Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Salween dam studies marred by controversy

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The Australian firm hired to carry out both the environmental impact assessment (EIA) and social impact assessment (SIA) for the proposed Mong Ton dam in northern Shan state, has in the course of carrying out its work met with stiff resistance from communities living in the vicinity of the increasingly unpopular project. SMEC’s involvement with Mong Ton has made the firm a lighting rod for criticism from activists and villagers who strongly oppose the dam which is set to be built on the upper Salween (also known as Thanlwin) river.

The 241 meter high dam which will be one of the biggest in South East Asia is expected to flood an area of over 640 sq kms, nearly the same size as Singapore. The man made reservoir will flood hundreds of villages, farms and large swaths of countryside whose local plant and fish species have only been scarcely researched. Kunhing township’s Pang tributary and its famed “thousand islands” will also be entirely submerged by the dam’s construction. Most of the electricity generated by the projected is expected to be exported to China and Thailand.

According to SMEC, Burmese government authorities will decide whether to go ahead with the dam based on the information provided in SMEC’s EIA and SIA reports. “SMEC is the Independent Technical Consultant responsible for collecting and reporting the facts, both positive and negative, from a neutral perspective.” the firm said in a statement sent last June to the Business & Human Rights Resource Center in response to the group’s questions [ ]. The dam opponents complain that the decision to go ahead with the dam is an already forgone conclusion and that the whole process is more of a public relations exercise than anything else. “We are concerned with the way SMEC is running the workshops and consultations” says Sai Khur Hseng a vocal critic of the dam who alleges that the consultations have been held in such a way that gives wrong the impression local villagers support the dam.

In a series of press releases his group Action for Shan State Rivers has repeatedly blasted SMEC’s handling of its Mong Ton work. “SMEC had angered locals by blatantly promoting the dam in public meetings, downplaying negative impacts,and promising them electricity, even though the dam’s main purpose is to export power to China and Thailand”, said a statement released last year to coincide with the the group delivering a petition signed by 23,717 signatures opposing the dam’s construction to SMEC’s Rangoon office.

SMEC began its work on the Mong Ton studies in October 2014 after having been selected through what was described by the dam’s backers as an “ international bidding process.” The firm has conducted similar studies around the world for other dam projects but appears to have been unprepared for the groundswell of opposition from local people to the dam. Video posted online from a public meeting held by the firm in March 2015 in the Shan state capital Taunggyi, shows dam opponents getting frustrated with SMEC personnel’s responses to their pointed questions about the project.

A follow up meeting scheduled for April 30th 2015 in southern Shan state was called off by the firm according to Sai Khur Seng after a group of more than 300 dam opponents showed up. “They didn’t think people would be against them so they canceled the public meeting and instead had a closed door meeting with USDP and government officials”, says Sai Khur Seng.

“Conducting the (EIA/SIA) process with certain community representatives has been challenging, with planned consultations sometimes disrupted,” SMEC told Australia’s AAP news last August.

“SMEC aim is to conduct an EIA/SIA process that is inclusive, constructive and transparent,” SMEC’s email to the AAP stated. A claim met with derision from Sai Khur Hseng and other dam opponents.

Carrying out extensive studies in remote parts of Shan state that have been the subject to years of conflict is not an easy task and SMEC’s critics say that even if SMEC wanted to do a serious study doing so would be very difficult given the political and linguistic complexities of the area.

Sai Khur Hseng questions whether SMEC will include in their reports adequate information about clashes that have taken place near dam site. On July 20th and 21st 2015 the United Wa State Army (UWSA) clashed with the army just north of the dam site.  One month later forces from the RCSS/SSA also clashed near the dam site with army troops.  “It won’t be a real report if information about the fighting in the dam area is not included”, says Sai Khur Hseng, who points out that many of the local people who will have to move as result of the dam are in fact internally displaced people (IDP) who were forced from their homes during the decades long conflict in Shan state.

Recent developments suggest that local villagers are not the only ones in Shan state who don’t trust SMEC. According to Sai Khur Hseng’s group in July of last year the UWSA, Burma’s largest armed ethnic group, denied representatives of SMEC access to their territory to conduct their studies. The UWSA are not usually keen to have foreign visitors come to the reclusive and largely autonomous corner of Shan state. It remains to be seen how the Mong Ton EIA and SIA can be conducted thoroughly if SMEC staff are unable to visit UWSA territory

According to Sai Khur Hseng the fact that SMEC have been unable to travel to areas that will be affected is further proof that large scale dam projects should not go ahead until there is comprehensive peace in the country A stance shared by many activists from other ethnic communities.

“Our country is still in conflict, this project will increase conflict and people’s suffering in the project area”, says Sai Khur Hseng. Dam critics from the Shan, Karreni and Karen ethnic groups want a moratorium on not just one the Mong Ton dam but four other dams planned for the Salween which flows through or near to territory controlled by at least 6 major armed ethnic groups.

If it goes ahead the Mong Ton dam will be built by a consortium of firms led by China Three Gorges Corporation, a state owned firm that operates the world’s largest dam on the Yangtze river. The giant firm has a mixed legacy in China. In 2014 a probe of China Three Gorges Corporation launched as part of Beijing’s recent anti corruption campaign found senior executives guilty of nepotism, rigged bidding procedures and questionable property deals (see here ). Also involved in the project are two other Chinese firms Sinohydro and China Southern Grid, as well as a wholly a owned subsidiary of Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand  (EGAT).

In addition to the Burmese government’s Ministry of Electric Power  the local partner on the project is International Group of Entrepreneurs(IGE), a firm owned by Nay Aung, son of the General’s Than Shwe’s regime’s controversial industry minister Aung Thaung, alleged architect of the 2003 Depayin massacre. Aung Thaung was widely believed to have used his 14 years as industry minister to advance his family business interests. In October 2014 Aung Thaung was added to the US sanctions list for what the US government claimed was his his “intentionally undermining the positive political and economic transition in Burma” and his “perpetuating violence, oppression, and corruption”. He died in Singapore in July of last year following a stroke.

SMEC’s offices raided in bribery probe

In April 2015 SMECs offices in the New South Wales town of Cooma were raided by the Australian National Police in connection with a bribery investigation. According to police the raid was “part of an ongoing investigation into allegations of foreign bribery”. SMEC told local paper the Cooma Monaro Express that it was fully cooperating with the investigation, the full details of which are not yet publicly known (see here ).

In Nepal SMEC conducted studies for the West Seti Hydroelectric Project, which local activists complained were done in way that did not address concerns about the local environment and downplated questions about the safety of building a tall dam in the earthquake prone country (see here ). As similar with the criticism it has faced regarding Mong Ton SMEC was also accused of running the community consultation process in such a way that local people were not properly informed about the dam. A 2010 article written for the Australian journal Dissent by Melody Kemp quoted from a leaked report by the Asian Development Bank, one of the dam’s financial backers, in which the Manilla based ADB acknowledged that SMEC had portrayed the dam to the local community in a way that in the Kemp’s words had “misrepresented the economic opportunities” the dam would offer the local community. The ADB report concluded that “public perception is going to turn negative when expected benefits do not materialise”. The dam received the formal go ahead from Nepal’s parliament in April 2015.

BY Staff / Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

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