Beyond Myitsone: the sleeping Chipwi hydropower project

While national attention remains focused on the Myitsone dam, Frontier visits one of the six other mega-dams north of the Ayeyarwady River confluence that could resume if conflict between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Organisation is resolved.

By YE MON | FRONTIER
Photos HKUN LAT

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

The fuel station is bigger and more modern than anything I’ve seen in Kachin State. It’s also completely abandoned.

A fuel nozzle lies on the cracked, overgrown concrete, its hose trailing across the ground to a dispenser that has been reduced to a skeleton. Above the dispensers is a steel frame that would once have held up a roof. The adjacent concrete office is a mess of rubbish and broken glass. Gaping doorways let in the dull monsoon light.

The fuel station was built to supply construction vehicles on the 3,400-megawatt Chipwi hydropower project on the N’Mai River. The dam would be the second largest in a cascade of seven that a Chinese-Myanmar joint venture, Upstream Ayeyawady Confluence Basin Hydropower Co Ltd, plans to build on the upper reaches of the Ayeyarwady River in Kachin State.

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Work began in December 2010 with a targeted completion date of 2020. Just six months later, fighting erupted between the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Tatmadaw, ending a 17-year ceasefire. In April 2012, soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army, the KIO’s armed wing, pushed into the area of the dam project and captured it from a Tatmadaw-aligned Border Guard Force. Fearing for their lives, hundreds of Chinese workers fled for safety in nearby Chipwi town, and the developer was forced to suspend work.

The dormitories and offices are now little more than steel shells, their composite walls having long rotted away. The hills are riddled with tunnels that the Chinese workers dug in order to take samples and test the strength of the rock.

A Kachin Independence Army soldier walks through one of the tunnels built in the area by the Chinese developer of the Chipwi dam. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

A Kachin Independence Army soldier walks through one of the tunnels built in the area by the Chinese developer of the Chipwi dam. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Chinese ambitions

While the Chipwi dam project is still many years away from completion, what remains at the remote work site is testament to the scale of Chinese ambitions in Kachin State. The seven dams were first proposed in the early 2000s, when Myanmar was becoming increasingly isolated due to economic sanctions, and power shortages were stifling growth in neighbouring Yunnan Province.

In 2005, China Power Investment Corporation and Myanmar conglomerate Asia World formed a joint venture with Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power to build the seven dams as part of a US$20 billion project with a total installed capacity of up to 20,000MW – more than four times Myanmar’s current total generating capacity. An eighth dam, the 99MW Chipwi Nge, was built on the Chipwi Creek, a tributary of the N’Mai, to provide power to the Myitsone and Chipwi projects.

While the dams would also have significant social and environmental effects, opposition was muted under military rule. But the transition to a quasi-civilian government in 2011 brought greater political freedoms. Activists trained their attention on the 6,000MW Myitsone dam, which would be built just south of where the N’Mai and Mali rivers meet to form the Ayeyarwady River, and would flood an area the size of Singapore.

Strong public opposition prompted President U Thein Sein to suspend the Myitsone dam in September 2011. While the Chinese developer – which has since been renamed State Power Investment Corporation – has been lobbying hard for it to resume, it seems unlikely it will ever be built.

Less attention has been paid to the six other dams in the cascade, in part because of their remote location and smaller scale relative to Myitsone. Chipwi though would still flood 28 square kilometres, with billions of cubic metres stored behind a 206-metre dam wall (about 65m higher than Myitsone).

But the Thein Sein government only suspended Myitsone.

If the conflict between the Tatmadaw and KIO can be resolved, SPIC and its partners would, in theory, be able to resume work on the six other dams. The eerie, abandoned work site at Chipwi could once again transform into a town of Chinese workers, construction vehicles and supply trucks.

Abandoned materials from the construction of the Chipwi dam. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Abandoned materials from the construction of the Chipwi dam. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Hydropower is back?

The suspension of the Myitsone dam marked a shift away from hydropower development in Myanmar. The Thein Sein government instead prioritised thermal generation, particularly using natural gas.

In an effort to put the hydropower sector on a more sustainable footing, the International Finance Corporation – a member of the World Bank Group – and the aid arm of the Australian government supported the drafting of a Strategic Environmental Assessment for Myanmar’s hydropower sector in 2016. The SEA provides a bird’s eye view of the sector, examining each basin and assessing the likely environmental and social impacts of hydropower development. It is designed to not only guide government planning but also be used by the private sector – for example, to better understand stakeholder groups, assess the environmental and social risks attached to projects, and see which river stretches or sub-basins are preferred for development.

After two years of work, the final Strategic Environmental Assessment for Hydropower was published in November 2018. There was one small but significant change from the draft version released six months earlier: the Ministry of Electricity and Energy’s logo was missing from the cover.

As Frontier reported at the time, the logo was removed because the ministry refused to endorse the assessment, particularly its key recommendation: that five of Myanmar’s mainstem rivers, including the Ayeyarwady and Thanlwin (Salween), be reserved from hydropower development.

Such a move would have blocked billions of dollars of planned investment from Chinese state-owned companies, which have lobbied vigorously against the SEA in public and behind closed doors.

In the second half of 2018, the ministry quietly began working on a new hydropower policy with technical assistance from the Chinese government.

With China advising on hydropower policy, mega-dams like Myitsone and Chipwi are much better placed to proceed – a prospect that until recently seemed remote.

Against this backdrop, SPIC and the Chinese government have begun to push the unpopular projects much more aggressively.

SPIC declined to comment to Frontier for this article.

Hkun Lat | Frontier

Hkun Lat | Frontier

‘We couldn’t object’

Representatives of Asia World, representing the joint venture involving SPIC (then named CPI) and the Myanmar government, came to Mandung village to discuss the Chipwi project in 2007, recalled former administrator Dawng Hkawng.

Residents had expressed support on the condition that it did not cause them any difficulties, he said, but in reality, they had no option other than to agree. “We couldn’t object because they are more powerful than us. If we opposed the project we would have been in trouble because it was the time of the military regime.”

Nonetheless, disagreement arose as the plans become better known. Asia World wanted the residents to move to an abandoned village, also known as Mandung, but they resisted the proposal because the proposed site was on top of a mountain. The road to the village was in such poor condition that it was impassable even to motorcycles.

Mandung was then home to about 135 people but they fled after fighting resumed in the area in 2012. Today they live in a camp for internally displaced persons in Chipwi town. Despite the displacement, negotiations over the proposed relocation to the mountain-top village and compensation for the land earmarked for the dam have continued, but they have gone nowhere, with the villagers continuing to refuse the relocation plan.

Dawng Hkawng said that the only money the villagers had received from the companies was “K1,000 paid to each person who supplied bamboo to build housing for workers”.

Lachik Lum Zawng is a leading member of the Lawngbyit Hkawng Society, a civil society group that has represented affected villagers in negotiations with Asia World. He said that, because the future of the project was unclear amid continued armed conflict, the company was not in any rush to reach an agreement on compensation.

Dawng Hkawng said the villagers also wanted to be compensated for the many tunnels that had been drilled in the area around the village. But most of all, he said, they wanted the project to be abandoned so they could resume their old lives.

“We just want to return to our homes,” said Dawng Hkawng. “But we can’t return there because of land mines. The government needs to find a way to ensure that residents do not suffer because of the project.”

An Asia World spokesperson told Frontier that the company was no longer attached to the Chipwi project but declined to comment further by press time.

Frontier travelled along the N'Mai River by boat to reach the dam site. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Frontier travelled along the N’Mai River by boat to reach the dam site. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Watch your step

When SPIC began work on the Chipwi dam in 2010, one of the first things it did was build an access road from the border crossing at Panwar, the headquarters of the Border Guard Force formerly known as the New Democratic Army-Kachin. This group held the area of the dam project till it was pushed out by the KIO in 2012, but still holds Panwar. The access road enabled SPIC to send workers and large trucks laden with the construction materials that remain at the site today.

The conflict, though, has made the project site hard and even dangerous to access. The bridge on the road linking the project area to Chipwi town was destroyed by heavy artillery, with no-one claiming to know which side was responsible, and the area is now littered with land mines.

From Chipwi town, Frontier took a boat to a KIO checkpoint and then travelled by motorbike to another checkpoint. From there, we walked for three hours through the jungle, crossing a mountain before emerging at the bank of the N’Mai River, from where we walked to the project site.

Our guide knew the route over the mountains from memory. There was no visible track and he never referred to a map.

“Follow our footsteps, because there are lots of landmines around,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”

Despite his reassurance, I found it hard to control my fear.

Later, I spoke to Minzai Ze Hkawng, the secretary of KIO Brigade 7, at his brigade headquarters elsewhere in Chipwi Township. Though KIO officers would not reveal its exact size to Frontier, Brigade 7 is one of the smallest in the KIO and is reinforced on a rotating basis by about 100 troops each from brigades 1 and 2.

Minzai Ze Hkawng’s house and farm in Mandung were confiscated around a decade ago for the construction of the Chipwi dam.

At the time, he was a soldier in the Border Guard Force that was formerly the NDA-K, and which is led by the powerful warlord and former parliamentarian Zahkung Ting Ying. In 2009, the NDA-K became the first armed group to accede to the military regime’s demand to transform into a Border Guard Force; its three BGF units are designated 1001, 1002 and 1003. In contrast, the KIO resisted the Tatmadaw’s plan, sparking tensions that ultimately led to the breakdown of the ceasefire in June 2011.

When the KIO attacked Mandung in early 2012, the Border Guard Force pulled back to Panwar. Minzai Ze Hkawng said he refused to go with them, however, and led other soldiers in defecting to the KIO.

“I don’t like Zahkung Ting Ying so my soldiers and I joined the KIO in 2012,” he said, alleging that Zahkung Ting Ying is prioritising the businesses owned by himself and his family members over the welfare of the people in territory under his control.

A ruined Chinese language sign at the Chipwi dam site. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

A ruined Chinese language sign at the Chipwi dam site. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

‘Political suicide’

Dawng Hkawng and other displaced residents of Mandung told Frontier they support the KIO in the conflict because think the armed group will oppose the dam.

KIO officers do seem to personally oppose the dam projects. “I don’t want the [Chipwi] project to be implemented,” said a KIO major who requested anonymity, “and I think it will be hard to resume work on it anyway because there are many land mines. Even we can’t go there.”

But senior officials from the KIO were reluctant to discuss Chipwi and other dam projects when Frontier visited Laiza in March. “This is a political game,” said the group’s spokesperson, Colonel Naw Bu. “We will not criticise the Chinese government or Chinese investment. We will stand as neutral.”

The KIO is in a difficult position. With a sliver of permanently held territory that abuts the Chinese border, the group is highly vulnerable to shifts in policy. If it wanted, China could make it difficult or even impossible for the KIO to sustain its enclave.

At the same time, the group’s legitimacy derives from popular support, and most Kachin seem to oppose hydropower projects in the state, particularly China-backed mega dams like Myitsone.

Veteran journalist Mr Bertil Lintner said the KIO could not afford to “antagonise” China by opposing its economic projects in Myanmar. 

“But as everyone knows, the Kachin public, and the general public in Myanmar as well, do not want Myitsone to be built. It would be political suicide of any individual or group in Myanmar to come out in support of Myitsone and other mega hydro projects,” he said.

The KIO is not the only ethnic armed group in Myanmar caught in this bind. Since it was formed in 2017, the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, a United Wa State Army-led umbrella organisation of armed groups based in northern Myanmar of which the KIO is a member, has publicly stated its support for Chinese investment in Myanmar through the Belt and Road Initiative.

This support reflects China’s influence in the peace process. “All those ethnic armed organisations are dependent on China,” said Lintner, “but that doesn’t mean that those groups are happy with that relationship.”

About this series:

This is the second in a three-part series examining hydropower, conflict and Chinese investment in Kachin State that was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. In the next issue of Frontier, we examine a Kachin Independence Organisation-backed hydropower project that has continued to provide power to government-controlled areas of the country, despite eight years of armed conflict

TOP PHOTO: An abandoned fuel station that was built to supply construction vehicles on the Chipwi hydropower project. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

By Ye Mon

By Ye Mon

Ye Mon started as a reporter at Pyithu Khit news journal in 2011. Prior to joining Frontier, he worked as a reporter at the Myanmar Times and on the DVB English team.
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