HARNESSING SALWEEN RIVER: Settlement through confrontation or cooperation?

09 February 2020
HARNESSING SALWEEN RIVER: Settlement through confrontation or cooperation?
The aerial view of Upper Paunglaung hydroelectric power project in Nay Pyi Taw council area, Pyinmana township. Photo: Ministry of Electric Power

Myitsone Dam project is well known for its controversial impact on Myanmar’s political landscape, as it involves on and off pressure from China to restart the project in line with the signed contract as soon as possible.

But what is less prominent is the controversy over the projects to dam or harness the power of the Salween River.

In this sense, it is necessary to take a deeper look at the Salween river flow, the dams proposed to be built on it and what kind of ecological and societal effects could befall the population living along the river basin. 

Much of the mighty Salween river, known as Nu river in Chinese, Thanlwin in Burmese, Salawin in Thai, Nam Khong in Shan, continues to flow freely. 

The Salween River stretches over 2,800 kilometers from its source on the Himalayan Plateau in China to the Andaman Sea and is the second longest river in Southeast Asia after the Mekong River.

The river originates 4000 m above sea level on the mountain Tangula in the Himalayas on the Tibetan plateau in China, then flows southward through Yunnan province, China, down through Shan and Kayah (Karenni) states in the east of Myanmar, along the border between Thailand and Myanmar for about 120 km, then again enters Myanmar and passes through Kayan and Mon states before emptying into the Gulf of Martaban in the Andaman Sea. The Moei river, originating in Thailand, becomes the border between Myanmar and Thailand and joins the downstream Salween river, which has also become the border river between Myanmar and Thailand, before again entering Myanmar,” according to Aquastat, Main Database, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations' report titled “Salween River Basin”

The Salween basin, which supports more than 10 million people, representing at least 13 different ethnic groups, is rich in natural resources, including water (both surface and groundwater), forest, wildlife, fisheries and aquatic life and minerals. Part of the basin in Thailand is a national park and wildlife sanctuary. Its beautiful landscapes include many caves, rapids, cliffs, unusual rocks and waterfalls that serve as tourist attractions. Habitats in the Salween eco-region support rich and endemic freshwater fauna. The river is home to at least 140 species of fish, of which one-third are endemic.

The governments of Myanmar and Thailand are also pushing seven dams and a water diversion project for the lower Salween, despite the ongoing conflicts near the dam sites between the Myanmar army or Tatmadaw and ethnic groups in Karenni, Karen and Shan states. Since 2004, communities in China, Myanmar and Thailand have voiced strong opposition to dam construction on the Salween. 

Salween Watch Coalition wrote in 2016 that during the past several decades efforts have been made to develop hydropower projects along the entire length of the Salween River in Myanmar. Accordingly, the proposed  projects  have  faced  strong  opposition  as a result of their expected impacts on people in the region and the  environment, as well as ongoing  armed  conflict between  the Tatmadaw and  ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) along the river.

According to Alec Scott and Vanessa Lamb in their piece titled: “Hydropower Politics and Conflict on the Salween River” in the table 3.1 using sources from Salween Watch Coalition (2016); International Center for Environmental Management (2017); and International Finance Corporation (2018), identified the scope of planned dams on the mainstream Salween River as follows:

  1. Hatgyi Dam located in Karen State will generate megawatt capacity of 1,365 and the developers are Sinohydro (PowerChina), Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand International EGATi (Thailand), Ministry of Electricity and Energy MOEE (Myanmar), International Group of Entrepreneurs IGE (Myanmar). The intended power market is Thailand. The status is Joint Venture Agreement, Memorandum of Agreement (24 April 2010).
  2. Dagwin Dam located in Karen State/Mae Hong Son Province will generate megawatt capacity of 729 and the developer is EGATi. The intended power market is Thailand. The status is canceled.
  3. Weigyi Dam located in Karen State/Mae Hong Son Province will generate megawatt capacity of 4,540 and the developer is EGATi. The intended power market is Thailand. The status is canceled
  4. Ywathit Dam located in Karenni (Kayah) State (approximately 45 km of Thai border) will generate megawatt capacity of 4,000 and the developers are China Datang Overseas Investment Co., Ltd., PowerChina, MOEE, Shwe Taung Group. The intended power market is reportedly China. The status is Memorandum of Agreement (18 January 2011).
  5. Mong Ton Dam located in Shan State will generate megawatt capacity of 7,110 and the developers are  China Three Gorges Company CTGC, Sinohydro, China Southern Power Grid, EGATi, MOEE, IGE. The intended power market is Thailand. The status is Memorandum of Understanding (10 November 2010).
  6. Nongpha Dam located in Shan State will generate megawatt capacity of 1,200 and the developers are HydroChina (PowerChina) MOEE, IGE. The intended power market is China. The status is Memorandum of Agreement (22 May 2014).
  7. Kunlong Dam located in Shan State will generate megawatt capacity of 1,400 and the developers are Hanergy Holding Group, PowerChina, MOEE, Gold Water Resources (Asia World).  The intended power market is China. The status is Memorandum of Agreement (21 May 2010).


The hydropower dam issue isn't just one of the economy and development or “business as usual” but thoroughly a political one.

“A fundamental issue regarding dams in the Salween basin is their relationship to contested territories in Myanmar, where there is a complex history of conflict and multiple associated claims for political authority and legitimacy. There are no less than ten non-state EAOs, 18 Border Guard Forces (BGFs) and 28 militias active in the Salween Basin area,” wrote Carl Middleton, Alec Scott and Vanessa Lamb in the above mentioned piece.

Between September 2011 and April 2012, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government renewed and signed new ceasefires with 14 EAOs—nine of which are based in the Salween river basin area—while also initiating a multilateral peace negotiation process, partial nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) was signed in October 2015.

Out of some 20 EAOs operating in the country, only eight signed the NCA in 2015 under USDP regime, followed by another two in 2018 during the present ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government tenure, adding up to ten altogether. This means, 80 percent of the EAOs fighting force which the non-signatory EAOs possessed is pitted against the Myanmar military, mostly placed along the Salween River. According to the expert estimation, the some 20 EAOs combined troops could be between 80,000 and 100,000.

The NCA-based peace process that is supposed to end the civil war and make necessary constitutional amendments to the military-drafted 2008 Constitution to become a federal union came to a halt more than a year ago, due to various implementation problems including dissatisfaction over developmental projects in ethnic areas. Among them, the proposed dam building is also one of them.

Armed conflict is concentrated in the Salween basin in northern Shan State, and in Karen State alone, since 2016, more than 8,500 civilians have been forced to flee Myanmar army or Tatmadaw military operations, in addition to the serious armed conflict that are going on in Kachin and Rakhine areas beyond the Salween river basin.

Hatgyi Dam is a contested area between Karen National Union (KNU), one of the NCA-signatories, Karen Border Guard Force (BGF), including the Tatmadaw. Mong Ton Dam is an area where some 300,000 people were forcibly relocated and the internally displaced persons (IDP), including refugees in Thailand many of whom still haven't been able to return and claim back their land. In addition, it is an area where the Myanmar military Eastern Central Command was set up in the aftermath of the forced relocation and was established particularly to monitor and control the Shan resistance movements. Thus, it is an area on continuous war-footing with on and off armed conflict occurring with the Shan EAOs, such as Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), signatory of the NCA, Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) with the Tatmadaw and even occasional armed engagement and military tension among the EAOs themselves, which also includes the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

Similarly, Nongpha Dam and Kunlong Dam are located in EAOs operational areas.  In the former area, in 2015, Tatmadaw forces dispatched troops to lay siege to the SSPP at a strategic point close to the area under the control of the UWSA. As for the latter area, the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) stated that apart from affecting  local  villagers,  the  dam  projects  on the Salween River will also disrupt the peace process in Myanmar, since then around the dam sites there has been ongoing fighting between Myanmar government troops and the various EAOs. As a result, the local people are calling for a halt to dam construction. At present, dam construction has been suspended due to  the ongoing armed conflict and reportedly the dam sites have been abandoned.

The undertaking of such hydropower dams boils down to the fact of whether single sovereign authority is in place which it is a very crucial question to begin with.

“Numerous analysts have linked the current plans for Salween dams to the risk of armed conflict and in some cases ongoing cases of fighting. For instance, around the Hatgyi dam site, fighting between a splinter faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and a Tatmadaw-allied BGF has sporadically broken out, including in 2014 and 2016, and has been linked by Civil Society Organization (CSO) networks to plans for the project. Similarly, a representative of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy has suggested the Mong Ton dam could threaten the peace process and national reconciliation, a feeling echoed by CSOs,”  according to the report of Carl Middleton, Alec Scott and Vanessa Lamb.

“Contested political authority over territory in the Salween basin requires a different way of looking at water governance, as the assumption of a single sovereign political authority does not hold. From a hydropolitical perspective, it means that multiple claims for legitimacy to govern must be given serious regard.” 

In sum, an all-out conflict between the EAOs, CSOs, government and Tatmadaw in relation to the hydropower dams is very real and shouldn't be taken lightly. This goes for all Salween river basin areas where most of the various EAOs, ethnic political parties (EPPs) and ethnic population are openly against the projects due to the potential for disrupting their ecological system, livelihood and various other reasons.


According to “Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Myanmar Hydropower Sector: Discussion Brief” by International Rivers (December 2018): “In 2016, the International Finance Corporation (IFC)—the private-sector lending arm of the World Bank—began a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA or “the study”) of the Myanmar Hydropower Sector.  To conduct this study, it partnered with two Myanmar ministries: Electricity and Energy (MOEE), and Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC).”
The assessment process engaged national policymakers, ethnic armed organizations, development partners, private sector representatives, civil society and local communities—among others—and prompted discussions around the development of Myanmar’s energy and hydropower sectors. 

Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is a process to ensure that environmental and social concerns are fully addressed in a proposed policy or plan at the outset. As such, SEA should take place early and before decisions are made about whether to adopt a given policy or plan. Therefore, an SEA on hydropower policy examines socio-economic and environmental issues related to hydropower at a broad strategic level, rather than at the level of an individual hydropower project.  

From three of the key facts found by the SEA study, two of its recommendations are:

  • Recommends no hydropower dams on the mainstream of major river basins, including the Ayeyarwady, Thanlwin (Salween), Mekong, Chindwin, Sittaung. This reflects best practice in maintaining the ecosystem functions of healthy rivers. 
  • Proposes a “Sustainable Development Framework” for hydropower projects that includes a three-step approval process, and the establishment of new institutions and a policy framework for implementation.  

The study suggested three steps for the approval of dam projects, which are: 

  • Project site screening against Basin Zoning Plan (all hydropower projects 10 megawatts or more) - “clearance” certificate needed before a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is agreed.
  • A Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA) for all subbasins or watersheds where new or additional hydropower projects are planned as determined by the MOEE/MONREC Planning Committee.
  • An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) for projects (EIA for hydropower projects 15 megawatts or more, or reservoir volume 20,000 Mm3 (cubic mega metres) or reservoir 400 hectares or more; IEE for hydropower projects between 1 and 15 megawatts). 

The SEA examined the impacts of the business as usual scenario, which includes all existing, planned and proposed dams across the country: a total of 69 planned projects (52,134 megawatts).

Based on the Basin Zoning Plan and value ratings, the SEA identifies the following guide for the total future development of the hydropower sector:

  • existing projects: 3,300 megawatts 
  • new hydropower generation: 8,900 megawatts – under construction: 1,600 megawatts – potential medium- and low-zone development: 7,300 megawatts – lower impact hydropower projects in high-zone basins: not estimated – hydropower projects less than 10 megawatts: not estimated 
  • total sector: 12,200 megawatts or more


Although the NLD-led government may look reluctant to commit itself in damming the mainstream rivers, as suggested by the SEA study, Myanmar doesn't seem to have a definitive plan for the electricity sector development in the public domain and the government has sent mixed messages on plans for hydropower on the Salween River.

While the NLD’s election manifesto made a commitment not to build new large dams, shortly after the NLD came to power, in August 2016 the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Electricity and Energy declared the government’s commitment to construct large hydropower dams on the Salween River. Moreover, the discussion which has turned to the use of natural gas for domestic electricity generation might suggest that the need to build dams on Salween River could have weakened considerably, according to some commentators, note Alec Scott and Vanessa Lamb.

The Ministry of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations last month announced tax exemptions for investments in selected sectors in all 14 states and regions in Myanmar and the Naypyitaw Union Territory, reported Myanmar Times on January 28.

While energy or power accumulation was not mentioned as the announcement emphasized mainly agriculture, manufacturing and infrastructure, the priorities set to achieve in Shan, Karenni and Karen states included “power” that has to be developed. However, it is not clear whether it is meant to develop dams on the mainstream Salween River or only on its tributaries, as suggested by the SEA.

The government appears to have been sending mixed signals. A local media report in 2019 indicated that the Minister for Electricity and Energy was working on a new hydropower policy.

Reportedly, multiple sources confirmed that the ministry was drafting a white paper on this with technical support from China’s National Energy Administration (NEA), which is responsible for energy planning and regulation, and implements the decisions of the National Energy Commission headed by Premier Li Keqiang.


There is no denying that CSOs and community-based organizations (CBOs) are crucial in building awareness where electricity trade, particularly where the impropriety of large dam construction is concerned.

For example, way back in February 2007, a Global Day of Action Against the Salween Dams in Myanmar took place in 19 cities globally, when a petition letter endorsed by 232 organizations was also released. 

In July 2015, 122 organizations under the banner of “Save The Salween Network” met in Yangon, announcing absolute rejection of the dam building on the Salween River. And again, in February 2016, a statement was issued echoing the same rejection of the dam projects.

“Local people in the Salween Basin are overwhelmingly opposed to the dam plans, which would devastate their culture and livelihoods. Not only are these dams moving forward without proper scientific study, information transparency, or consent from local communities – but they are major drivers of violent conflict and human rights violations in ethnic areas,” wrote Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) under the heading of “Water Governance” in its website.

Moreover, it added: “Water Governance work aims to empower vulnerable communities to advocate for the good governance of water resources – with a focus on the Salween River. The longest free- flowing river in Southeast Asia, the Salween supports incredible biodiversity, and also the livelihoods of the Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan peoples in Burma. However, the Salween’s health is threatened by secretive plans to build a cascade of five large hydroelectric dams in order to generate electricity for China and Thailand.”


What is largely lost in the controversy over the building of dams for hydropower in Myanmar is the question of who will benefit from the projects. Myanmar may be thirsting for electrical power but many if not all of the listed dam projects aim to send electricity out of the country, to China or to Thailand, with the host government deriving an income from the projects.

In part, this is one of the reasons why there is local opposition.

As is the case with Myitsone Dam mega project, damming the mainstream Salween River is categorically rejected by the ethnic population in Shan, Karenni, Karen and Mon states.

Out of the seven dam projects - three each in Shan State and Karen State and one in Karenni State - two have been canceled; four have memorandum of agreement (MOA); and one memorandum of understanding (MOU). Thus, it could be taken that the four MOA would be binding, although details are unavailable to the public, while the one MOU could be easily disregarded. The only advantage the four MOA have is that they have not yet reached the maturity stage of implementation and thus should be much easier to handle, in case of wanting to nullify the contracts, compared to the Myitsone Dam project, which has partly been implemented before stopping it in 2011, under the directive of President Thein Sein and his USDP government.

It is not clear how the government will try to go about with the Salween Dam projects as a whole, with so much opposition from the local ethnic people, including hundreds of CSOs countrywide.

From the EAOs' point of view, the hydropower projects, at least concerning the mega ones along the mainstream Salween River are not in line with the National Ceasefire Agreements or NCA, as the government is breaching the agreement regarding the said project and it didn't bother to consult either with the EAOs or the local people in the affected areas, who inhabit the Salween basin.

According to the NCA between the EAOs and the government one paragraph states: “Planning of projects that may have a major impact on civilians living in ceasefire areas shall be undertaken in consultation with local communities in accordance with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) Standard procedures and coordinated with relevant the Ethnic Armed Organizations for implementation.”

As can be seen the Salween basin is a contested area, where ongoing armed conflict and military tension are rampant between the EAOs and the government troops, including inter-ethnic wars among the EAOs, it is hardly advisable to implement such mega dam projects, for there is no long-lasting security and also lack of a single sovereign authority, as pointed out by the experts and keen observers.

And finally, while proponents of mega dams framed and propagated the undertakings as developmental solutions which will promote regional connectivity, industrialization, electrification and poverty alleviation, the technical framework of these projects overlook the human rights, environment, social impacts, and the ongoing NCA-based peace process, including achieving a federal democratic country in which all can live in harmony.

Indeed, a new report “Watered Down” by International Rivers (December 2019) finds the world’s largest hydropower corporations fail to meet basic social and environmental standards in preparing and constructing new dams. The study revealed several breaches of standard practice. For instance, only one of the seven projects studied made full environmental impact assessments publicly available prior to construction.

In the end, it boils down to two main issues.

Firstly, harnessing the power of the Salween River is fraught with problems in terms of the effects and in terms of who would ultimately benefit, given the main thrust of dam projects appears to revolve around exporting power, not using it for the good of Myanmar.

Secondly, an all-embracing deliberation on resource governance, including the potential to harness rivers, needs to come after peace negotiations bring a political settlement to the ongoing ethnic conflicts. Without a durable peace solution, it is hard to contemplate a comprehensive solution to the critical question of how to handle the Salween.