Our River…, Our Life…
Plans to build dams on the Salween River by the Burma government, China and Thailand threatens millions of villagers and animals that depend on the free flowing river for their living, food sources and as a vital transport link.
The Salween River is one of Asia’s great rivers that brings life to the people who live along its banks. The Salween River, known as the Nu in China and the Thanlwin in Burma, stretches over 2,800 kilometers from its source on the Tibetan Plateau in Eastern China through Burma’s ethnic states to the Gulf of Martaban and into Andaman Sea. It is estimated that six million people live in the Salween watershed and who depend on the river for their livelihoods and its nutrient rich food.
Saw Hae Soe, a villager from the proposed upper dam areas told Karen News that the mighty river means everything to him and damming the river will make his life difficult.
“The Salween River is important to me for fishing, travelling and other means of transportation…. it’s useful for everything,” said, Saw Hae Soe. “If they build a dam on the Salween River, it will have a big impact on me. I feel sad because: 1. We will have to relocate, 2. We will lose our work places, 3. Transportation will be more difficulty. There will be many consequences… the Burma Army will set up their camp for security – forests will disappear, lands for agriculture will disappear. There will be a lot of difficulties.”
Saw Soe Myint, a boatman said that the Salween River is his only source of income.
“I have been working as a boatman on this River. I am 44-years-old and being a boatman for more than 20 years. My survival depends on working as a boatman. Dry or rainy season, I work it with my boat.”
Living in the lower dam part of the river, Maung Myo Oo and his wife explained that the Salween is their life.
“Like this time now, we would use net to catch fish so we can have [fish] curry. We also collect our vegetable around here and catch fish from this Salween River. The river is the lifeblood for us. Since we were children our lives depend on the River.”
Most of the communities who work on the River are mostly ethnic minorities. The river life is under threat as the Burma government is proposing to build five hydro-power dams on the Salween River that runs through Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon States.
Paul Sein Twa, Director of the Karen Environment and Social Action Network (KESAN) told Karen News that the possible impacts caused by the proposed dam projects justify the worries that villagers have.
“There will be impacts on agricultural activities of local people because those who live on the river bank might have to move. It will hurt the seasoning crop farming who do farming on the soil when the water goes down. For those who depend for their living from the fishing, will also be effected if there is a decrease in the diversity of fishes. That is not only on the upper dam, but people in the lower dam will also effected – those who do fishing and farming. As soon as the natural flow of the River is disturbed, there will be huge impacts for the villagers and they are worried about it. If the villagers face difficulties, we don’t know who will be held accountable, as there is no information about it. Villagers are not informed about any of these impacts.”
Villagers point out that their communities are generally aware of the impacts of the dam, but the lack of information given to them about the proposed projects by the government has caused their anxiety about their futures.
Maung Myo Oo said that he worries about pollution and the potential health risks from when the dam is built on the River.
“People will face difficulties and so will animals. There will be water borne diseases and there will be other diseases. Our water wells will dry up or be polluted. We will not have clean water to use and more disease will follow. We depend on the water from the Salween River, it is our only good source of water. We will face difficulties if we don’t have this water.”
Humanitarian groups have reported that the impacts from the dam are a real concern for villagers because of the risk of displacement, flooding, militarization and natural disaster.
Naw Mu Hsi Poe, a villager who live on the river bank said that she has nowhere to move if she needs to relocate elsewhere.
“I think it will be hard for us to find a new place to live. It has been hard to live in the areas now and if we move to new places, it will be even harder. Living in a new place will not be like our old place. We make our living this way and if we move to new place, it will be hard for us.”
Naw Hsa Moo, an environmental activist from the Karen River Watch (KRW) said that villagers should have been involved in the process.
“The process taking place now is wrong, there is no information about the project for local villagers. Villagers are also excluded from the decision making process. Villagers only know about the dams, but they don’t know about what the dams will bring them. There has been no transparency in this work. Villagers do not know much about it – this is not the right thing.”
Paul Sein Twa said that until now, concerns officials have not provided the community with information that they need to know.
“There has not been any clear information provided to villagers by the government or by the companies involved. There was only a small consultation on the border which was not enough. There were questions asked by villagers that were not answered. The important information that villagers need to know were not provided. Until now there is no clear information about the exact location and dimension of the proposed dam.”
It’s not only villagers who are worried, the Karen National Liberation Army’s, General Baw Kyaw Hae, has spent most of his life struggling against Burma’s military dictatorship and says that he doesn’t want the peace process to now be destroyed by greed.
Gen. Baw Kyaw Hae, Vice Chief-of-Staff, Karen National Liberation Army spoke to Karen News.
“We need to work together with the people in the right way. We don’t support or favor a group of government or business people or something that will benefit a few individuals. It should be based on the peoples’ [needs].”
Gen. Baw Kyaw Hae said that unless the proposed dam projects are agreed to by all the concerns parties, there will be more disagreement and more conflict. Gen. Baw Kyaw Hae said that he intends to stand by the people.
“Since we are working for our people, we will need to follow the will of our people and stand together with them and oppose the plan.”
Community workers argue with the government’s proposals and point out that there should be stability in the country before mega development projects are given the go ahead. KRW’s Naw Hsa Moo, explained that peace should be the priority, not mega development.
“Having a dam is not our priority now, because we have not had real peace yet. This is the time of peace talks, if the project moves forward and given the dams are in conflict areas and in the armed group areas, this could damage the ongoing peace process.”
Every year, environmental groups and local villagers organize protest to make it clear that they don’t want the dam on the Salween River.
Saw Hae Soe spoke to Karen News at the latest protest that took place on Salween River bank calling for the project to be stopped.
“Please, don’t give more problems to the indigenous people. The indigenous people have been living their traditional way of life for long time ago and have not face such difficulties. The dam will bring many difficulties for us, we want them to be sympathetic and think about it as they are educated people. Don’t only look to the money, but value our lives.”
Gen. Baw Kyaw Hae said when there is stability in the country, development projects can be implemented in a way that will bring benefits for all people.
“I want to point out to the new government that they are responsible and they should listen to the peoples’ voices and the will of the local communities. They should respect the will of the people. I already said that it’s not the time yet. Halt the project and prioritize peace, stability and political rights in the country first. After that, together, we can then build dams or do development works that have mutual benefits for ethnic nationalities and for the government.”
The Karen News video story was produced with support from The Mekong Eye and Mekong Matters Journalism Network, which are supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Pact, Internews and its Earth Journalism Network. The journalists and their outlet retain full editorial and copyright control.