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Interview: ‘There are other options’ besides mega-dams

Joern Kristensen, the director of the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development (Photo: Libby Higan / DVB)

Joern Kristensen, the director of the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development, has worked in Burma for decades. He speaks with DVB about the potential of hydropower for meeting the country’s energy needs, and discusses how dam projects can be a model for integrated development if they include local ethnic communities.

Question: How big is the potential of hydropower in Burma?

Answer: The potential is very big — one of the biggest in Asia. There are opportunities to generate 100,000 MW, and that’s what makes it an option that shouldn’t be turned down, particularly as this is a country that is not very densely populated, so it is possible to find places where the impacts on the environment and social conditions would be less than in a very populated country. So it is certainly something the people of Burma can’t say no to. A combination of solar power and hydropower is the future here. Burma has the ideal conditions as you have very distinct seasons — you have a heavy rainy season for six months where they will be able produce plenty of hydropower, then you have months where there is hardly a drop of water and there is just sunshine.

Q: Many of the mega-dam projects have caused strong opposition. Do you think that has been mostly due to the lack of consultation with the people and the lack of a transparent process?

A: There is strong opposition [to hydropower] in society when you get out to some of the areas [where dams are being built] and I think that has been due to the way in which many of the projects were [started] without any consultation with the local people. I think there about 50 dams in the country, most of them from the time of the military government, when there was no transparency. And now it falls on the democratically elected government to implement the plans. That’s where we are seeing the conflict.

Q: What was the process before, and what is it now?

A: For example, in the case of the Myitsone dam, the military representatives simply contacted the Chinese government — there was no information or discussion with the public. This country is also one of the most diverse in the world, and many dams are situated in ethnic-minority conflict areas, and again they feel the natural resources belong to them. So there are issues both technically and politically.

The current process is still in its infancy. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is still a very new thing in this country. It was only in 2012 that they got a Ministry of Environmental Conservation, and it was only in 2015 that a law was introduced about undertaking EIAs on infrastructure. Capacity still needs to be built — not only at the Union-government level, but also at the regional level.

Q: What are the steps for completing an EIA, and have you seen many successful examples of the process?

A: I have only seen the example of the Mong Ton dam, and that was done by an Australian company that was recruited. It did not go well as there was a lack of openness around the whole process. When they started the process, people showed up and showed their strong objection to the dam. It’s a challenge, as many consulting companies have experience from Vietnam or Laos, where civil society is very weak, so they are not used to this opposition. So they are in for a surprise when they come and see civil society is very strong and vocal here. In the context of having being suppressed for so many years under a dictatorship, you have suddenly a very strong civil society here, which I find encouraging.

What is happening now is the International Finance Corporation (IFC) is going to undertake a certificate of environmental assessment of the whole hydropower sector in the country. So in this context, a number of consultations will take place, and it will be interesting to see how far that study will take people — to convince them that the country cannot afford to turn down hydropower. Because at the moment, you see strong opposition to hydropower but you don’t see those groups proposing alternatives. Hopefully, that process starting in October can help to balance things.

Q: Will some of these mega-dam projects be dangerous if they are built along the fault line that runs through Burma?

A: Yes, there is a fault line running down north to south, so there have been quite a few earthquakes in Burma. That also raises expectations about when is the big one is coming — hopefully never — but that is something that needs to be taken into account.

There is an alternative, and that is to conduct a nationwide study and take a holistic view and then, by [using] tools which have been developed, identify where are the best sites to place the dams. Then it would be less of an impact than going out to build the big dams. The issue is that usually, when decisions [are being made about] dams that are being built, the engineers and economists are the first to come in, and only after that do the environmentalists come in. That’s too late, and my suggestion is it should be the other way around.

Q: What do you think is the future of the mega-dam projects, such as Myitsone or Mong Ton? Could the contracts be renegotiated so that more electricity goes to Burma, or could all of these projects be totally dropped?

A: The fact that in the Myitsone and Mong Ton projects 90 percent of the electricity is to go to China and Thailand — even if they turned around and said the electricity should go to Burma — I have my doubts whether these projects will ever be built. My view is that they shouldn’t be. There are other options at hand. If you look at Myitsone, it’s a mega-dam, and the way it was […] decided by the previous military government to build it without consultation, it’s obvious to me that it is not going to happen. There is also the added controversy that it is in an ethnic-minority area [where] there has been a conflict for many years. So it shouldn’t happen.

There are other options and I think that public support can be gained. They need electricity, as only one third of the population has electricity, and obviously for this country to develop to provide better socioeconomic conditions, electricity is one of the main issues, along with health, education and infrastructure development.

Q: How long do you think it will take for most of the population to gain electricity?

A: At best 15 years, but it may take longer. The best would be if this country adopted a more regional perspective, which would be in line with federalism. So instead of thinking about the big national grid, maybe look at producing electricity on a regional basis, then support the people in the region where the dam is located.

Dams with an output of 600 or 800 MW are medium dams, not small, but something that is realistic here, and I think if it is done well, there will be more investors.