The Salween River is home to at least thirteen ethnic groups and boasts rich biodiversity. The construction of the dams has already displaced thousands of people, some of whom have crossed the border into Thailand and China.
The biggest source of conflict stems from the location of the dams, given that they are built in war-torn areas of Myanmar. Violence over the dams often occurs between already warring rebel groups and the Burmese Army. Furthermore, some of the dams are expected to affect Thai and Chinese communities, either by the flow of refugees across the borders, or by the physical impacts on water and land.
In 2013, plans for six hydro-electric power dams for the Salween River were approved. These projects are moving forward in places where conflict between ethnic resistance forces and the Burmese Army exists (International Rivers, 2013). The dams have become a fracture line for violent skirmishes between these forces and have displaced thousands - some of whom have crossed the border into Thailand and China. The projects are shrouded in secrecy, and it is difficult to know the actual extent of the damage of these dams to the environment or to human security.
The importance of the Salween river
The Salween River is 2,800 Km long and originates in the Himalaya Mountains, flowing through China’s Yunnan province into Burma and Thailand down to the Andaman Sea (Salween Watch, 2014). It is one of the last international free-flowing rivers in the world. The river is home to at least thirteen ethnic groups and boasts rich biodiversity, which sustains the livelihoods of thousands with fishing and cross border trade (FAO, 2011). The dams are being planned and constructed jointly between Chinese corporations, Thailand’s EGAT International Co., Ltd. and Burmese investors (Salween Watch, 2014).
Handling the impact of the dams
Some of these dams will affect Thai and Chinese communities, either by the flow of refugees across borders, or, by the physical impacts of the dam on water and land access. Although there has been some effort by Thai authorities to include public participation in dam development, there has been no attempt in Myanmar and little attempt in China. Environmental impact assessments are secretive, and construction of some dams has started without public notification (Salween Watch, 2014). Recent reports by activists and NGOs, such as International Rivers and Salween Watch, have emphasized the danger of building these dams in war-torn areas in Myanmar. Violent confrontations between warring groups over dam construction sites will hinder dispute resolution of overall conflicts (Noreen, 2013).
There has been no attempt by Burmese authorities or foreign investors to address the grievances of the Burmese people over the dams. Conflict resolution is made particularly difficult because violence over the dams often occurs between already warring rebel groups and the Burmese Army. Conflict resolution will require a comprehensive approach that also addresses the existing reasons for civil war.