Originally posted in the Bangkok Post

By Pianporn (Pai) Deetes, Thailand and Myanmar Campaigns Director of International Rivers

This morning at Sob Moei — the confluence of the Moei and the Salween rivers on the Thailand-Myanmar border — indigenous peoples and their supporters are attending a spiritual ceremony to express their collective stance to protect the Salween River from destructive dam projects.

This area has been under militarisation by the Myanmar army for more than half a century. The latest 2021 military coup has only made matters worse for the displacement that Salween’s population in Myanmar have been subjected to. After the coup, the number of displaced persons increased by 185,000, according to Karen Peace Support Network. Over the past two decades, the majestic Salween River has been a target for the hydropower industry, and its related development has long been feared to be a cause of displacement. However, because of indigenous peoples’ long-standing efforts, the Salween remains one of the last largest undammed transboundary rivers.

Originating from melting snow in the Himalayan plateau, the Upper Salween — known as Nu River in China — flows in parallel with the Mekong (Lancang River) and the Yangtze into China’s Yunnan province. With three mighty rivers cascading, this unique natural site has been listed as a World Natural Heritage Site by Unesco.

The 2,800-km-long Salween enters Myanmar through the heart of Shan State, then flows to Karenni State, and forms part of the Thailand-Myanmar border at the point of Karen State and Mae Hong Son province. It then flows back into Myanmar before entering the Andaman Sea in Mon State.

Exactly 20 years ago, China had a plan for 13 dams on the Upper Salween River, but the plan was controversial and has been halted several times.

In Myanmar, state-owned enterprises, companies from China and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) have proposed to build seven dams. Egat plans to develop the Wei Gyi and Da-gwin dam projects along the border and the Hat Gyi dam project in Karen State. In Shan State, there is a plan for three dam projects, ie, Mong Ton dam (also known as Tasang), Kun Long dam and Nong Pha dam. In Karenni State, there is a plan for the Ywatith dam.

But the problem of Salween is not limited to the Myanmar side. The Yuam-Salween water diversion, proposed by Thailand’s Royal Irrigation Department (RID), has also become a new threat.

Proposed as a joint investment between the Thai government and private investors from China, this 70 billion-baht water project will see a dam built on the Yuam River which is a tributary of the Salween in Thailand. If built, this water project will be the first and crucial big step for Chinese investment in the Salween basin in this area.

To manage water, a gigantic storage tank, a large pumping station, and a 60km underground water tunnel will be built, passing through biologically rich watershed forest, along with high voltage power grids on the forest ground. Needless to say, if built, this mammoth water infrastructure will destroy a lush forest ecosystem that spans three provinces — Tak, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai. 

Over the past six years, civil society networks have submitted letters and petitions to responsible agencies and the cabinet to voice opposition to the Yuam Water Diversion Project and demand meaningful participation in the planning and decision-making process. It is the opinion of network members that the project is unnecessary, inappropriate, and against the principles of sustainable and participatory water resources management.

Earlier this month, 66 village chiefs in Chiang Mai’s Hod district, along with other sub-district leaders in Om-koi and Mae Hong Son, submitted a petition letter to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, stating their opposition to the water project. The signed petition asks Gen Payut to revoke the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) and stop all related water projects. 

It is noteworthy that if materialised, it will be the first critical footstep of Chinese investment in the Salween basin in this area.

The people’s network of Yuam, Ngao, Moei, and Salween River Basins members are particularly concerned about the following issues:

1. The project’s EIA report is lacking in real and meaningful public participation from directly affected villagers. Residents in the project area have not been sufficiently informed nor well consulted. Above all, local concerns expressed by affected community members were not accurately represented in the EIA report.

2. Despite the government having run public forums, only some specific groups joined the state public forums. Groups of local villagers expected to be directly affected by the projects have been sidelined.

3. Apart from being unnecessary, unsustainable and non-inclusive, this project will rub salt into the wounds of a lot of villagers in Hod District. Fifty years ago, these villagers had been moved out from their traditional rich forest land when Egat built the Bhumibol Dam. They were relocated to nearby land plots that are less fertile, making their life harder. Since the year 2020, these villagers also see an increase in floods after the government diverted more water into the Bhumibol Dam reservoir to ease flooding in the Chao Phraya Basin.

4. The politicians supporting the project revealed that the Yuam Water Diversion would be only phase one of a larger plan. The next phases include dams on the Salween which would cause unavoidable impacts on the citizens of Myanmar.

Last year, the Lower House’s committee on Land, the Lower House’s committee on Land, Natural Resources and Environment launched an investigation on cost-efficiency as well as the impact of the project. In December 2022, this committee issued a report and asked Gen Prayut to terminate the project.

For two decades already, society has witnessed grassroots efforts to protect the environment, biodiversity, and human rights of indigenous people. 

As people in Myanmar are facing a life-and-death situation after the coup, the resistance of the Salween peoples continues for peace and for the future of the Salween River to flow freely as a source of life and for it to be an ecological legacy for future generations.

Featured photo: Indigenous people in the Sob Moei area attend a ceremony to protect the Salween River from destructive dams.‚ÄČ(Photo courtesy of Pianporn Deetes)