By NYEIN NYEIN
Kachin, Myanmar, August 15, 2016
President Htin Kyaw on Friday formed a new commission to evaluate all proposed hydropower projects on the Irrawaddy River prior to their going ahead.
The committee formation comes a week before State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to China as Burma’s foreign minister.
Since the installation of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government in April, China has been lobbying for the resumption of the multi-billion dollar Myitsone Dam, which was being constructed with Chinese backing just downriver of the confluence that forms the Irrawaddy, in Kachin State, prior to a government suspension order in 2011.
The Deputy Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament T Khun Myat chairs the 20-member commission. Its vice chair is State Counselor’s Office Minister Kyaw Tint Swe.
The commission is tasked with assessing the potential environmental and social effects of any proposed project—both up- and downstream—its possible impact on foreign investment and the wider economy, and potential losses in water resources set alongside public access to electricity.
The halt order on the China-backed Myitsone Dam, issued by former President Thein Sein in September 2011, followed widespread public protest against the project—led partially by Suu Kyi, then opposition leader, in her calls to “save the Irrawaddy.”
Protests against the dam were fueled by a variety of fears and misgivings: that the lion’s share of electrical power generated would go straight to China, that its location near a seismic fault line posed a flooding risk to large swathes of Burma downriver in the event of an earthquake, and the general lack of public consultation undertaken beforehand.
Since assuming office, Suu Kyi and the NLD government have been tight-lipped on the subject of the Myitsone Dam—aware of pervasive public opposition to the project, but also the need not to upset relations with China, Burma’s biggest trade and investment partner.
However, an editorial in state-run newspaper The Mirror in July called for the cancellation of the Myitsone Dam, echoing a line taken by most of Burma’s private media.
The newly formed commission must send its first assessment report to the President no later than November 11 this year.
A member of the new commission, Cho Cho, who is also on the advisory board of the National Water Resources Committee, told The Irrawaddy they would be assessing proposals against “international standards,” as well as consulting with local communities and incorporating their voices and concerns into their recommendations.
“The public has already expressed concern over the Myitsone project and we will be referencing that in our assessment,” he said.
He added that a full study on the effects of the dam, including on areas and communities downstream, would require “three to four years.”
The President’s Office will take care of the commission’s administrative needs, according to the presidential order, which also charged relevant ministries and the Kachin State government to work with the commission.
Photo: Entrance to the Myitsone Dam construction site, north of the Kachin State capital Myitkyina, photographed in 2015. If completed, Myitsone would be among the largest hydropower stations in the world. (By Tin Htet Paing / The Irrawaddy)