Plans by the Burmese Government, China and Thailand to dam the Salween River threaten millions of villagers and animals whose lives depend on a free flowing river for food and vital transport.
The Salween River is one of Asia’s great rivers that brings life to the people who live along its banks. The Salween River, known as the Nu in China and the Thanlwin in Burma, stretches over 2,800 kilometers from its source on the Tibetan Plateau in Eastern China through Burma’s ethnic states to the Gulf of Martaban and into Andaman Sea. It is estimated that there are six million people living in the Salween watershed who depend on the river for their livelihoods and its nutrient rich food.
Saw Hae Soe, a villager from the proposed upper dam areas told Karen News that the mighty river means everything to him and damming the river will make his life difficult.
“The Salween River is important to me for fishing, travelling and other means of transportation…. it’s useful for everything,” said, Saw Hae Soe. “If they build a dam on the Salween River, it will have a big impact on me. I feel sad because: 1. We will have to relocate, 2. We will lose our work places, 3. Transportation will be more difficulty. There will be many consequences… the Burma Army will set up their camp for security – forests will disappear, lands for agriculture will disappear. There will be a lot of difficulties.”
Saw Soe Myint, a boatman said that the Salween River is his only source of income.
“I have been working as a boatman on this River. I am 44-years-old and have been a boatman for more than 20 years. My survival depends on working as a boatman. Dry or rainy season, I work with my boat.”
Living in the lower dam part of the river, Maung Myo Oo and his wife explained that the Salween is their life.
“Like this time now, we would use nets to catch fish so we can have [fish] curry. We also collect our vegetables around here and catch fish from the Salween River. The river is our lifeblood. Since we were children our lives depend on the River.”
Most of the communities who work on the river are ethnic minorities. The river life is under threat as the Burma Government is proposing to build five hydro-power dams on the Salween River that runs through Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon states.
Paul Sein Twa, Director of the Karen Environment and Social Action Network (KESAN) told Karen News that the possible impacts caused by the proposed dam projects justify the villagers' worries.
He said: “There will be impacts on the agricultural activities of local people because those who live on the river bank might have to move. It will hurt the seasonal crop farmers who farm on the soil when the water goes down. Those who depend on fishing for their living will also be affected if there is a decrease in the diversity of fish. That is not only at the upper dam, but people at the lower dam will also affected – those who fish and farm. As soon as the natural flow of the river is disturbed, there will be huge impacts for the villagers and they are worried about it. If the villagers face difficulties we don’t know who will be held accountable as there is no information about this. Villagers are not informed about any of these impacts.”
Villagers point out that their communities are generally aware of the dams' impacts, but the lack of information from the government about the proposed projects has made them anxious about their futures.
Maung Myo Oo said that he worries about pollution and the potential health risks from when the dam is built on the river.
“People will face difficulties and so will animals. There will be water borne diseases and there will be other diseases. Our water wells will dry up or be polluted. We will not have clean water to use and more disease will follow. We depend on the water from the Salween River, it is our only good source of water. We will face difficulties if we don’t have this water.”
Humanitarian groups have reported that the impacts from the dam are a real concern for villagers because of the risk of displacement, flooding, militarisation and natural disasters.
Naw Mu Hsi Poe, a villager who lives on the river bank said that she has nowhere to move if she needs to relocate elsewhere.
She said: “I think it will be hard for us to find a new place to live. It has been hard to live in the area now and if we move to a new place it will be even harder. Living in a new place will not be like [living in] our old place. We make our living this way and if we move to new place, it will be hard for us.”
Naw Hsa Moo, an environmental activist from the Karen River Watch (KRW) said that villagers should have been involved in the decision making process for the dams.
She said: “The process taking place now is wrong, there is no information about the project for local villagers. Villagers are also excluded from the decision making process. Villagers only know about the dams, but they don’t know what the dams will bring them. There has been no transparency in this work. Villagers do not know much about it – this is not right.”
Paul Sein Twa said that there are concerns because, until now, officials have not provided the community with information that they need to know.
He said: “There has not been any clear information provided to villagers by the government or by the companies involved. There was only a small consultation on the border which was not enough. There were questions asked by villagers that were not answered. The important information that villagers need to know was not provided. Until now there has been no clear information about the exact location and dimensions of the proposed dam.”
It’s not only villagers who are worried, General Baw Kyaw Hae, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Vice Chief-of-Staff, has spent most of his life struggling against Burma’s military dictatorship and says that he doesn’t want the peace process to now be destroyed by greed.
He said to Karen News: “We need to work together with the people in the right way. We don’t support or favour a group of government or business people or something that will benefit a few individuals. It should be based on the peoples’ [needs].”
He believes that unless all the concerned parties agree to the proposed dam projects there will be more disagreements and more conflict. Whatever happens he intends to stand by the people.
“Since we are working for our people, we will need to follow the will of our people and stand together with them and oppose the plan,” he said.
Community workers have argued against the government’s proposals and point out that there should be stability in the country before mega development projects are given the go ahead. KRW’s Naw Hsa Moo, explained that peace, not mega developments, should be the priority.
She said: “Having a dam is not our priority now, because we have not had real peace yet. This is the time of peace talks. If the projects move forward given that the dams are in conflict areas and in armed groups' areas, this could damage the ongoing peace process.”
Every year, environmental groups and local villagers organise protests to make it clear that they don’t want dams on the Salween River.
Saw Hae Soe spoke to Karen News at the latest protest on the Salween River bank calling for the projects to be stopped.
He said: “Please, don’t give more problems to the indigenous people. The indigenous people have been living their traditional way of life for a long time and have not faced such difficulties. The dam will bring many difficulties for us, we want them to be sympathetic and think about it as they are educated people. Don’t only look at the money, also value our lives.”
Gen. Baw Kyaw Hae said that when there is stability in the country, development projects could be implemented in a way that would bring benefits to all people.
He said: “I want to point out to the new government that they are responsible and they should listen to the peoples’ voices and the will of the local communities. They should respect the will of the people. I have already said that it’s not the time yet. Halt the projects and prioritise peace, stability and political rights in the country first. After that, together, we can then build dams or do development work that has mutual benefits for the ethnic nationalities and the government.”
Edited in English for BNI by Mark Inkey