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SMEC’ed About the Head

What is it about No that SMEC doesn’t understand?

SMEC, an Australian based services company that morphed out of the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation, was recently handed a petition containing 23,7171 signatures opposing a dam that would effectively divide war-shocked Shan state in Myanmar in half.

They are the  public face of a consortium planning a giant dam on the Upper Salween river at Mong Ton in Myanmar.  It’s not the first time they have been told the idea stinks.  Maybe they are heroically taking one for the gang; the disaster prone Three Gorges Corporation,  the very shonky Sino Hydro, the Myanmar Electricity Power  Enterprise,  and state energy monopsony  Thai Electricity Generating Authority (EGAT).  Then there is a UK team of engineers Malcolm Dunstan and Associates, involved in dam building in Myanmar in the past and, because of human right violations on the sites, placed on UK’s Burma Campaign’s ‘Dirty Company’ list. SMEC might well soon be down there with them.

SMEC has been meeting the people of Shan state, seeking agreement for the Mong Ton dam to be built on the upper Salween in Shan State. They have faced serial rejection. Meetings have been cancelled due to local hostility. Old Shan women have risen to their feet, their voices rich and challenging, telling the SMEC representatives that having survived years of war, they refuse to let their ancestral lands be drowned to produce unneeded electricity for China and Thailand.

SMEC’s habit of giving gifts of cloth bags, bottled drinks and snacks to people they interview has as angered local villagers, who view these as bribes. They report SMEC repeatedly pushes the ‘positive’ impacts of the dam, appearing deaf to protests, while attempting to persuade them to sign documents they don’t understand.

On July 22nd, a group of villagers returned the bags they had been given by SMEC surveyors, and instead presented them with anti-dam posters. A Shan joint statement calls SMEC’s assessments process “simply a sham, aimed to rubber-stamp the Mong Ton dam plans, rather than objectively assess (sic)  the project’s actual impacts.”

In April this year the Australian Federal Police raided SMEC’s international’s headquarters in New South Wales ‘as part of an investigation into allegations of foreign bribery – it was unclear if this was associated with the Myanmar project.

‘Many of our highly respected stupas and pagodas, such as Ho Leung temple, will be destroyed.’ said Hkyaw Seng, whose village is close to the construction site. The 700 years old Ho Leung Temple, on the eastern bank of the Salween is famous throughout Shan State, with tens of thousands of pilgrims travelling there every March.

In the Australian context, this might be compared to submerging St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne  to power New Zealand.

Burma Battlers

Along with other ethnic states of Myanmar, Shan state suffered intense warfare for over 20 years and sporadic clashes since. It is the biggest of Myanmar’s seven ethnic states with population of around 8 million people, half of whom are  Shan.

During that long war many abuses were committed by the Burmese Army, include arbitrary execution and detention, torture, looting, rape, forced relocation and forced labour.

Shan and Karen representatives reported to this correspondent that SMEC’s work has been obstructed by political instability, increasing military presence and growing community resistance. In May Burmese Army tanks were photographed in Kunhing, whose renowned ‘thousand islands’ in the Pang tributary will be submerged by the dam reservoir. They fear opposition to the dam will trigger military violence.

Four SMEC officials went to the Wa capital in early July this year, seeking to survey the Wa Special Administrative Region. They were ‘advised’ to return at a later date by leaders of the China-backed United Wa State Army, possibly due to growing political and military tension between UWSA (notoriously linked with cross border drug trade) and Burmese government; tensions that erupted into fighting in Mong Ton township in early June 2015. SMEC is now effectively unable to carry out surveys in a large swathe of Wa-controlled territory along the eastern bank of the Salween above the planned Mong Ton dam.

The US$10 billion (2015 estimate) hydropower dam will flood an area nearly the size of Singapore, virtually bisecting  Shan state and destroying around a hundred communities. You can replace houses but not communities which are organic social structures built on trust mutual support and shared histories. It is the very strength of these communities that enabled their people to endure the hardships of war. Locals report that tanks are returning, as are armed guards. A Chiang Mai lawyer with connections to the Shan, told this correspondent recently ‘local media report that the project has started, and in a conversation we had… a few weeks ago, there is a camp of mostly Chinese engineers doing testing near the site. They said that the river near that area is off limits to all people and that warning shots were fired at a boat that got too close. The contact was not sure who fired the shots.’

The Burma river network (BRN) asserts that large dams are being constructed on all of Burma’s major rivers and tributaries by Chinese, Thai and Indian companies. The dams are causing displacement, militarization, human rights abuses, and irreversible environmental damage – threatening the livelihoods and food security of millions. The power and revenues generated are going to the military regime and neighbouring countries.

Role Play

So what is an Aussie company doing there?

‘It is not SMEC’s role to provide recommendations as to whether the Project should proceed. The findings of the EIA/SIA will be presented to the Government of Myanmar, who will decide (with other sources of information) whether to proceed with the Project.’ (Pro forma response from SMEC).

SMEC’s role has been to complete the Environmental and Social Impact Assessments. The general idea is for both these studies to be submitted to the government to be signed-off (or, as happens too often, paid off) and plans for mitigation put to the villagers and agreed to before work can start. However a local council member in Mong Ton, seconding the lawyer’s report, said that despite the local people’s disapproval, earthworks were already underway along the ridge of the mountain, as was confirmed by Kai Khur Hseng, a spokesperson for the Shan by phone from the Thai-Myanmar border.

‘Well you would expect that,’ said environmental consultant Dr Sean Foley in neighbouring Laos. ‘They borrow lots of money to build the dam and no doubt to pay off officials. The longer they delay, the more interest they have to pay, so it’s in their interest to get moving, and pay the necessary fees to ensure the EIA is agreed to. The ‘soft’ items like compensation to villagers and relocation construction are usually where all the cost savings are made.’

As for the social impacts, it should be obvious, when confronted with a room full of people who are largely farmers and whose land is about to be flooded, wearing ‘No Dams’ headbands, that maybe, just maybe, these people think the social and economic costs are not worth it. Despite SMEC’s claims to hold free and fair consultations the presence of local militias and pro-government representatives in meetings inhibited villagers from asking questions.

A message sent to SMEC’s local senior manager, Michael Holics, which asked how much forest was going to be destroyed, how many tonnes of concrete to be used was met with a pro forma response  (see above), the same response given to questions related to resettlement, land allocation, livelihoods, and fish stocks. Tropical dams are under scrutiny, found to emit as much greenhouse gas as coal fired power plants with similar energy output, while devastating huge areas of land.

SMEC’s job has already been done by International Rivers (IR) and other local groups who have listed the environmental and social factors mitigating against building the dam. Pianporn Deetes of IR told this correspondent that tens of thousands of ethnic people living on the floodplains near the dam site have already been forcibly relocated. ‘All dams planned on the Salween River will greatly disrupt the riverine ecosystem and destroy the livelihoods of peoples living along the river.’

SMEC could hardly avoid the fact that in 2007, the dam consortium was given land on which to build an office, land confiscated from Wan Mai village. In the way of the then-incumbent military junta, landless villagers were forced to attend the ground-breaking ceremony for the dam. Further north, the Mekong, Salween and Yangtze rivers flow in parallel for at least 300 kms, creating a World Heritage listed biodiversity area that is being destroyed by megaprojects like hydropower dams. In short, SMEC whose office centred CSR principles would have this project in Australia booed off the field, seem undeterred.

Sai Khur Hseng reported that wars and forest destruction had taken its toll on mega-fauna like elephants but that  ‘Survivors habitat will be drowned by the dam.’ Myanmar’s laws have not been reformed in keeping with global standards and do not provide for compensation or relocation.

Paul Sein Twa, reported that business cronies of the regime have already been clear-felling formerly dense teak forests around the dam site. Director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), Twa told Mongabay that proposed multiple dams would do irreparable damage to the Salween Basin extending across, China, Myanmar and Thailand. The basin is “home to the world’s last great teak forest, to dry-season islands rich with crops, and to healthy fisheries upon which many people depend. This river is of vast ecological and cultural value, and it is worth preserving for present and future generations.’

Did the Earth Move for You

The Mong Ton dam wall, some 241 meters high, would be one of the highest in the region. The area is very prone to earthquakes and warning has been issued about impending risk of a serious movement of the nearby Sagaing fault after the Nepal ‘adjustment’. The collapse of such a dam would be disastrous.  Scientists have warned of additional  +7 scale adjustments in the next decade and have clearly advised against dam building. A dam this size could itself cause a seismic event, as happened in Sichuan China.

The Himalayan and Tibetan glaciers appear to be melting faster than earlier predicted, offering increased flows in the short-term but ‘dry ice’ in the future.

Twa agreed the dam also poses a threat of catastrophic flooding, should the region’s seismic activity lead to an earthquake-induced dam failure.

Asia is engaged in a orgy of dam building, pushed heavily by China and Thailand, whose urban elites stand to profit mightily from such investments. In this part of the world rivers are integral to life, providing food, transport and irrigation to countless communities.

Myanmar’s government has not publicly addressed villager’s complaints, but have praised the Salween dam projects as benefiting local populations, securing critically-needed electricity for Myanmar and leading to peace. But the opposite appears to be true, with the poor losing hard-won security and military build ups occurring daily. Maybe SMEC’s shareholders should understand the implications of the company’s activities and make their discontent clear.

The author of this article has chosen to publish anonymously.

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Filed under Current Events, Economic development, Energy, ethnic policy, Governance, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER