How Can We Strengthen Water Governance on the Salween River?

By Saw John Bright, MK31 Fellow


The Salween River is the second longest river in Southeast Asia, invaluable for the survival of the ethnic people living along it. Not only does it have great historical significance but also a very wide biodiversity that needs to be protected.

Dowstream Salween Beauty.

Dowstream Salween Beauty.

In late February 2013, the Burmese government announced six dam projects that were to be built on the Salween River in Shan, Kayah (Karenni) ,and Karen states. The investment and know-how would come from Chinese and Thai corporations in cooperation with three Burmese corporations. However, the proposed dams are located in active civil war zones, which will make their development and construction even more complicated.

For the Mongton Dam in Shan State, an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) has been conducted by an Australian consulting company called SMEC, to evaluate the impacts of the dam. Nevertheless, there has been strong opposition from local communities, who disagree with the processes and methodology employed by these ESIAs. Meanwhile, recently the World Bank has also signed an MoU with the Myanmar Government to provide technical assistance for Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA), which could also have implications for plans for hydropower.

Although ESIA assessment processes are increasingly in place in Myanmar/Burma, it is unclear to which extent they actually contribute to addressing key issues related to large-scale projects such as hydropower plants on the Salween River.

ESIA frameworks are not the solution

Development projects in Myanmar/Burma and hydropower plants in particular, tend to be characterized by large regulatory voids in terms of the policy and legal frameworks that influence the social and environmental fortunes of people affected.

Even though many development projects are under way, it seems like Myanmar/Burma official laws or processes regulating ESIAs need further elaboration. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Procedure – approved by the cabinet in November 2015 – was drafted with support from Asian Development Bank and based on guidelines from the International Finance Corporation. However, the ESIA that have been undertaken for dam projects to date, including some projects on the Salween, were not clear on which guidelines or principles they are based, because the official version was only approved in late 2015.

In practice, ESIA have been characterized by important shortcomings: mainly a lack of transparency, accountability, and local participation in the processes. Therefore it is reasonable to question the level of scientific accuracy, independence, and reliability of these assessment mechanisms. Some believe that ESIA processes are merely disguised tools for obtaining project approval and speeding up the development and construction of large projects. To protect the Salween’s biodiversity and the well-being of its local communities, it is crucial to ensure that assessment mechanisms are independent of state and corporate influence, and as such render objective evaluations of the dangers and benefits of proposed projects.

In addition to shortcomings that are intrinsic to the state of ESIA mechanisms in Myanmar/Burma, context-specific elements further complicate policy perspectives along the Salween River. Since the Salween basin in Myanmar/Burma is in many places characterized by armed conflict between the government and ethnic armed groups, ESIA processes should not be the only determinants of the desirability and feasibility of hydropower projects. Indeed, local opposition also originates in the distribution of political power, matters of resource governance, as well as the potential outcomes of violent conflict. The project development dynamics in the Salween basin cannot be understood without acknowledging these elements as the key determinants of opposition forces. Relying solely on ESIAs to determine whether or not to build dams is short-sighted. Proper agreement on large-scale development projects can only come about once structures are in place to address concerns regarding the above-mentioned elements.

Figure 2 Local protests against ESIA consultation and corporate actions in Taungyi, Shan State.

Figure 2 Local protests against ESIA consultation and corporate actions in Taungyi, Shan State.

Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) and key issues in Salween River

Whilst EIA focuses on the project level, a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) looks at multiple projects at the strategic planning scale. What constitutes a strong and exhaustive SEA is not always quite clear. However, it makes sense to assume that it should include a list of minimum requirements. First, it should measure the cumulative impacts of a project in its entirety (and in the Salween’s case on the whole length of the river). Second, strong policy analysis such as PCIA (Peace and Conflict Impact Assessment) should be covered by SEA. Third, social, economic, cultural and political context analysis should also be covered from the perspectives of a variety of key stakeholders. Ideally, a good SEA should constitute a useful tool for decision makers for matters of project evaluation and approval. As such, it requires an environment in which people are free to move and speak up, in which information is freely available and transparent, and in which independent and technical experts can safely visit and evaluate project areas.

The past year has been quite the opposite in Myanmar/Burma, as there has been near-constant fighting along the Salween River between the Burmese military and many ethnic armed groups, despite a cease-fire and likely peace processes with some of the armed groups. Pushing forward large-scale projects in this context could fuel further conflict over who will control valuable natural resources, and threaten to spoil important political talks over resource governance and benefit-sharing. Indeed, it is important to understand that the central government’s and military’s exploitation of local natural resources, and disrespect for community/ethnic rights are the two key causes for more than 60 years of conflict in ethnic areas of Burma.

It is impossible to carry out a sound SEA until fighting has stopped and genuine peace is achieved. So the challenging question to be asked is how to put the rights and concerns of local communities at the heart of this SEA whilst consolidating fragile peace processes.

Debate in Nay Pyi Taw on December 1st, 2015 involving participants from the government, NGOs, as well as the private sector.

Debate in Nay Pyi Taw on December 1st, 2015 involving participants from the government, NGOs, as well as the private sector.

Rights and Rites

The ESIAs and SEAs mentioned above are standard procedures functioning as necessary legal processes to meet international human rights standards. This can be seen as a “rights-based approach”, representing a formalized and legalistic framework to control resources.

In Myanmar/Burma context, however, standard regulations and legal mechanisms are merely looking at “fair processes”, which do not avoid the problem of inequitable outcomes for local people. This is because fairness does not always automatically equate with equality. “Fairness” is more a concern of procedural justice while “equity” can be understood as a dimension of distributive justice in which actors enjoy parity of capacities and rights, which in turn shapes their ability to pursue justice.

A major problem in the Salween’s case is that there are wide knowledge gaps between different stakeholder groups. Overcoming this by understanding and recognizing the specificities of the local context and beliefs will be a key factor in dealing with area-specific issues. Local communities see the Salween as the region’s lifeblood, and the river makes up an integral part of their cultural identity, while hydropower developers, investors and governments are only trying to generate business profits by damming the river.

The local communities’ main concern is to protect the river, as it represents an important part of their life and culture. In my opinion, their approach can be seen as a “rites-based approach”, inspired by an alternative approach to natural resource management centered around cultural norms and local knowledge. Unfortunately, the problem is that this is not aligned with the state’s view on resource governance.

It is therefore very important to reflect on water governance processes along the Salween River, and re-imagine what constitutes good and bad governance according to a variety of stakeholders’ desires and needs. What do we mean by “good” water governance? How can we institutionalize the locals’ “rites-based approach” like we have institutionalized the “rights-based approach”? Answers to these questions should provide the necessary tools to ensure that all relevant stakeholders’ needs are respected. They are also the focus of my fellowship project.

Local people near Hatgyi Dam pointing out that Salween is “not for sale” on March 14, 2015 (International River Action Day).

Local people near Hatgyi Dam pointing out that Salween is “not for sale” on March 14, 2015 (International River Action Day).

Edited by Siri Luther