Myanmar hydropower – can we learn from the Mekong experience?  

opinion May 13, 2017 01:00

By Jeremy Bird

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Across the globe, hydropower is an emotive subject that results in strong ideological pro-dam and anti-dam positions.



This often results in the marginalisation of the middle ground, making it harder for informed and objective discussions to take place. And there are plenty of examples of individual projects that fuel this debate. That is why involvement in an initiative in Myanmar to assess the full dimensions of the benefits and impacts is to be encouraged – namely the Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) of Myanmar’s hydropower sector facilitated by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the government of Myanmar. At the same time, the framing of the SEA needs to be placed within the broader context of regional economic integration, such as China’s One Belt One Road policy initiative, regional trade in electricity and new institutional arrangements for dialogue on Lancang-Mekong cooperation.        

Unlike project-based environmental assessments, the SEA approach can evaluate a broader set of scenarios and consequences of multiple projects. Important is the ability to identify alternative options and mitigation measures before the momentum behind individual projects narrows down the scope for dialogue on trade-offs.  SEAs are not so common in the region but parallels exist in the Mekong River Commission’s SEA of mainstream hydropower projects in 2010 and a sector assessment of electricity distribution in the Greater Mekong Subregion. In the electricity sector, they provide an opportunity to move on from considerations of least-cost power projects and take a broader perspective including the demands of other sectors on the same natural resource – in this case the rivers.

Myanmar could generate an estimated 52,000 megawatts from hydropower, approximately 14 times the current generation capacity in the country. It is a renewable technology, but one where sustainability and socio-economic concerns abound. Uncertainties exist, for example, on how the private sector can engage meaningfully with communities in areas where ethnic conflict and instability constrains the consultation process. Technical information is limited. New government structures and processes are evolving. But unlike the Mekong, hydropower development in Myanmar is still at an early stage and so the potential for the SEA to define the sustainable development pathway for the next generation and beyond is significant. 

The timing for such studies is all important, particularly in a dynamic, fast growing region. The Mekong experience shows how quickly the development context can change, closing down space for more integrated planning processes. A 2004 study suggested there would be no mainstream dams on the Lower Mekong in the foreseeable future, and yet four years later when I joined the MRC Secretariat, all the talk was of when the first mainstream dam proposal would be tabled for consultation under the inter-governmental MRC Agreement. In hindsight, had the Mekong SEA been initiated earlier, the canvass for considering alternative options for the Mekong would have been far broader than a decade later when individual positions were more entrenched.            

With this experience, what types of recommendation can we expect from the Myanmar SEA? There are complex biophysical and sociocultural interactions in an area where data is sparse. Inevitably the study will need to focus on how to accommodate uncertainty in knowledge. Will there be support for some lower risk, lower impact projects? Or a call for a deferment as in the case of the Mekong SEA? Whatever the study concludes, the extent to which the recommendation aligns and resonates with government’s planning processes and those sponsoring hydropower development (whether public or private) will be key to whether the recommendations have an influence in the long run.   

The headline recommendation of the Mekong SEA to defer mainstream projects by 10 years to give time for more knowledge to be generated was highly contested. And this, unlike the Myanmar case, in a basin already studied by national and international and national experts for 40 years or more. The two main unknowns were changes in sediment/nutrient flows and the scale of imapct on livelihoods from blocking fish migration. The outcome was rejection of the study by the main proponents of mainstream hydropower. How can a different outcome be achieved in the case of Myanmar?   

Both cases are transboundary. Both are downstream of China where existing and planned developments are an influencing factor. The Myanmar SEA has several advantages. The extent of prior development is less, there are fewer countries involved in negotiating trade-offs and less pressure from parallel project planning. The situation in Myanmar is complicated though by continuing ethnic conflicts. 

The SEA can also reflect on changes in approach already taken upstream. For example in the Nu River, the upper reach of the Salween, the portfolio of planned projects has been significantly modified as a consequence of local interventions and then postponed pending further discussions. Similarly, it can learn from other international experience such as in Norway, where a balance was struck in the master planning process between those rivers to develop for electricity generation and those to maintain in a natural state for other economic and ecosystem benefits.      

Negative impacts of hydropower development often accrue disproportionately to the poor, undermining their security and livelihoods. Yet as highlighted in the Mekong SEA, a simple shift to include benefit-sharing goals can turn this around. Experience from Brazil demonstrates benefit-sharing provisions can bring about a marked change in societies’ acceptance of hydropower. It is surprising that so many projects still do not adopt such approaches elsewhere. This principle alone could materially defuse many of the emotions in the discourse.

Decisions on hydropower projects taken now will have consequences for generations to come. So moving forward with the Myanmar SEA to help frame the issues is needed even with the prevailing constraints. There never will be a perfect time. 

One lesson is that recommendations should not alienate key stakeholders and constrain future dialogue. The value of the work will be to objectively set out the consequences of alternative courses of action for further discussion. Also to build consensus on a road map for meaningful engagement, including those affected by projects, the proponents and opponents, and the silent majority arguing for the middle ground.   

Jeremy Bird is former CEO of the Mekong River Commission and currently director-general of the International Water Management Institute.