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Saving the Salween: Southeast Asia’s last major undammed river

Tom Fawthrop, 13th June, 2016

The free-flowing Salween is the last big undammed river in Southeast Asia, home to a flurry of endangered species including tigers and clouded leopards, writes Tom Fawthrop in Hpa-an, Karen State, Myanmar. And thanks to support from both the indigenous Karen people, and senior officials in China who see the huge ecotourism potential of the river and its dramatic gorge, it could just stay that way.

China has covered almost all of its rivers with dams. But the Nu River (upper Salween) is the grand exception, where aggressive hydropower companies were forced into a rare retreat.

In a world of galloping hydro-power rapidly engulfing the developing world and new dams popping up in the Amazon, the Congo and along the Mekong, it is hard to find any important river left in the world, that has escaped unscathed and undammed.

The free-flowing Salween is the last important undammed river in East Asia, where endangered species including tigers and clouded leopards can still be found in remote parts of Myanmar’s ethnic Karen State.

From the snow-capped mountains of Tibet, the Salween rushes through steep gorges in Yunnan Province and flows through four of Myanmar’s ethnic states before emptying into the Andaman Sea.

China has covered almost all of its rivers with dams. But the Nu River (upper Salween) is the grand exception, where aggressive hydropower companies were forced into a rare retreat.

Thirteen years ago strong protests led by Dr Yu Xiaogang’s Green Watershed – a Chinese NGO – and a geological study of seismic danger in this earthquake-prone zone, persuaded the former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao to suspend all dam projects.

Karen campaigners: Salween ‘is our life, our culture, and our history’

Anti-dam ethnic groups have been waging a similar campaign downstream in Myanmar, buoyed by the 2015 landslide election victory of the NLD (National League for Democracy) led by the peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, that turned the tide on more than 50 years of military rule.

One of the newly-elected NLD MPs, ethnic Karen Susanna Hla Hla Soe, explained to The Ecologist why the Salween is so important to her people:

“It is true that people living in the city, the business people think of the Salween as a river that can be dammed, and that dams are a source of money. But for our Karen people, the Salween is always in our hearts. We adore it and value it. It cannot be defined in terms of money. It is our life, our culture, and our history.”

Each year on 14th March The Karen and Shan mark International Rivers Day a global event to express support for free-flowing rivers, and their opposition to dams (see photos, above right).

The ethnic peoples of the Salween are determined to resist all attempts to go ahead with the six dams approved by previous Thein Sein government in 2013 on the grounds that such megaprojects will inundate villages, temples and ancestral lands. They will also destroy livelihoods and decimate fisheries.

Myanmar also shares much of the earthquake risks that prompted dam suspension in Yunnan. Hla Hla Aung a senior researcher at the Myanmar Earthquake Committee affirmed: “If they build dams along the Salween river it means they are going to build dams in the most earthquake -prone region in Myanmar.”

In Shan state Three Gorges leads a Chinese consortium for build a 7000 mw mega-dam -The Mongton Dam -that if it goes ahead, would be the biggest dam in the region. Further downstream in Karen State Chinese dam conglomerate Sinohydro and Egat (Thailand Electricity), are partners in another huge project -the Hatgyi dam.

These agreements made with Chinese hydropower companies and Egat (Thailand’s Electricity Commission) without any parliamentary debate or public consultation, lack credibility and could readily be challenged by the new government.

A Salween Peace Park – an antidote to dams and conflict

All the dam-sites are located in contested areas and conflict zones. Myanmar has been plagued by decades of civil war since the military first grabbed power in the 1962, coup. Ethnic rebel armies have been defending their ancestral lands and rights to autonomy ever since from attempts by the military junta to brutally suppress them.

In 2012 political and economic changes led to peace talks with ethnic parties and several fragile cease-fire agreements.

In an attempt to move the peace process forward with the newly-elected government, 300 local Karen leaders including representatives from three townships, in May 2016 decided to develop a ‘Salween Peace Park‘ based around their protected wildlife sanctuary.

This remote area is protected by the ‘rebel forces’ KNU Karen National Union and their armed wing the KNLA (The Karen National Liberation Army) they have fought one of Asia’s longest-running civil war in defence of their ancestral lands.

Paul Sein Twa, the chairman of Kesan (Karen Environmental and Social Action Network) explained: “Our Karen people as well as other ethnic groups actively protect our river and indigenous people’s rights to use and manage the Salween River democratically. We try to protect this river from being degraded, and dammed.”

However ceasefires with Shan and Karen armed forces have been undermined by Burmese army offensives sometimes linked to the deployment of troops to secure dam sites.

Stopping the dams and the promotion of a peace is seen as closely connected and interdependent. In our interview with KNU vice-president it is clear that as megaprojects are seen as triggers of conflict.

Zipporah Sein, Vice-President of the KNU organization (the Karen National Union), (see photo) told this correspondent: “If they use force to build a dam in our territory, it will create conflict and it will surely disrupt the current peace building process. KNU has a policy that until we reach the political settlement, mega projects like the Hatgyi dam, and all other mega projects will not be permitted.”

So a strong message is being sent from the proud Karen people to Naypidaw the capital of Myanmar, to suspend all dams and focus on environmental conservation as the best avenue for securing a peace agreement and a political settlement to end the conflict.

A big win for conservation is possible

Could a ‘Salween Peace Park’ be an antidote to dams and conflict? The Karen claim the Peace Park / wildlife sanctuary can succeed, in the words of Saw Blaw Htoo, a biodiversity chief for Kesan, “if our way of life and environmental knowledge is recognised and supported.” Blaw Htoo is proud of leopards and tigers captured on his camera-traps (see photo).

“In Thailand, if a ranger wants to stop poachers, who will help them?”, he asks. “Here if our rangers are outnumbered by armed poachers, we can have two dozen Karen soldiers there in time to help. Our Karen soldiers believe that wildlife protection is part of their job.”

But while some high-ranking Burmese officials may query the qualifications and expertise of an ethnic group running an unofficial wildlife park, international conservationists are impressed with what the Karen people have already achieved.

Dr Christy Williams, the WWF country manager for Myanmar, certainly sees the potential for success: “We very much welcome the efforts of the Karen Forest Department under KNU, to protect the wildlife in areas under their control. It is certainly a positive sign. Species such as tigers are extremely dependent on protection.”

Environmentalists hope the Salween Peace Park will become part of the peace process.“It would be a big win for conservation if wildlife conservation protection is part of the larger peace agreement between the Government of Myanmar and the Karen”, says WWF’s Dr Mitchell.

Which Chinese voices will the new Myanmar listen to?

The Chinese suspension of dams on the Salween in 2004 is still in effect in 2016, despite efforts by dam companies to revive their projects. Yunnan Provincial officials have indicated they have adopted a No Dam policy, and a focus on “ecological civilization” that has been mentioned by Chinese President Xi Jinping as a new development goal.

National Geographic magazine noted that Yunnan Provincial Secretary Li Jiheng and other officials expressed support for a national park to stimulate this region’s tourism which already attracts many visitors to the ‘Three Parallel Rivers’ World Heritage site.

And the main attraction is the Nu River gorge – dubbed ‘the Grand Canyon of the East’ – which cuts a sinuous course along the Gaoligong Mountains, snowcapped peaks that separate China from Myanmar. “The Nu River will become a world-level tourism destination in five to ten years”, Li said on China National Radio, according to state media. “It will succeed, even surpass the Grand Canyon in the United States!”

China has already decided the risks were too high to go ahead with the dams on the Nu River. All this puts pressure on the new Myanmar government to reciprocate and support this apparent policy shift from China.

Paul Sein Twa concluded “If China does not build dams, Burma also should not build any. They should work together. This river should flow freely starting from the river’s source to its mouth”

If Myanmar follows suit, then the dream of trans-boundary Chinese-Myanmar cooperation could become a win-win reality, which would keep the river undammed and at the same time promote eco-tourism, wildlife conservation and a nationwide peace settlement.

Which Chinese voice will Myanmar listen to? Will the leaders of the new democratic government be swayed by the financial lobbying of Chinese dam-builders in Myanmar Sinohydro and Three Gorges corporations, eager to profit from Myanmar’s water resources and little concerned about environmental impacts?

Or will Myanmar’s rulers listen to the voice of Chinese authorities in Yunnan who are now putting protection of their wonderful ecology along their Salween before the narrow commercial interests of hydropower companies?



Tom Fawthrop has previously reported on dams, ecology, human rights, rebellions and military coups in the South East Asia for Al Jazeera TV, The Economist, the Guardian and The Ecologist. He is also a documentary filmmaker and has directed two films about dams on the Mekong and the Salween (Eureka films).