Myanmar needs Hydropower. How can we go there?

Yay Chann argues that Myanmar should develop hydropower sustainably to meet the country’s power demands.

In the Union Government’s recent budget allocation, the electricity and energy sector topped the list of budget items for the first time. Needless to say, this could have implications for the development of hydropower across the country so as to fulfill the national electrification plan. Therefore, the Government of Myanmar should develop hydropower, but under a sustainable framework, in order to meet the country’s growing demand for power.

Myanmar’s high demand for power

Myanmar has a growing demand for power. The grid-connected electrification rate is the lowest in Southeast Asia. According to data from the Ministry of Electricity and Energy (MOEE), only 43% of the households of the country can be supplied with electricity in 2019; urban areas have the highest electrification coverage, while rural areas have a coverage rate of under 20% on average. This is despite the fact that the average electricity consumption of the entire country is 333 kWh per capita, which is just one-tenth of the average rate for emerging and developing countries in Asia. In 2018, the total installed capacity was 5,642 MW: 3,225 MW (57%) is from hydropower, 2,175 MW (38.6%) from gas, 120 MW (2.1%) from coal, and 92 MW (1.6%) from diesel.

The country must face the challenge of meeting this domestic power demand, as electricity is a fundamental infrastructure. In order to sustain Myanmar’s recent economic growth, the power demand should be expected to grow as time passes. Moreover, this growing need for electricity is complicated by other pressing challenges: a growing population, efforts toward poverty reduction, and the possible impacts of climate change. It can, therefore, be said that these combined challenges, along with the National Electrification Project (NEP) Plan, will be driving factors for hydropower development across the country.

How can we go there?

Hydropower is a possible option with which the government of Myanmar can overcome the challenge of a growing demand for energy. There is an estimated 45,632 MW of potential capacity in-country, and a report by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) states that hydropower can have economic benefits if it is properly planned. On the other hand, careful implementation is critical in any development of dams. Hydropower development should be based on negotiation and consensual decision making, and human rights should be considered as a fundamental reference point in any debate on dams. As such, the Government of Myanmar should apply the seven strategies set out by the World Commission on Dams in 2000, as a sustainable framework for any hydropower development. They are: gaining public acceptance, comprehensive options assessment, managing existing dams, sustainable rivers and livelihoods, recognizing entitlements and sharing benefits, ensuring compliance, and sharing rivers for peace, development and security.

Strategy One: Gaining Public Acceptance

Every case of hydropower development in the country should be founded on participatory decision-making – though this does not necessarily mean the more passive and informative approach that “participatory decision-making” can sometimes imply. First, stakeholder negotiation is fundamentally critical to arriving at a common goal among different interest groups. Second, the socio-cultural context should be acknowledged in proposals for hydropower development. For example, people believe that Irrawaddy River is a lifeline for Myanmar, as livelihoods of the people depend on the river. In this case, how the benefits of the hydropower development are distributed will be as critical as electricity; the central question for the government to answer is: who will benefit from this hydropower project? Benefit-sharing should, therefore, be applied to all projects. Third, transparency in hydropower projects is, more importantly, needed in Myanmar as opposed to closed-door policymaking. The Government of Myanmar should ensure that people are well informed, as they have the right to know the status of hydropower proposals in development.

Strategy Two: Comprehensive Options Assessment

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) states that current hydropower development in Myanmar is more like “business-as-usual development,” in terms of focusing on individual projects, which will not deliver basin sustainability. In other words, the current hydropower developments will lead to a river system that will not be able to support the biological and socioeconomic functions of the river basin in the long run. Therefore, there is a need to develop a comprehensive national framework for hydropower development in the country. In developing this framework, not only the engineering and economic factors of hydropower but also its cumulative social and environmental impacts need to be taken into account. Moreover, different scenarios of hydropower development should be considered and assessed based on their impacts and performance across individual and multi-projects. Spatial basin planning or zoning should then be done based on the above assessment or performance. For example, it means that the areas of the basin which have high performance in terms of biological and socioeconomic values need to be reserved while the areas with low performance should be potentially available for hydropower development.

Strategy Three: Managing Existing Dams

Managing existing dams is a challenging task for Myanmar. There should be a long term monitoring and measuring process as dams’ carrying capacity, for example, can change due to many factors. The process is, however, still in its infancy; the practices of specific river discharge and sediment discharge measurements need to be practiced. In August 2018, a dam collapse in central Myanmar displaced 63,000 people and affected 85 villages, and a ministry officer claimed that there was no way to predict a spillway collapse. It means, needless to say, that technical challenges still exist and effective investments in hydrological measurements and monitoring, for example, are needed to overcome it.

Strategy Four: Sustaining Rivers and Livelihoods

Dam development could obviously affect the river ecosystem and beyond, having impacts on connectivity related to river functions. Sustaining rivers is a way of saving the lives of people, as 70% of the population lives in rural areas where livelihoods depend on riverine activities. The rivers provide employment for 3.2 million people: 800,000 full time and 2.4 million part-time. In addition, they also produce fish as a source of dietary protein for the people. Therefore, extensive environmental assessment and holistic planning are critical to mitigate the impacts and to maximize the benefits when it comes to these trade-offs. The government should, for example, focus on multi-projects planning – planning as a whole, rather than individual project (i.e. project by project) planning in order to deliver basin sustainability and maintain river ecosystems.

Strategy Five: Recognizing Entitlements and Sharing Benefits

Resource sharing is not equally distributed in the country, and it causes conflicts among stakeholders. Stakeholder negotiation is critical to establish agreements with those affected by dams regarding development provisions, which recognize the entitlements that improve livelihoods and quality of life. The government should take a leading role for resettling and compensating all affected people. Legal means such as contracts should be used to ensure that the responsible parties fulfill their commitments on resettling and development provisions. This is especially urgent given that, in the past, the respective parties did not follow their commitments. Therefore, the government should enforce dispute resolution mechanisms to overcome these challenges.

Strategy Six: Ensuring Compliance

The government plays a critical role in ensuring compliance to different stakeholders. Compliance with the existing laws, rules, and regulations, including, for example, the Environmental Conservation Laws and Rules, the Myanmar National Committee in Large Dam Law, the Arbitration Law, the Myanmar Investment Law, the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Lands Management Law, should be ensured for the whole process of hydropower development. This will be still challenging for the government: there is limited monitoring and compliance as the limited resources and institutional capacity to assess and monitor whether the development process complies with these laws remains. It is an urgent need to invest in institutional capacity building. Targeted staff recruitment in the Environmental Conservation Department (ECD), and the establishment of offices at the township level of the Department are, for example, a good start for capacity-building.

Strategy Seven: Sharing Rivers for Peace, Development, and Security

Disputes can emerge as a result of discussions on the use of transboundary rivers, causing tension and conflict within and between countries. The construction of hydropower dams in the upper streams can have impact on the lower parts. For example, constructing dams along the Mekong River has caused conflicts and tension among countries. The government should have policies and strategies regarding sharing rivers and their benefits, and dispute resolution to tackle such kinds of conflicts.

In conclusion, the Government of Myanmar should develop hydropower, sustainably, to meet the country’s power demands. This development should be through concerted and consensual decision-making. More importantly, human rights should be a fundamental reference point in any debate or any conflict on dams in Myanmar.

(Image courtesy of Creative Commons)

Yay Chann is a graduate student and research assistant at the School of Public Policy (SPP), Chiang Mai University (CMU), Thailand.