Myanmar in recent years, will this hinder their cross-border trade? What are the likely implications and how will China and Myanmar manage this river and maintain regional stability and peace?
What are the major issues?
The Longjiang River (Shweli) forms the border between China and Myanmar in Ruili before it flows through Shan State in Myanmar into the Irrawaddy River in the Saigaing region. The hydropower dams on the river have been a bone of contention between the two countries. The Chinese are rapidly expanding development projects in those areas of Myanmar where ethnic minority groups reside and which see active conflicts. These dams will provide an opportunity for the growing Chinese cities in the border areas to acquire cheap electricity while leaving negative social and environmental impacts on Myanmar. It remains to be seen whether much of the electricity generated will be for the Myanmarese. Billions of dollars in investments and the benefits from these projects will flow to the Chinese and Myanmar’s government. Therefore, it is very unlikely that the government will support the issues of the ethnic minorities of Myanmar.
Moreover, the implementation and decision-making of these projects are not transparent; neither the social impact assessments (SIA) nor adequate and timely environmental impact assessments (EIA) regarding these dams are available. The World Commission on Dams, OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the UN Global Compact outlines the requirement of EIAs, public participation, and consideration of the rights of indigenous people. China too includes these policy measures but none have been applied in these hydropower projects. Agreements have been signed without considering these assessments, most of the construction has been completed and many more are on their way.
What are the likely implications?
Cross-boundary impacts of hydropower projects on transnational rivers are imminent in relation to water sharing in Mekong, Irrawaddy, Salween and Paunglaung rivers. With three dams already on the Longjiang, the new dam has not only affected cross-border trade but also laid the grounds for conflicts between the two countries and within Myanmar.
A large part of Myanmar’s trade with China is carried out through the main highway linking Ruili and Muse over the Longjiang River and through river water transport. The unusually low level of Shweli River has affected the water transport businesses of the local community in the northern Shan State causing them to lose some two-thirds of their income. With Myanmar’s current internal disputes, these hydropower investments can bring about enormous political and economic risk. The dams will compound more negative consequences for displaced, ethnic communities which might also lead to violent upheaval leading to instability and increase in refugee flow into China and Thailand. A major concern also is for the Yunnan province in China, as the flow of refugees might lead to illegal trade affecting its economy. Another major concern involving the Myanmar junta is the illegal use of the benefits flowing from these projects in either arms acquisition or military operations.
How should the issue be managed?
Most Chinese hydropower corporations in Myanmar are still in their initial stages, although some of them are progressing rapidly, It is at this stage a crucial step is needed from the Chinese government to put its policy of ‘peaceful development’ into practice by incorporating relevant international standards within their projects. The Chinese investment companies have countered allegations of two nongovernmental organizations, the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization and the Shan Women’s Action Network of Myanmar about Chinese dams affecting the lower riparian countries. Nevertheless, it is important that the Chinese government involves itself in monitoring and regulating the operation of foreign hydropower by its corporate sector. It is very important that these businesses follow and maintain international norms of transboundary water-sharing, ensuring the participation of local people in decision-making and accountability.
It is also important to note that involvement and intervention from the Myanmar government might bring about a negative impact on the local communities rather than positive. Therefore, cooperation cannot be forced through international laws and legal tools alone; it should be promoted by joint projects and cooperation among local groups. What is necessary is development of sustainable transboundary water agreements including the principle of equity that is also sustainable for the environment. Impacts which are indicative of the outcome of the negotiations should be assessed and disseminated. Basin-wide cooperation with benefit-sharing must be utilized. Public participation in the dam-affected communities in Myanmar is very rare, and therefore more interactions and involvement of the local communities is necessary to understand the problem well and find equitable solutions.
Research Officer, SEARP, IPCS
email: [email protected]