Hydro-powering the Regime
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Hydro-powering the Regime

By Yuki Akimoto JUNE, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.6

Hydro-powering the Regime

Burma’s government has initiated a massive dam-building program. Yuki Akimoto details the projects and examines the possible ramifications. [also see table for complete details]

The military junta that rules Burma, the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, has a strong predilection for hydro-power plants. Council chairman, Sr-Gen Than Shwe, who hails from Kyaukse, through which the Zawgyi River flows, is widely rumored to believe himself a reincarnation of King Anawrahta (r. 1044-1077). The long-dead Pagan-era monarch was a prolific dam- and canal-builder, particularly along the Zawgyi, where he supervised the building of a series of weirs and canals to atone for killing his foster-brother Sokka-te.

Ancient kings were not required to rationalize their decisions. Nowadays the justification for damming rivers is electricity generation. The New Light of Myanmar reported on April 28 this year that Than Shwe addressed the National Electric Power Development Coordination Meeting and called for more dams (the generals regularly call for more dams and other projects as part of their “national development” effort).

Burma’s potential capacity for hydro-power is great, and the ruling generals know it. Burma’s major rivers run roughly north-south: the Irrawaddy, the Chindwin (chief tributary of the Irrawaddy), the Sittang and the Salween, the longest undammed river in Southeast Asia. For generations they have served as a lifeline to the country, used for irrigation, rice cultivation, communication and transport. In recent years Burma’s extensive river system has been targeted for another use: large-scale hydro-power.

Burma’s interest in hydro-power is driven both by the desire to export and domestic demand. With even Rangoon subject to daily blackouts, the need for domestic power is clear

Although plans for dam construction on the Salween River have attracted the most attention among Burma-watchers, similar planning is underway throughout the country’s vast river network.

Hydro-power accounts for about one-third of Burma’s electricity production. At least four major hydro-power plants started operating in the last decade: Zawgyi No1 (commissioned in July 1995) and Zawgyi No 2 (commissioned in March 2000)—both in Shan State; Zaungtu (commissioned in March 2000) in Pegu Division; and Thaphanseik in Sagaing Division (commissioned in June 2002). Collectively, these plants generate 80MW of electricity, about one-fifth of Burma’s hydro-power production. Large dams service all of these plants: Zawgyi Dam is 44.2 meters high; Zaungtu Dam is 44.8 meters high and Thapanseik Dam is 32.9 meters high.

Burma’s total installed capacity is about 1,200MW, only 400MW of which is from hydro-power. Sources such as Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power and the New Light of Myanmar indicate that the SPDC would like to build several dozen additional hydro-power projects in the future that would add over 25,000MW of capacity. Many of these projects would involve large dams.

Rush to Dam

Burma’s interest in hydro-power is driven both by the desire to export and domestic demand.

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