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Last Updated: Monday, 19 January, 2004, 14:28 GMT
Thai groups battle new China dam
By Tom Butler
BBC News Online

China's blueprint for its latest power project is meeting stiff resistance from outside its own borders - in Thailand and in Burma.

In order to fuel its ever-expanding industrial growth China needs more electricity, and its latest plan involves harnessing the power of the Nu river to build 13 hydro-electric dams.

Salween River, Courtesy, Salween Watch
The area around the Salween River in Thailand is a national park

It will rank along side similar developments by China on the Yangtze and Mekong rivers.

But although it rises in the Tibetan mountains, the Nu river is also South East Asia's second longest. From China, it flows into Burma and along the Thai border, where it is known as the Salween river.

And groups in those countries are angry about what they say will be the devastating effects of the project downstream.

Their industrial development is faltering because of a lack of power
Ian Fells
New and Renewable Energy Centre

"There are many Thai-Karen communities living along the river and its tributaries. These communities have been living there for generations, " said Chinarong Sretthachau, Director of the South East Asia Rivers Network (SEARIN), based in Chiang Mai.

"Their lives depend on the richness of the lush ecosystem and natural resources of the Salween river basins," he said.

Campaigners also point out that the Nu-Salween is the last free-flowing international river in the region.

The area it flows past in Thailand is a national park and a wildlife sanctuary, which campaigners worry will be disrupted by the creation of a huge power project upstream.

"Large dams have led to the loss of aquatic biodiversity, of upstream and downstream fisheries, and of the services of downstream floodplains," said Mr Chinarong, quoting from a report by the World Commission on Dams in 2000.


But for some it is a question of priorities.

Ian Fells is chairman of the New and Renewable Energy Centre in the UK, and an adviser to the World Energy Council.

"I think we are rather sentimental about these things at the end of the day. A lack of electricity is a terrible situation," he said.

"China's economy has been growing at 8% to 10% for the last five years and they are just short of energy supplies, in particular electricity. Their industrial development is faltering because of a lack of power," said Mr Fells.

The Nu-Salween river project would help to deal with that shortage - Mr Fells said the 20,000 megawatts it would generate is enough to power 10 cities.

Courtesy, Salween Watch
Campaigners warn that the development could displace local people

China has said it would assess the potential environmental impact of the development within its own borders, but it has made no guarantees about the effects in countries downstream.

Late last year SEARIN sponsored a letter to the Chinese ambassador in Bangkok signed by itself and 82 other Thai and Burmese groups.

Protesters claimed that communities along the river would be "drastically impacted" by the scheme and they called on Beijing to consult local people in Burma and Thailand.

Power surplus

The Thai government has been reluctant to enter the fray on behalf of its citizens - probably because it has its own plans for the Salween river.

It is proposing two dams along its own stretch of the waterway - and it is also helping to finance another across the border in Burma's Shan state.

Construction of the dam would subject residents living in the project area to further systematic human rights violations
Aviva Imhof
International Rivers Network

The Thai government has said a thorough environmental study would be carried out. But it maintains the impact of such dams downstream could be "both positive and negative."

The Thai plans have also outraged the groups opposed to China's dam building. Whatever the shortages in China, they argue that Thailand has no need for more power because, they said, there is approximately 40% surplus supply of electricity in Thailand.

The projects are being monitored by the California-based International Rivers Network (IRN), which has expressed concern about how the proposed Shan development - the Tasang Dam - will affect local people who have already suffered under the military government.

"Construction of the dam would subject residents living in the project area to further systematic human rights violations," said IRN's South East Asia Director, Aviva Imhof.

Campaigners have warned that it could lead to the displacement of local people, along with environmental degradation

The area surrounding the Tasang dam site used to be one of the best teak forests in Burma, according to Ms Imhof.

Salween River, Courtesy, Salween Watch
Rises in Tibet
Reaches sea in Burma
2,800 km long
China - 13 dams
Thailand & Burma - 3 dams

"Now, teak and other hardwood trees are being cut under logging concessions given out by the military regime," she said.

But those who support hydro-electric power view it as a so-called "clean" power supply and argue that China has already been attempting to reduce environmental damage by opting for the projects.

"It is important to remember that hydro-electric power is being used because it does not put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," said Ian Fells of the New and Renewable Energy Centre .

"China is trying to move away from coal-based power which is heavily polluting."

As the arguments stack up on either side, it seems unlikely that China - or Thailand and Burma - will rethink plans for their developments on the Nu-Salween.

Power failures this summer in 16 out of China's 31 provinces highlighted the problem

And hydroelectricity is viewed by the Beijing government as a solution - an absolute necessity for a rapidly expanding economy.

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