First Salween studies conference: Listen to the people

“This is an opportunity to reimagine the Salween,” said Dr. Vanessa Lamb in her opening remarks at the first-ever conference on Salween-Thanlwin-Nu studies held at Chiang Mai University, Thailand on the 14th and 15th of November. While then referring to a chance to rectify misrepresentations of the Salween River Basin and its inhabitants often perpetuated by mainstream media, Lamb’s words had by the end of the conference rung true in many other ways as well.

Officially titled the 1st International Conference on Salween-Thanlwin-Nu (NTS) Studies: “State of Knowledge, Environmental Change, Livelihoods, and Development,” the event brought together an impressive array of participants in an attempt to address what opening speakers described as a situation of “fragmented research” and “limited cooperation” with regard to the Salween River basin – the latter not only among governments, but also between university-based researchers, NGOs, the media, and local communities.

Between coffee breaks characterized by an electric atmosphere of networking and optimistic idea-exchange, a group of 260 scholars, NGO and grassroots activists, journalists, Thai and Burmese government officials, representatives from hydropower-affected minority groups in Myanmar, and many others engaged in two full days of research seminars, roundtable forums, and artistic presentations covering a wide range of topics centered on the need and possibilities for a more “people-centered” development of the Salween. Discussion of challenges in Environmental Impact Assessment policy and practice, the necessity of and potential framework for cooperative river-basin management, and the strengthening of village-based research efforts were complemented by biological, geological, economic, political-ecological, and archaeological perspectives, among others.

Hazardous hydropower

Fueling the palpable sense of urgency that drove each discussion were the Chinese, Burmese, and Thai governments’ massive hydropower development plans for the Salween and the serious social and environmental consequences they would entail. China has plans for a cascade of up to thirteen dams within its own borders – bound to run straight through the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site – where the river is called the Nu Jiang. Meanwhile, on the lower stretch of the river, known as the Thanlwin in Myanmar and the Salween in Thailand, Chinese companies have partnered with the Thai and Burmese governments, as well as Thai developers, in plans for seven dams on the mainstream in Myanmar. To date, these projects have been planned without comprehensive basin-wide assessment on ecosystem and local livelihoods.

While, without major intervention, future social-environmental travesty is practically ensured by the secrecy and total lack of local-community participation with which the dams are being planned (not to mention still absent resettlement/compensation plans), human consequences have already begun to play out as a result of initial project preparation.

According to the NGO International Rivers, the proposed mainstream dams in Myanmar are located in active civil war zones, and “there has been increased militarization at the dam sites…linked to the escalating abuse of local populations [since the project preparation began]. Ethnic minority groups are not only being systematically and forcibly removed from their homes (including more than 60,000 at the Tasang dam site area and floodplain alone), but also robbed, tortured, raped or executed.”

Proposed Dams in the Salween Basin. (Source: Salween Watch. “Hydropower Projects on the Salween River: An Update, March 2014”)

Proposed Dams in the Salween Basin. (Photo by Salween Watch. “Hydropower Projects on the Salween River: An Update, March 2014”)

Yet as Witoon Permpongsacharoen of the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network pointed out in the first day’s “Situation Analysis” panel, there is reason to warrant a comprehensive reassessment of development plans for the Salween beyond the dams’ expected and already-incurred impacts: their economics are highly questionable as well. Mr. Permpongsacharoen revealed that while Myanmar is indeed in need of a significant amount of additional electricity generation capacity – in 2010, the country’s electrification rate was only 23%, in contrast to 99% for China and Thailand – the proposed dams would not address this issue as their generated electricity is bound for export to Thailand, a nation some analysts believe to already possess a significant surplus of generation capacity. However, even if the electricity were destined for Myanmar, the dams still wouldn’t make sense; studies show that existing plans for new power projects not including the Salween cascade are already sufficient to meet expected demand.

Using a powerful, head-shake-eliciting visual (pictured below), Mr. Permpongsacharoen concluded by illuminating the shortcomings of past hydropower projects in Thailand. He pointed out how the electricity produced by the Pak Mun dam, which displaced 1,700 families and destroyed the livelihoods of 6,200 families, combined with two other Thai hydropower plants, is not even sufficient to power three of Bangkok’s large shopping malls.

Three Thai dams do not produce enough electricity to power three of Bangkok’s large shopping malls.  (Photo by Witoon Permpongsacharoen. “Know Your Power: Power Sector Development and Energy Resources Flow in Salween Basin”)

Three Thai dams do not produce enough electricity to power three of Bangkok’s large shopping malls. (Photo by Witoon Permpongsacharoen. “Know Your Power: Power Sector Development and Energy Resources Flow in Salween Basin”)

Following a thorough sequence of sessions bringing all up to speed on the dangers of current plans for the Salween, the conference focus transitioned to understanding the causes of such mismanagement and brainstorming ways to address them.

Learning from the past

A particularly lively roundtable panel in which a diverse set of stakeholders spoke candidly about continual deficiencies in Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) policy and practice provided one highlight. In a succinct set of opening remarks, Paul Swein Twa of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) laid out a long list of issues in need of attention.

“Transparency and public consultation in EIA assessment is problematic in Burma and everywhere,” he noted. “There’s traditionally been little input of local environmental knowledge.” In addition, Mr. Swein Twa highlighted how EIAs do not seriously consider alternatives to proposed projects and emphasized the impossibility of non-local agencies understanding an on-the-ground situation in the 2-4 months typically allotted for their study. He also pointed out that EIAs rarely, if ever, assess the effect a project may have on “peace and conflict”. [See also “Dam EIAs Enable River Grabbing”]

Furthermore, there rarely exist mechanisms for monitoring the implementation of mitigation measures that EIAs lay out, a point strongly emphasized by Ms. Indhira Euamonlachat, an official in the EIA Bureau of the Thai Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. In Thailand, she said, “every office will say they’re too busy.”

Perhaps eliciting the most cries for reform, however, was the criticism that these days EIAs nearly always begin with the assumption that the projects they are evaluating will go forward. “The reality is that EIAs almost never stop bad projects,” said session-moderator Dr. Peter King, Senior Policy Advisor for the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies and former Director of Pacific Operations for the Asian Development Bank. “EIAs need to go back to being planning tools, not regulatory ones.”

Among the innovative solutions proposed for such a broken process were Dr. Kanokwan Manarom’s “Peoples’ EIA” model, which partners academics with local people and thereby bridges the public participation gap while seeking to oust the problem of biased consultants.

Transboundary cooperation

Day 2’s morning session continued with a policy discussion on the need for the governments of China, Myanmar, and Thailand to govern the Salween in a cooperative fashion. “Water links us to our neighbors in a way more profound and complex than any other,” noted Dr. Zhou Zhangui. Next, Mr. Permpongsacharoen proposed a three prong-plan for cooperative management consisting of an umbrella Salween River Commission (SRC) with a mandate following international laws and standards, an Ethnics Council to provide local communities an avenue for input, and a Regulatory Body to ensure performance of the Commission. The panelists stressed the need to learn from shortcomings in the Mekong River Commission – an intergovernmental commission for the lower Mekong Basin between the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam – when conceptualizing a potential SRC. These include problems with funding adequacy, public accountability, and public participation.

The proposal was well-received by the audience. And though discussion regarding cooperative management of the Salween was officially the focus of only one plenary session, a general call for the countries’ collaboration echoed throughout the conference. “More than 40 percent of the world’s population lives in river basins shared by multiple countries,” noted Professor Muang Muang Aye (Myanmar). “Water-sharing agreements could serve as a framework for more comprehensive international cooperation in other contexts.”

Participants listen to a question posed during the session on trans-boundary river cooperation. (Photo by Gus Greenstein.)

Participants listen to a question posed during the session on trans-boundary river cooperation. (Photo by Gus Greenstein.)

Yet true to its theme, the conference did not focus exclusively on technical policy discussion and university-level science, but rather allotted serious attention to “knowledge” in all senses of the word. This was especially apparent in the space given to grassroots movement leaders, community-level researchers, and Salween youth.

Voices from the ground

Talks from civil society leaders on topics ranging from “Marginal Ecology and the Movement of Local Communities against Lower Mekong Dams” to “Redefining Citizenship and Local Livelihoods on the Thai-Burmese Border” drew attention to the ‘multiple ecologies’ at play in the Salween discourse and provoked passionate discussion about how local, subaltern knowledge-systems should be more meaningfully incorporated at the policy level.

A related panel took on the emerging topic of community-based research, demonstrating its proven effectiveness and calling on academics and policymakers to more seriously consider it.

“Myanmar’s been difficult to access in recent years, but that doesn’t mean nobody’s been watching,” noted one panelist. To date, villager research has revealed 52 local rice varieties and 19 traditional fishing methods present in the Karen community. And while grassroots knowledge production helped raise awareness that led to the NGO KESAN collecting over 30,000 signatures against the Salween dams, fish researchers in a Karen village spearheaded an effort that appears to have successfully derailed plans for a harmful cement factory as well. Unlike academic research, stated Paul Sein Twa, “grassroots research empowers communities to organize and resist against harmful development.”

An energetic group of Salween youth sought to push the conference from analytics to action, calling attention to the surprising lack of discussion of conflict and human rights abuses in the proceedings thus far and underscoring Salween hydropower development’s grave implications for the ongoing peace process in Myanmar.

They would carry their infectious enthusiasm for meaningful, urgent change into the conference’s concluding session in which they presented, alongside an NGO group, grassroots movement group, and academics group, their ‘next steps’ for action.

In addition to immediate tangibles such as an urgent mass protest to halt construction of the Kunglong dam in Shan state (Myanmar), these various delegates seemed to well-agree on the need for a far greater degree of collaboration – between governments, but just as importantly between themselves – in research design and communication efforts, including to inform project proponents about the harm they risk doing.

Progress promises

“The conference exceed expectations – my own, but also those of the NTS Studies Group,” reflected Dr. Lamb, one of the event’s main organizers, upon returning from a 2-day trip on which she took 50 conference participants and 20 international journalists to the Salween river and an affected village. “Personally, I am inspired to continue working on Salween issues, pursue further research on Salween political ecologies, and find ways to work collaboratively with so many of the people I met over the past four days.”

Moreover, the success of the event already appears to have inspired initiatives for further convergences on a similar scale, according to Dr. Lamb. With Thailand and Myanmar now covered (a large meeting was held at Mawlaymine University this past September), a gathering in China is now under discussion.

But perhaps far more telling of the gathering’s concluding sentiment and unwritten legacy was the manner in which the Salween youth opened their final remarks – which, many would concur, amounted to an excellent set of suggestions.

“Please move to the front to present your ‘next steps,’” requested the session’s moderator.

“No,” said the youth spokesperson, his group holding their ground behind him at the back of the room. “We will present, but we will not move. We want to shift the center of power.”


Related posts