Hydropower and the worsening water crisis for Myanmar and Asia

08 February 2020
Hydropower and the worsening water crisis for Myanmar and Asia
Photo: EPA

Myanmar is caught between a rock and a hard place. As the government seeks to pick up the pace of development, electrical power is needed and hydropower is touted as an “environmentally-friendly” solution in order to switch on the lights.

But there are a number of problems with how this process is being handled and the negative effects that big dams typically could have on the country’s rivers and water supply. 


Dam builders face dam busters when it comes to the pros and cons of dams as a way to harness the power of Mother Nature.

Hydropower and dams are touted by people in the industry as an answer to power and also a way to control rivers that tend to flood. 

Yet the standoff over the Chinese-run $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State alerts us to the public opposition to the building of dams – and in this particular case, the questions over who was going to get most of the power, given the original plan to send most of the electricity to China, while Myanmar is thirsty for electricity.

Interestingly, the Myitsone Dam was not mentioned publicly during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent state visit to Myanmar. A raft of close to three dozen development projects mostly linked to Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative were signed. But the Myitsone Dam was noticeable by its absence from the list, despite Xi being the main Chinese official, in his role as Vice President, to push for the signing of the deal back in 2009.

Myanmar has the lowest per capita energy consumption in Asia. Only about 40-50 percent of people have access to electricity in the country, and it is as low as 20 percent in rural areas, according to NGO studies. Even areas connected to the national grid face increasing blackouts as demand outstrips supply. Myanmar’s large gas and oil reserves are being piped for export to China and Thailand so an obvious solution is to tap its vast potential hydro resources – particularly on the Irrawaddy and the Salween rivers that flow down from the Myanmar mountains and Himalayan glaciers.

The government has set an ambitious goal to reach 100 percent electrification by 2030 and third of new capacity will be provided by large dams, with the rest from natural gas, coal and a little from renewables.

But this poses several problems.


Myanmar faces difficulties when it comes to managing water. And it is not the only Asian country watching with anxiety how water management issues are spiraling out of control.

Much of South Asia and Southeast Asia is in crisis when it comes to water. In simple terms, the situation swings between too much and too little – the extreme case illustrated by people lining up with buckets to collect water from tankers during the drought in Kerala during the 2019 hot season and then being up to their chests in water during the massive flooding after the monsoon hit.

Areas of Myanmar are subject to bouts of drought and floods. But there are some underlying reasons why the country is subject to water stress. 

The main reasons revolve around natural or man-made climate change and the cycles between the hot season and the wet season. The stress can be seen in the attempts to manage water, with some local water conservation and irrigation projects helping farmers and villagers. It can be seen in the pollution of rivers and other water sources by industry and a delinquent public that throws away trash with little thought. And then there is the stress on major rivers, notably the Irrawaddy and Salween, posed by dams.


While the Myitsone dam project is on many people’s minds, the damming of major rivers in Myanmar is a cause for concern, according to NGOs and environmental groups.

As the NGO International Rivers stresses, the Myanmar government is in the process of selling the country’s rich river resources to hydropower developers from China, Thailand, and India. China is investing particularly heavily, with at least dozens of companies developing many hydropower projects. 

As happened with the contract for the Myitsone Dam project, concerns have been voiced that there is little room for public consultation and an underlying problem is electricity produced from the proposed dams will be exported to neighbouring countries instead of supplying local populations who endure serious prolonged energy shortages.

Coupled with this is the fears over the effects changes to these major rivers will have on the rural population, which includes over 135 ethnic groups, who rely heavily on rivers for their livelihoods and culture, which are now threatened by dam development. 

As International Rivers points out, project preparations have been linked to increased militarization and numerous human rights violations, including forced relocation. Many of the proposed dams are located in civil war zones where ethnic minority groups are being displaced.

Of crucial concern are the effects of dam projects on biodiversity and river flow. If built, dams on the ecologically rich Salween River, for example, will fragment the longest free-flowing river in mainland Southeast Asia. The Myitsone Dam will flood areas of pristine rainforest. 


River flow has come to prominence in Myanmar and the region due to the disastrous effects of dams built on major rivers in South Asia and Southeast Asia as a whole.

People in Asia may grind their teeth when the floods come, but there is an underlying problem of severe water shortage that will only get worse in the coming years. 

The mighty Mekong has turned blue and shrunk to a trickle downstream due to a combination of dams upstream in China and a serous drop in snow and ice cover in the Himalayas, due to climate change. 

All this brings to the fore the question about the advisability of building dams for hydropower and management of river flow. 

When the United States government built the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River back in the 1930s it helped spark a dam-building spree around the world with the message that dams can provide hydropower and help control water for use for industry, agriculture and domestic household consumption.

The Colorado River currently supplies water to 40 million people living in the rivershed but the heavy demand for agricultural, industrial, and municipal purposes has drained the river, which now only rarely reaches the ocean. The wetlands of the delta have been reduced to 5 percent of their original size since the construction of the Hoover Dam. 


Today, there is much more debate on the advisability of building large dams, including the worries about how such dams might affect people downstream. 

Questions revolve around the major hydropower projects such as the Three Gorges Dam in China, the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, the Del Monte Dam in Brazil, the Ilisu Dam in Turkey, and the Narmada Sardar Sarovar Dam in India. 

A movement is gradually picking up that encourages the halt to dam-building and even the tearing down of existing dams, with the aim to return rivers to their former glory. 

That was the case with the Glines Canyon Dam and the Elwha Dam in northwestern Washington state in the United States. In 2014, a demolition crew hired by the National Park Service blew up the last of the 210-foot-high dam that signaled the culmination of the largest dam-removal project in the world, according to the National Geographic.

In Asia, Africa, and South America, large hydroelectric dams are still being built, as they once were in the United States, to power economic development, with the added argument now that the electricity they provide is free of greenhouse gas emissions. But while the United States still benefits from the large dams it built in the 20th century, there's a growing recognition that in some cases, at least, dam building went too far - and the Elwha River is a symbol of that, according to the magazine.

For Myanmar, weighing up the benefits of hydropower against the negative effects, including a potential decrease in water supply downstream during an era of “water-stress” needs careful thought and debate. 

Right now, however, many people who could be directly affected in the Kachin, Shan and Kayin states are voting with their feet in public demonstrations. 

As their banners make clear, they say no to dam building.