The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
A Natural Disaster in the Making

Burma’s rulers have shown little inclination to learn from the environmental mistakes of their neighbors

WHILE the world ponders the continuing repressive policies of the Burmese junta, a different crisis is looming across the country.

The health and welfare of large numbers of the country’s 50 million or so population is endangered by the consequences of a deteriorating natural environment.

Scavengers collect garbage floating on a sewage pool in central Rangoon in order to earn their livelihood. (Photo: AFP)
A combination of water pollution, land degradation through forest slashing, and badly thought out infrastructure projects is threatening to displace hundreds of thousands of people and put the lives of many others in danger, say environmentalists.

The lawless pursuit of profit is wrecking good farm land, poisoning drinking water and depleting natural resources such as fish, on which millions depend for food.

Several international NGOs have sent out warnings that years of wanton plunder by the military and its business affiliates—plus  massive new projects being pursued without proper technical assessments—are coalescing to create an ecological disaster.

Altsean, a Bangkok-based NGO which campaigns on human rights issues within countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, says in a report on its Web site that the junta’s money-earning policies have “resulted in massive environmental degradation and health hazards.”

Deforestation is a particular problem in a country with a fragile ecology and where the few environmental protection laws that do exist are poorly enforced.

Burma’s forests are disappearing rapidly because of unsustainable timber extraction, mainly to feed Chinese industrial demand and to provide fuel for local populations living without electricity.

Altsean estimates that only 30 percent of Burma is now forested, compared with 70 percent in 1948.

“Poverty, high taxation and government resettlement programs only contribute to the pressures on citizens to fell more trees, clear land and degrade their own environment for their own immediate survival,” Altsean says.

Ironically in a country that is rich in gas, nearly two-thirds of energy generation in Burma depends on burning wood.

“Deforestation leads to massive soil erosion, sedimentation of rivers, increased flooding, acute dry season water shortages in some areas, and a considerable decrease in biodiversity,” the Altsean report says.

However, it is the combination of damaging developments that now poses the greatest threat to a population already prone to sickness and disease because of poverty.

River dam systems planned on the major Irrawaddy and Salween rivers—to generate electricity for Thailand and China—will reduce water flows which will not only undermine drinking water and fish supplies downstream, but also dangerously raise pollution levels from mercury and other poisons leaking from crude gold mining practices upstream.

Slower water flows mean that poisons accumulate more rapidly rather than become diluted and flushed out.

Army-run or sanctioned gold mines along the tributaries of the Irrawaddy in Kachin State are using not only mercury but also cyanide and other poisons as part of their extraction processes, warns the Kachin Development Networking Group, a sustainable economics organization.

The Thailand-based environment NGO Salween Watch estimates that the lives of 300,000 people along the Salween will be disrupted by a massive dam being built at Tasang. Many will be forced to move, adding to ecological stress.

“Dams decrease river flow, which means fewer habitats and nutrients, and increased stresses on aquatic life downstream. They can cause massive changes in the ecology and water quality of the river and its tributaries,” says a Salween Watch report. “In addition, dams have huge impacts on coastal ecosystems.”

The Tasang dam will be Southeast Asia’s biggest hydroelectric project. The planners estimate it will have a generating capacity of 7,000 megawatts.

Such power could greatly benefit Burma—it is five times the country’s current meager capacity—but it will mostly be fed over the border to fuel Thailand’s economic growth.

The US $6 billion scheme, involving Chinese as well as Thai developers, is going ahead with little or no regard for the environment; feasibility studies have been minimal, say critics.

Karen villagers mark “Anti-Dams Day” near Burma’s Salween River on March 14. (Photo: Living River Siam)
China is already learning to its cost how Mother Nature can bite back hard when she’s tampered with too much.

The world’s biggest hydroelectric dam system, the Three Gorges project on China’s mighty Yangtze River, is causing unexpected soil erosion, reduced river levels and, worst of all, the de-oxygenation of the huge reservoir of water stock through suffocating algae growths.

“These days even in China there would be a public outcry if someone came along and said, ‘Hi, we’re going to build a huge dam on your doorstep, you’ll have to move,’” said energy industries consultant and China watcher Jeff Mead in Hong Kong.

“The Three Gorges might never achieve its potential because no one really calculated how the environment might react,” Mead told The Irrawaddy. “Plonking a 7,000 megawatt capacity dam on a Burmese river in a fragile rural environment is going to lead to some severe problems for many people.”

It’s a warning echoed by the NGO Christian Aid in a recent report that said “environmental damage caused by the Burmese government’s development projects could lead to the further displacement of rural communities.”

But without a change of government that could bring accountability, there seems little prospect of halting environmental calamities.

As Sean Turnell, editor of Burma Economic Watch and a professor at Macquarie University in Australia, observes: “Military rule in Burma has been characterized by an absence of meaningful economic reform. The prerogative of the state remains dominant, which together with a few oligarchic enterprises controls the economy in every important way.”

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |