A little over a quarter of Myanmar's population has access to electricity. Despite this incredible statistic, the country has tremendous energy potential. Criss-crossed with rivers (not to mention an abundance of hydrocarbons), hydropower could provide for much of Myanmar's energy needs. However, it was attempts to harness this hydropower that led to renewed conflict in Kachin state in 2011. A new proposed dam could provoke a similar fallout.

Myanmar's Ayeyerwaddy River; Photo by Author

In order to support the country's development, Naypyidaw is under pressure to generate more electricity. Low wages and operation costs mean that many foreign manufacturers have flocked to Myanmar since the easing of sanctions. Over the next 20 years, a business as usual estimate by the Asian Development Bank forecasts a 3.1% annual growth in energy demand.

New hydropower projects are one way of boosting power generation. Some sources put the number of proposed dams in the country at as many as 45. Many of these are planned along the mighty Salween River. The 2400km-long river (known as the Nu River in China) runs from Yunnan province in China to Thailand, with 53% of the river basin in China, 42% in Myanmar and 5% in Thailand.

On 16 September, the Deputy Minister for electric power, Maw Thar Htwe, announced in parliament that a new mega dam on the Salween had been approved, pending further impact assessment (Australia's Snowy River Engineering Corporation will reportedly be conducting the environmental and social assessment).

The proposed dam will be situated in the country's eastern Shan state, close to areas controlled by  Shan State Army-South, an armed ethnic group. As one lower house lawmaker from the region noted: 'Fighting could break out if the government does not discuss this project with the rebels.'

This concern has precedent. In 2011 the fallout and lack of community consultation for a dam project in Kachin state in northern Myanmar led the Kachin Independence Army to abandon a 17-year long ceasefire and re-engage in fighting with the Myanmar military (locally known as the Tatmadaw).

This fighting continues, with tens of thousands displaced.

The Burma Rivers Network, an alliance of several local environmental activist groups, estimate that up to 50 clashes between the Tatmadaw and armed ethnic groups have occurred in relation to ongoing hydropower projects since 2011.

The new dam, known as the Mongton or Upstream Thanlwin hydropower project, would be bigger than the Myitsone dam in Kachin state. It is projected to generate 7000 MW, making it the biggest in Southeast Asia. An earlier Thai-led project, the 7000 MW Tasang dam in the same area, has been stalled since 2007. This recently announced project is in effect its reincarnation.

Displacement of communities will be necessary for the construction of the dam and it will be a hard sell that might require force. Protests will undoubtedly occur against the Government-backed project.

Local protest could also take aim at its international backers. One of the developers of the dam will be China's Three Gorges Corporation. This Chinese corporation was in charge of building the dam that now shares its name. The Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest, displaced over a million people. In recent years anti-Chinese sentiment was sparked over large projects such as the Myitsone dam and the Letpadaung copper mine. 

Meanwhile, the Burmese partner, IGE, will also be scrutinised. It is owned by the son of a former minister and has plans for eight hydropower projects with Chinese companies.

These disputes aside, the project may generate generating antipathy toward the government from local Shan populations. A nationwide ceasefire agreement between armed ethnic groups and the Myanmar Government continues to make headway and, despite delays, is still expected to be signed in the final months of this year. The Mongton dam, and other large scale infrastructure projects, could upset a very delicate balance if proper consultation and compensation is not forthcoming. 

Myanmar's democratic transition and economic development is fraught with problems and must walk a very fine line to avoid backsliding. Large infrastructure projects such as the Mongton dam pose risks to maintaining the fragile and hard-won peace and stability. Community consultation and, insofar as possible, local ownership of these projects is essential. Without it, trust cannot be built between previously warring parties and their constituents. And without their support, the current ceasefires will be short-lived.  

*This article draws on a larger policy brief produced by the author for the Institute for Security and Development Policy (Sweden) in February 2014. That document can be found here