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Dams Under Debate in China, Burma and Elsewhere

Myitsone Hydropower Dam project location is at the beginning of the Irrawaddy river, in Burma.
Myitsone Hydropower Dam project location is at the beginning of the Irrawaddy river, in Burma.
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From VOA Learning English, this is As It Is.

Welcome back. I’m Caty Weaver.

On the show today: concerns and disputes about dam building projects in Asia.

A major environmental group is worried about possible harm from a dam planned in Laos on the Mekong River. The dam would provide electricity for Laos and neighboring Cambodia. The World Wide Fund for Nature says it is not against the dam completely. It wants to find a better location for it.

But first, we discuss a dam dispute between China and Burma. The two countries had agreed to the project but now Burma is resisting the plan.

Burma Halts Chinese Dam Project

China has the most dams in the world. However, one Chinese plan to build a dam on the Mekong River has fueled debate. In 2011, the government in Burma, also known as Myanmar, halted the two countries' joint Myitsone dam project after protests at home.

Some observers think more openness from China can help ease disputes about the project.

China is famous for building the world’s largest hydroelectric dam: the Three Gorges Dam. China also has the largest number of dams in the world. And, Chinese businesses are a top builder of dams in other countries.

The reservoir at Three Gorges Dam in Hubei Province, China.
The reservoir at Three Gorges Dam in Hubei Province, China.
The group International Rivers has studied Chinese dam projects. It found that Chinese banks and companies have helped build hundreds of dams in many countries, mainly in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Richard Cronin is director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a non-profit public policy group. He is an expert in hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River, which flows through several countries.

“Chinese companies are involved in four, possibly five, of the 11 mainstream dams, as well as lots of dams on tributaries. So, China's role is a big factor in all infrastructure development, particularly in Laos and Cambodia. But it is also a particularly big factor in the development of these dams."

However, critics are increasingly condemning the methods being used to build the dams. They say the projects cause environmental and social harm. And China's plan to build a dam on the Mekong has led to more criticism.

Darrin Magee is an associate professor of environmental studies at Hobart and William Smith College in New York State.

“I think one reason for the controversy is a lack of clear data. A clear understanding of how much these dams are going to impact flows downstream. Flows of water and flows of silt, basically.”

The Stimson Center’s Richard Cronin says China does not release information about the rivers it dams and the affected environment. Chinese officials consider the information a state secret. Mr. Cronin says Chinese government departments also lack cooperation and communication. He says each dam is an independent project.

The best-known dam project in Southeast Asia is the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River. The 3.6 billion dollar dam is a joint project among the China Power Investment Corporation, Burma's Ministry of Electric Power, and a private company. But Burmese President Thein Sein suspended work on the dam in 2011 after protests in his country.

Sun Yun is a researcher at the Stimson Center. She says the Myitsone dam project is a good example of Chinese policy-making by individuals who have different interests.

“China's central government, which is Beijing, local government, which is Yunnan province, and the business interests, China Power and Investment, they prioritize different things.”

She says China’s government hoped to keep good relations with Burma. The Yunnan provincial government wanted to use the project to become an energy center for southwestern China. And the China Power and Investment Corporation looked to the dam as a way to make profits.

Environmental Group Seeks New Location for Mekong River Dam Project

Environmentalists are concerned about a plan to build a hydroelectric dam in Laos near the border with Cambodia. A wildlife protection group recently released a report about the dam project. Bob Doughty has more in this report from VOA’s Steve Herman in Bangkok.
Don Sahong Dam model
Don Sahong Dam model

The World Wide Fund for Nature sharply criticized a study on the proposed Don Sahong dam and its effects on the environment. The group called the study, a “recipe for disaster.” The environmental impact assessment report was released in January. It found that the dam in Laos would have no major effect on the environment.

The World Wide Fund for Nature disputes that finding.

The dam would provide most of its 260 megawatts of electricity to neighboring countries: Thailand and Cambodia. A Malaysian company plans to build the major hydroelectric dam.

The World Wide Fund for Nature questioned the company’s claim that the project will have no major effect on the environment. The group said the claim is not based on scientific evidence. It also urged the developer to examine how the dam would affect societies and economies across borders.

Plans for the project include a passageway through the dam for fish that swim up and down the Mekong River. Fish are an important food source for people living along the river.

Marc Goichot of the WWF has been studying the project. He says the proposed passage system is unproven and risky.

“If you block this process then the species will disappear. And the place where the project is planned is a very specific channel in the multi-channel section of the river that is the only one that is easy to pass for fish.”

Marc Goichot says the WWF is not seeking to prevent the dam from being built. Instead, he says, the group is concerned about the area where the dam is being built. He says there are other choices.

“We believe there are many places that are far less risky. So if you would develop those hydropower projects at the right sites then it would be much easier to mitigate the impact. And for the same hydropower production you would have far less risk on your natural resources and among your environment.”

The Don Sahong dam project is one of 11 planned dams on the lower part of the Mekong River, which runs for 4,300 kilometers through Southeast Asia.

I’m Bob Doughty.

And that’s As It Is for today. I’m Caty Weaver. Thanks for joining us.
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