As the longest undammed river in mainland Southeast Asia, the Salween River sustains rich fisheries and fertile farmland that are central to the lives of some ten million people, including the many indigenous and ethnic minority communities that live along its banks.
“The Salween is vital for ethnic peoples in the entire basin. Natural resources including forest[s], water and land are a critical source of life for local dwellers.”Nu Chamnakiriprai, a community leader from Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province
The Salween River holds a unique place among the world’s great rivers, not only due to its vibrant ecosystem and the rich biodiversity that it supports, but also because it remains largely untouched by human interventions, including dams. The majority of the river continues to flow freely.
The Salween is a “marginalized river” – it’s home to a large number of diverse ethnic communities. It flows through southwestern China’s Yunnan Province, a physically remote location where resources typically are extracted for export to the east. In Myanmar, the indigenous communities on the Salween have faced armed conflict and forced displacement. And in northwestern Thailand, many displaced people fleeing conflict have found themselves living in exile, without rights or citizenship, and facing water diversion schemes. Despite decades of armed conflict and forced displacement, the Salween River has remained a constant home, a source of livelihood, food security, irrigation, transportation, culture and identity for thousands of communities, from its headwaters in the mountains of Tibet and through Thailand to its estuary in Mon State, Myanmar.
Upstream, the Chinese government has attempted to dam the river and its tributaries for decades. In 2017, the Yunnan government finally dropped those plans and currently intends to protect the river as an ecotourism destination. In Myanmar, proposed dams have threatened the river since the 1970s; these plans have exacerbated tensions between the military and local populations and led to periodic displacement and armed conflict.
Over the decades, Myanmar has planned dams along the Salween in secret, without the consultation of local communities. While many of these dam projects – including the Hatgyi and Mongton dams – are currently stalled, they remain very real threats. In addition to damaging the river, these dams would exacerbate simmering conflicts in the region.
The Thai government is eyeing two rivers in the Salween basin, the Yuam and Moei, for proposed water diversion projects, including a 70-meter-high dam on the Yuam. These projects will yield very little water at great expense, while displacing local residents.
The Salween could face threats from water scarcity due to upstream dams and infrastructure. The region’s lack of governance frameworks to manage transboundary river basins makes the Salween and other Southeast Asian rivers particularly vulnerable.
What’s At Stake
Over the decades, proposed dam projects have exacerbated conflicts between Myanmar’s military and ethnic minority groups. These groups have been systematically and forcibly moved from their homes, as well as robbed, tortured, raped and executed.
The Salween is home to 7,000 plant species and 80 species of rare or endangered animals in China, and many more species downstream that have yet to be surveyed. Any development threatens this rich biodiversity at a time when the world can’t afford to lose it.
The indigenous groups living along the Salween have strong cultural, spiritual and livelihood ties to the river; the river’s health directly impacts their right to self-determination and autonomy.
- In China, the Salween is known as the “Angry River,” a name given by the local Lisu people. Along with the Lancang and Jinsha rivers, it flows through the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site, which is home to 7,000 plant species and 80 species of rare or endangered animals.
- The Salween is believed to support over 25% of the world’s and 50% of China’s animal species, according to UNESCO.
- In Myanmar, the proposed Hatgyi Dam would flood two wildlife sanctuaries in Karen State, the Mongton Dam would flood pristine teak forests including the diverse “one thousand islands,” and the Weigyi Dam would inundate parts of the Kayah-Karen Montaine Rainforests, Salween National Park and Salween Wildlife Sanctuary.