Akuppa John Wigham

Election Over Troubled Waters: Why Benefit Sharing Over the Salween is Important for Myanmar

Akuppa John Wigham

Election campaigning in Myanmar began in early September, as the general election will be held in November. The election is considered to be the first fair and free election since the multi-party election in 1990. A key issue to consider is the role of ethnic minority groups in the election and the political negotiations that may follow. Minority groups, which make up 40 percent of Myanmar’s population and are represented by their own political parties, have not been under effective state control since Myanmar’s independence 67 years ago. Despite the ceasefire agreement, fighting between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar Armed Forces has continued in several states. One of their grievances is the damming of the Salween river in their controlled territories. Proper accommodation of the interests of minority groups in this matter is crucial for ensuring that a peaceful post-election period and transition towards true democracy.

Minority groups face significant adverse impacts from the dams. They are losing their land to reservoirs. At the Tasang dam site, 300,000 people have been forcefully relocated since 1996. Dam projects include no provisions for wealth sharing or compensation between minority groups and the regime. Despite the official rhetoric that dams will improve rural electrification, which is only at 16 percent, the majority of electricity generated will be exported to Thailand and China.

Conflicts over the Salween are symptoms of treating the sharing of water as a zero-sum game, which has often led to unjust distribution of benefits and burden. A zero-sum game implies that if dams are constructed, some parties—often the most powerful—will benefit to the detriment of others. Zero-sum games result in unsustainable gains that in the long run will be countered by losses of the other parties. In Myanmar, the hostile relationships between minority communities and the military that controls the dam sites are undermining the peace process.

The sharing of water needs to go from a zero-sum game to benefit sharing. First the identification of benefits in the entire basin is required. The positive sum can then be fairly distributed among upstream and downstream users, women and men, minority groups, and economic sectors. It also demands thinking beyond water quantity to also include monetary and non-monetary benefits of water.

In concrete terms this means, first and foremost, reconsideration of the necessity of large-scale dams. Although strengthening the energy sector is vital for reducing poverty and promoting development, there are alternative solutions such as run-of-the-river hydro with less harmful impacts or off-grid renewable energy. An undammed river boasts benefits such as rich biodiversity, fertile farmland, and abundant fisheries, all of which enhance food security and rural livelihoods. Where dam construction is already underway, a portion of the revenues from electricity sales can be set aside for supporting community livelihoods and social development programs, such as reservoir aquaculture schemes and improved irrigation.

It is not only about the type of benefits that can be shared, but also the ways in which the plans for sharing are developed and implemented. One reason why minority groups have been unsatisfied with how damming has taken place is the lack of civil society participation and transparency in the planning process. At one dam, the government ordered a third-party environmental impact assessment. It was met with resistance from the communities, who did not perceive this as proper consultation. As long as ex-ante dialogues happen behind closed doors, parties cannot convey the benefits they seek from the river, what they can reciprocate, and what they are willing to forgo.

Myanmar’s efforts to address conflicts over dams need to be incorporated in a basin-wide approach. So far, riparian states have not included one another in planning processes. This makes it difficult to identify benefits and formulate sharing arrangements. As there is also no formal decision-making institution or a multilateral agreement in place, China as an upstream hegemon continues to take unilateral decisions incompatible with the interests of Myanmar and Thailand.

Lessons can be drawn from transboundary basins facing similar challenges. The Mekong is comparable with the Salween, running parallel in Southeast Asia with China upstream. Various minority groups reside across the basin, where conflicts have also occurred over dam construction. Despite debates over the real impacts of basin-wide benefit sharing, benefit sharing in the Mekong has been institutionalized and cooperation among states is relatively advanced.

Large-scale damming of the Salween is threatening not only its ecosystem, but also the land, culture and livelihoods of its minority residents. Although water may seem distant at first sight from the upcoming election, it should be a point of consideration during the campaign, including the aspiration of minority groups regarding Salween’s resources. There is a greater risk of violence escalating if government forces continue to remove ethnic groups from dam sites. Fair benefit sharing of the water can help create stability and in the longer-term it can help prevent the renewal and intensification of the fighting by addressing a relatively recent structural cause in the conflict that has been running since 1948.

Previously published commentaries on Myanmar by The Hague Institute staff can be read here:


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