Myanmar: Hydropower and the cost of life

Suicide rates and poverty are on the rise among rice farmers displaced by Myanmar's Paunglaung Dam.

    Myanmar: Hydropower and the cost of life
    Tens of thousands have been displaced by Myanmar's ambitious hydropower projects [Connor Macdonald/Al Jazeera]

    Paunglaung village, Myanmar - The Upper Paunglaung Dam sits nestled in the hills that mark the border of southern Shan State, a winding four-hour drive southeast of Naypyidaw. Small villages once dotted valleys that are now submerged beneath the vast inland sea. A two-hour boat ride is the quickest route to the government-built relocation sites. 

    In Paunglaung village, a relocation site near the middle of the reservoir, elderly Daw Tin Thant and her husband sit on the floor of their stilted wooden house. They were forced from their old village, Htein Bin, in 2013, when the government told them their land was sitting on the flood plain.

    "They said, 'If you don't move we will destroy your house with Caterpillar [bulldozers],'" recalled Daw Tin Thant. Their land is now under 40 yards [36 metres] of water, she said.

    Their son, Moung Ngyay, who worked as a rice farmer in Htein Bin, didn't take the eviction well. He insisted on staying in the vacant family home, spending hours by himself, staring out at the rising water that steadily claimed his cherished rice paddy.

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    Months later, he committed suicide by drinking a lethal cocktail of alcohol and pesticide. He was 35.

    More than 8,000 people from 23 villages were forcibly displaced (PDF) by the Thein Sein government during the construction of the Upper Paunglaung Dam, which began in 2006. Relocation has led to poverty, hunger and suicides among the thousands who live in the government-built relocation sites.

    On April 1, the National League for Democracy (NLD) party,  led by Aung San Suu Kyi, was sworn into office after winning a crushing mandate in Myanmar's historic elections in November 2015, bringing in the country's first democratically elected civilian government in more than 50 years.

    The change of government is expected to spur foreign investment into the country, contributing to its rapid development. But among the myriad issues facing the country, including  decades-long civil wars, the new government has inherited 43 planned hydropower projectsfrom its predecessors.

    The new Myanmar government has inherited 43 planned hydropower projects from its predecessors [Connor Macdonald/Al Jazeera]

    Depression and suicides

    Daw Tin Thant, the mother of the young farmer who committed suicide, said she blames the government for his death, "but we don't dare say anything against them because they are the government - we can't".

    Depression in the relocation sites is rife. The loss of land and lack of access to work opportunities have had a devastating effect on the young people in the Paunglaung River Valley. Human rights organisations have reported that since 2013, there have been four suicides and six more attempted suicides by young people from Htein Bin, some as young as 18 (PDF). 

    Nygi La Thein, 26, the granddaughter of Daw Tin Thant, attempted suicide by drinking the same pesticides as her uncle in May 2015, but she survived. After the attempt, the young mother spent a week in hospital and was out of work for a month while she recovered.

    She and her husband were also rice farmers before the dam went up, but now they must rely on their plantation for an income. The former government gave them, like many of the rice farmers of the Paunglaung river valley, a plot of land on a steep, rocky hilltop unsuitable for rice farming, as compensation.

    "My husband works very hard every day but we still can't make ends meet. All the young people feel depressed because all of our old land is gone. I just want my land back," she said with a vacant gaze.

    Nygi La Thein, 26, the granddaughter of Daw Tin Thant, attempted suicide by drinking the same pesticides as her uncle in May 2015, but she survived [Connor Macdonald/Al Jazeera] 

    Poverty and hunger

    Too old to work, and with their son gone, Nyi La Thein's elderly grandparents rely on three-year-old rice rations stockpiled from Htein Bin. Daw Tin Thant said they now only eat twice a day to ensure that their rations will last.

    "If our son were here we could work on our plot of land, but we can't now. Since we can't work, we're better off dead," she said.

    Hunger and poverty are commonplace among the former residents of Htein Bin, according to a report published by the human rights watchdog Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in partnership with the Myanmar-based civil society organisations Land in Our Hands (LIOH) and Karen New Generation Youth (KNGY).

    The report, based on interviews with 80 households displaced by the project, found that 84 percent now live below the poverty line compared with 15 percent before relocation. PHR found that after relocation, as poverty increased and with limited access to farmland, households didn't have enough food for 8.8 months of the year.

    "Forced displacement constitutes a human rights violation when international standards on eviction are not followed. Moreover, this initial rights abuse often leads to subsequent violations such as the right to food, adequate housing, health and education," reads the report.

    Shared responsibility

    No representative from the former Ministry of Electric Power or Department of Hydropower Implementation responded to Al Jazeera's requests for an interview regarding the forced resettlement of residents in the Paunglaung river valley.

    The 140 megawatts of electricity generated by the the Upper Paunglaung hydropower project is destined for Napyidaw. Famous for its monolithic parliamentary buildings, grand hotels and deserted eight-lane highways, it was unveiled as the nation's new capital one morning in 2005, after it had been constructed in secret and at great cost by the former military regime.

    'If our son was here we could work on our plot of land, but we can't now. Since we can't work, we're better off dead,' said the elderly displaced couple [Connor Macdonald/Al Jazeera]

    Swiss, British, and Chinese companies financed and built the dam. Swiss-based AF-Consult, responsible for the "consulting services of the design and construction of the dam", said they had no involvement in the resettlement of villagers.

    "According to our information they [the Department of Hydropower Implementation] have developed and implemented a programme based on new farmland, new infrastructure and some compensation, but the details are not known to us," Sabine Bargetz, executive assistant at AF-Consult Switzerland, told Al Jazeera in an email.

    Similarly, a representative from the UK-based engineering firm Malcolm Dunstan and Associates, also involved in the project, said: "We had nothing to do with the resettlement of villagers as part of the project," when contacted by Al Jazeera.

    Repeated attempts from Al Jazeera to contact Yunnan Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Company Ltd, the Chinese company involved in the dam project, for comment through email and phone were unanswered.

    Human rights groups have denounced the firm for its involvement in several other hydropower projects.

    Mark Farmaner, director of not-for-profit human rights group Burma Campaign UK (Myanmar was formally called Burma), thinks that foreign companies involved in the project also bear responsibility for human rights violations committed as a result of forced resettlement, even if they weren't directly involved.

    "At the time this project began the Burmese democracy movement, including the NLD, were calling for sanctions on projects such as this, there were high-profile international boycott campaigns targeting companies involved in Burma, and evidence from previous projects that dams such as this would lead to human rights violations," he told Al Jazeera in an email.

    Future of hydropower in Myanmar

    The former military regime and subsequent military-backed Thein Sein government recognised the value of Myanmar's vast untapped hydropower resources and awarded foreign investors, usually Chinese, Thai or Indian, lucrative contracts for the construction of dozens of large-scale hydropower projects.

    Many observers hope that with the NLD assuming office, these socially and environmentally costly hydropower projects will be a thing of the past. 

    But 65 percent of Myanmar's population live in rural areas and 85 percent of rural households have no access to electricity. 

    Sixty-five percent of Myanmar's population live in rural areas and 85 percent of rural households have no access to electricity [Connor Macdonald/Al Jazeera] 

    In 2013, Thein Sein embarked on an ambitious national electrification programme which aimed to provide 100 percent access to electricity across Myanmar by the year 2030, and predicted that 38 percent of this electricity would come from hydropower.

    Although the the future of Myanmar's controversial hydropower projects remains undecided, some in the NLD have expressed their opinion that hydropower is not a viable solution for Myanmar, particularly for a civilian government whose main concern is maintaining the wellbeing of the people and their land.

    U Kyaw Thiha, an NLD MP in the upper house of Myanmar's national parliament and a member of the newly created Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Committee, said: "Electricity is needed for our development, but we need to keep our natural resources. There are ways to do it, wind and solar for example, coal and hydropower is bad for our country."

    "Our leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is in control and knows what to do," U Kyaw Thiha added.

    Daw Tin Thant placed similar faith in Aung San Suu Kyi when she voted for the NLD in the November election, but concedes that the broken lives of those in their village might never be fully repaired.

    "We're not looking for individual gain. It's not just about this village, it's about fixing the whole country," she said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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