Myanmar is undergoing multiple transitions, from military rule to democracy, decades of civil war to peace, and from a command economy to a market-based one. No less of an important challenge amidst this backdrop of change and hope is addressing the country’s energy poverty.
Despite being rich in energy resources, including hydropower, coal, and natural gas, Myanmar has the lowest electrification rate in Southeast Asia. As the country develops, significantly more power will be needed to meet projected increases in demand while expanding access for the country’s predominantly rural population. Currently, around 70 percent of the population and 84 percent of rural dwellers lack access to reliable electricity.
The government has set an ambitious goal of providing universal access to electricity by 2030. Aided by the World Bank, Japan, and the Asian Development Bank, an electrical grid is planned to encompass 7.2 million more households at a cost of $5.8 billion. With only four percent of its abundant hydropower potential tapped so far, damming more of the country’s large rivers is chief among the government’s plans.
While increased hydropower generation is essential to alleviating poverty and meeting Myanmar’s development goals, doing so without interrupting the country’s fragile peace process, and while meeting the needs of its dispersed rural population, will take careful planning.
Myanmar’s hydropower potential is estimated to be more than 100 gigawatts. Ninety-two possible large hydropower projects have been identified with a total installed capacity of over 46 gigawatts. Around 40 percent of the identified capacity is in Kachin State with significant potential also identified in Shan and Kayin States. Constituting Myanmar’s ethnic borderlands in the north and east, two of the country’s major rivers – the Irrawaddy and the Salween – flow through these states. They are also among the poorest, most conflict-affected parts of the country, where the current electrical grid barely reaches.
Large hydro projects, if not well planned, carry adverse social and environmental impacts, and ethnic minorities living in these areas will have to bear the brunt of the consequences. The Myitsone Dam – one of seven planned on the Irrawaddy – is currently suspended due to popular opposition. An estimated 10,000 ethnic Kachin people will be displaced if it goes ahead, and those dependent on the river will see their livelihoods disrupted.
Backed by Thai and Chinese investors, a further six dams are approved for the Salween, the last major undammed river in Southeast Asia. The Tasang Dam in Shan State, slated for completion in 2022, would be the world’s fourth-largest with a projected capacity of over seven gigawatts. Militarization and displacement of the population around the dam site has already provoked protests among parts of the ethnic Shan population.
Furthermore, in a situation where control over territory remains contested, ethnic armed groups often see the extension of the grid and associated developments as a penetration of the central state into their areas.
Read the rest of the article at: New Security Beat
Photo courtesy of Norwegian People’s Aid