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Defending Burma's Salween River

Rising in the headwaters of Tibet, the Salween is one of the five great rivers of Asia. Her sisters are the Mekong, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers. On her way to the Andaman Sea, the Salween rushes down deep gorges, alternating with broad expanses before emerging at Moulmein in southern Burma. For the most part, the Salween flows through Burma, but there is a short section where she forms the border between Burma and Thailand. But before long the forests will be laid bare. They are losing to the chain saws and bulldozers.

In addition to the commonly used teak, Burmese forests have other hardwoords which are prized even more, such as the pyinkadoe (red ironwood) and padauk (Burmese rosewood). In recent years, clear-cutting by Thai logging companies in search of teak have denuded sections of the banks along the Salween, exposing the fragile soil. Hundreds of varieties of plants and animals live here, including some that are on the endangered list. Due to the ongoing civil war, this area has been inaccessible to the Burmese military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). These forests harbor numerous varieties of plants and animals that have not been documented. Leopards, tigers and rhinoceros roam in these forests and hundreds of varieties of medicinal herbs grow on the forest floor and in the trees.

In a doubly disastrous attack on the indigenous peoples who live there, the SLORC regime has entered into plans with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) to destroy the forests by building eight dams along the Thai-Burma border. Other interested parties are Japanese investors, who have already funded work on the project, the Asian Development Bank, and the Thai Interior Ministry's Civil Disaster Relief Centre. Two of the dams will straddle the Salween River.

According to the study carried out by EGAT, the Upper Salween dam will have a generating capacity of 4,500 megawatts, double the 2,250 megawatts of electricity produced by all of the 21 existing dams in Thailand put together. It will be among the largest dams in the world.

Plans call for the Upper Salween dam to be located 76 kilometers upstream from the confluence of the Salween and Moei Rivers, and fed by a 2,000 kilometer-long river with a catchment area of nearly 300,000 square kilometers. The dam wall is to be 166 meters high and the flooding area will be vast. Of interest, only 17,920 square kilometers of the flooding area will be in Thai territory. Most of the flood zone will be in Burma, affecting territories occupied by the Karens, and stretching north through Karenni land and into Shan states.

Another purpose for the dam is to divert up to 30 percent of Salween River water into the Ping river, a tributary of the Chaophraya river. Unchecked clearcutting in Thailand has resulted in reduced water in the rivers there. The Salween will be drained so that: 1) the Bhumiphol Dam can be assured of adequate water; 2) Thai farmers can get enough water for their crops; and 3) the very polluted Ping river can be periodically flushed out into the sea.

At forth-nine meters in height and 379 meters in width, this dam will be far smaller than the Upper Salween Dam but will still dwarf the largest dams in Thailand. The exact site for this project is not known. However, two locations have been studied since the mid-1950s. One site is eleven kilometers upstream from the confluence of the Salween and Moei rivers, and the other is twenty-five kilometers down stream from it.

Either of these locations would flood out areas occupied by Karens and Karennis. It would effectively cut all communication and trade for the local people. More importantly, both of these sites are close to military positions held by ethnic forces struggling for their survival. Construction of a dam in this area would essentially obliterate Karen and Karenni villages and their way of life.

Up and down the mouth of the Salween where it empties into the Andaman Sea, rice farmers have for centuries depended on the annual flooding of their fields, and counted on the silt deposits that the river brings down. Once the Salween is dammed, their supply of water will be drastically reduced, and very little of the silt will reach their fields. Stagnant waters will form as well, creating prime breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes and snails that host the disease schistosomiasis.

In order for Thailand and the SLORC to proceed with these projects, they must remove all threats to the plan. Those who stand in their way are the major ethnic groups who have lived on this land for centuries and who have been in armed conflict with the SLORC and prior regimes for the last forty-three years. In order for the SLORC to sell off the natural resources of the land which they forcefully took over, and to which they have no right, they must first remove the Karens, the Mons and the Karennis, the Shans and also the students and monks who now have joined with them in the struggle for democracy in Burma.

To to relief of the inhabitants of the Salween valley, the dam projects have been suspended indefinitely. The reason for the halt has not been clarified, however, and progress towards construction may resume at any time. The dams thus constitute an ever-present threat to the river ecosystem - including fragile forest and ancestral farm lands - and to the ethnic nationalities who live in its potential flooding area. The dam project, situated in Burma's present social and political context, must be stopped.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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