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KESAN Statement on the International Day of Action for Rivers and Against Dams

By Karen Environment and Social Action Network  •  March 14, 2015

Say no to “dinosaur” dam technology, say yes to clean energy

Risking personal safety today in a conflict zone in Burma/Myanmar’s Karen State, hundreds of defenders of the Salween River are rallying to warn the public of the grave dangers of destructive dams. Other rallies will be held on the Thai border andaround the world to mark the International Day of Action for Rivers and Against Dams.

As the world’s hydropower industry turns its sights on the last free flowing rivers and the remote and war-torn areas of Burma/Myanmar, hundreds of huge hydropower dams are planned, threatening millions of people with violence, loss of livelihood, permanent displacement and possible catastrophic dam failure. Dam planners promise electricity and economic growth, but ignore the reality worldwide of a half century of failed hydropower development and the emergence of affordable clean energy alternatives.

This doesn’t make sense, anyway we look at it. Big dams are risky and irreversible. They are destructive of nature and people’s lives. Most planned big dam sites in Burma/Myanmar are in areas of recent or ongoing armed conflict and thus jeopardize the country’s fledgling peace process. They take too long to build to meet Burma/Myanmar’s immediate energy needs. Because most of the electricity produced will be exported, they are not designed to meet the country’s future energy needs anyway. Simply put, these dams are being aggressively pushed forward because a few people make money building them. Big dams are not in the nation’s interest; today’s leaders are jeopardizing tomorrow’s Burmese citizens by continuing to pursue this destructive “dinosaur” technology in the 21st century.

If the truth of the failed promises of big dams were better understood, even people who believe that development should come before the environment would oppose them. Decades of experience in hydropower around the world reveal big dams to be, in the words of a dam builder-turned-opponent, “brute-force, Industrial Age artifacts that rarely deliver what they promise.” A landmark Oxford University study in 2014 argued that big dams have consistently cost more than estimated, taken longer to build and produced less energy than promised. The study of 245 large dams found consistent bias on the part of dam planners, leading to crushing national debt, concluding that large dams in the early 21st century are “ineffective in resolving urgent energy crises.” The study demonstrates that large dams are more about big budget projects producing short term profits for corporations, consultants and the officials that approve the developments, than for meeting the needs for energy security.

Meanwhile, as International Rivers points out: “The advances of renewable technologies are rendering destructive large dams and fossil fuel plants obsolete. The choice between renewables and these dinosaur technologies that are costly to build and socially and environmentally destructive is clear. The last hurdle to revolutionizing our energy systems is our political will.”

Big dams are not only uneconomic and obsolete, they are also a disaster risk. The dangers of dam failure are multiplied on the Salween, where a chain of over 30 dams are planned for the river in Burma and China. Each extra dam on the river, especially in one of the world’s earthquake hotspots, and in a time of unprecedented climate change, adds to the chances of failure. It is significant that the Salween hydropower developments are being driven by China, where the failure of a multi-dam cascade in 1975 led to the death of over 150,000 people. News of this catastrophe was kept secret in China for decades. Are the people of Burma prepared to accept the risk of a giant wave crashing down the Salween valley?

The push for big dams in Burma is also a major driver of civil war and human rights violations. Military offensives over many years caused massive displacement from the areas where many of the dams are now planned. With the prospect of peace, refugees and other displaced people will naturally wish to return to their lands, but dam reservoirs and military zones make this impossible. Repeated and ongoing ceasefire violations by the Burmese military and its proxies close to dam sites clearly show that dam building is undermining the fragile peace process. It is significant that the government denied our request to hold a peaceful rally in one such threatened downstream area, Hpa-an city, forcing us to move to a remote conflict zone upstream.

The dangers from the dams are made worse by secrecy, misinformation and the persistence of authoritarian control. Thai, Chinese and Burmese dam proponents have failed to inform most potentially affected communities, keeping plan details secret, even in some cases providing misleading information. The Free, Prior and Informed Consentof the indigenous people has never been sought. Many thousands of people have already signed petitions and demonstrated to show that they do not consent.

There have also been no consultations in downstream communities, where farming, fishing and other livelihood activities will be radically impacted by big changes in in water flow, level, temperature, nutrient content, sediment load, and salinity. River, delta and offshore ecosystems will be so changed that most local species of fish and other marine organisms will be unable to survive. The big islands in the river will berapidly eroded away. Vast areas of forest rich in wildlife will be flooded by the dams or destroyed by logging that comes with dam building. This means that besides putting millions of our people and their livelihoods at risk, the country’s rich natural heritage is also in jeopardy.

Finally, it is important to note that most of the electricity produced by the planned dams would be exported to wealthy neighboring countries. The peoples of Burma / Myanmar should ask themselves whether it is wise to sacrifice their natural heritage and economic opportunity to enable unsustainable economic growth across the border. Why should Burma shoulder the risks and losses while its neighbors profit? The risk of dams collapsing in earthquake-prone Yunnan Province is the main reason China delayed building large dams there for years. Why should this risk now be considered acceptable for us who live downstream in Burma/Myanmar, while the electricity is exported to China? Dam builders in Thailand are unable to build any more large dams because the Thai public is unwilling to accept the environmental and social costs. Why should our people accept these costs in order to power shopping malls in Thailand? The answer is that we shouldn’t.

Big dams are a costly, destructive and obsolete technology mostly rejected by the developed world after decades of failed hydropower development. To stay in business, the dam-building industry needs countries with weak governance like Burma/Myanmar. Burma/Myanmar, on the other hand does not need the dam industry. We and our leaders should say no to a future of dying rivers, ruined lives and generations of debt bondage. In a new world of sustainable choices, we must say no to big dams.

Contact information please contact:

Saw John Bright +95(0) 9 431 33 604; Saw Paul Sein Twa +66 (0) 81 724 7093

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This post is in: Press Release

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