Treading Water: The Dark Legacy of Hydropower Development in Myanmar
Hydropower may be a source of renewable energy, but if left uncontrolled, it might cost more to the planet than we think.
Source: University of Sydney | Thiri Shwesin Aung - While hydropower is a vital source of renewable energy, the development of new hydropower plants can often result in adverse environmental, social and human rights consequences. Dr Thiri Shwesin Aung explores the dark side of hydropower development in Myanmar.
Rivers influence biophysical processes that underpin natural capitals and essential ecosystem services. Myanmar's rivers offer great opportunities for increasing energy supply at low costs from hydropower plants and make essential contributions to the national economy. Hence, hydropower becomes the primary renewable energy source for the country. Myanmar, like many lower-middle-income countries, suffers from significant energy poverty. The country currently has one of the lowest electrification rates in Asia, with less than one-third of the population having access to the electricity grid. Myanmar has an underdeveloped hydropower potential, estimated at 108 gigawatts (GWh) which is more than ten times the current total electricity generating capacity from all sources combined, including fossil fuel and renewable energy. As of 2018, the country had 29 hydropower plants in operation, six under construction and 51 in the pre-construction stage.
While hydropower is a vital source of renewable energy, the development of new hydropower plants in Myanmar often results in adverse environmental, social and human rights consequences. Myanmar's hydropower sector is highly controversial and is often met with criticism. While economic benefits of hydropower projects are apparent, associated potential environmental, social and human rights impacts are also well documented, especially in conflict zones and disputed areas like Shan, Kachin and Karen states. The sector has long been associated with far-reaching environmental degradations, an increased risk of ethnic armed conflict, displacement, landmine contamination and human rights abuses. The development of hydropower dams necessitates clearing of land, the use of large amounts of construction materials and electricity as the projects are extensive and involve complex construction and operation stages. There can also be social and human rights issues, in particular in connection with ownership and access to land and water and other ecosystem services.
The "cradle to grave" environmental Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) of five hydropower plants in Myanmar demonstrates that the projects currently fails to deliver sustainable hydropower and does not support the management of associated environmental predicaments. Based on the LCIA framework proposed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards 14040 and 14044, environmental impacts associated with construction, operation and maintenance, transportation, and decommissioning of large-scale hydropower plants were assessed. The results showed that construction, transportation, operation and maintenance phases contribute to global warming, mineral resource depletion, acidification, freshwater aquatic ecotoxicity, human toxicity and photochemical ozone creation in Myanmar. The general pattern of the findings demonstrated that power plants with higher installed capacity produce higher green house gas emissions from reservoirs. These damning results defied the widespread belief that smaller dams are more environmentally friendly than larger dams. Furthermore, large dams potentially play a significant role in irrigation and increasing cropland productivity. Nevertheless, due to poorly planned projects, local communities in Myanmar usually oppose larger-sized hydropower plants while micro-dams are often considered acceptable.
Furthermore, the S (social) Life Cycle Assessment of hydropower generation system in the Ayeyarwady river in Myanmar, Shweli hydropower dam 1, reported that the project engenders a series of negative impacts while offering little to no tangible benefits to local community and society. The research used the framework defined by the ISO 14044 and the "Guidelines for Social Life Cycle Assessment of Products" introduced by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry to investigate the adverse social life-cycle impacts of one of the largest hydropower dams in the country. Four stakeholder categories (value chain actors, workers, local community and broader society) were classified for three life-cycle phases; construction, operation, and maintenance/transportation. The study included 24 impact sub-categories and four impact categories that are associated with four stakeholder groups, including; governance, human rights, community rights and socioeconomic repercussion. The most commonly held view expressed by stakeholders was that the dam failed to offer the promised social and economic benefits. The weakest social performance was observed in the governance and socioeconomic repercussion categories.
The results from these two studies suggest that environmentally and socially sustainable hydropower sector in Myanmar will depend on systematic planning, participatory decision making and, comprehensive environmental and social impact assessments (ESIA). Local communities should be consulted and be allowed to negotiate for compensation for their land and other losses before the start of the project. Moreover, the power generated from large hydropower dams should provide dependable and affordable electricity for the local population.
About the Author
Thiri Shwesin Aung is a Research Fellow at the Asia Center, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University. Her current project explores the impacts of natural resource extraction on the ethnic armed conflicts, the environment and livelihood in conflict-affected areas in Myanmar. Prior to joining Harvard, Thiri was a Postdoctoral Researcher at the School of Environment and Energy, Peking University, China, where she explored the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI).
 T. S. Aung, T. B. Fischer, and A. S. Azmi, "Are large-scale dams environmentally detrimental? Life-cycle environmental consequences of mega-hydropower plants in Myanmar," Int. J. Life Cycle Assess., vol. 1, pp. 1–23, 2020, doi: 10.1007/s11367-020-01795-9.
 K. T. Han, "Possible Socioeconomic Consequences of the Hydropower Dams on the Downstream Communities : Case Study Hatgyi Dam," vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 237–251, 2018, doi: 10.13189/sa.2018.060205.
 International Finance Corporation, "Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Myanmar Hydropower Sector," 2018. doi: 10.1080/00119253.1968.9940266.