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Book Review: China's next big export: state-sponsored ecocide



May 21, 2015
By Douglas Long

In September 2011, President U Thein Sein ordered the suspension of the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State for the duration of his term in office, which ends later this year.

The announcement came in the midst of an ongoing campaign supported by environmental and civil society groups that focused on the image of the Ayeyarwady as the cultural lifeblood of Myanmar, and that highlighted worries that the dam would destroy downstream fisheries, rice production and livelihoods.

The 6000-megawatt Myitsone project, which would supply electricity to China while displacing about 20,000 people in Kachin, is only part of a series of seven dams on the upper reaches of the Ayeyarwady planned by the China's state-owned Chinese Power Investment Corporation.

The Chinese company has made clear its desire to resume the Myitsone project, but many locals and civil society groups want it cancelled altogether. The issue promises to re-emerge as a major conflict following the end of U Thein Sein's tenure as president.

Whatever the outcome, Myanmar will remain at the mercy of China's insatiable greed for energy, warns Canadian author Michael Buckley in his 2014 book Meltdown in Tibet.

This is due to the negative environmental fallout from rampant dam-building and mining projects in Tibet, which will affect the 2 billion people - in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan - who rely on the 10 major rivers that originate on the Tibetan plateau for drinking, agriculture, fishing and industry.

Among these rivers are Myanmar's Thanlwin (Salween) and Ayeyarwady.

Buckley first visited Tibet in the 1980s as a guidebook writer, and the environmental degradation he witnessed over time prompted him to produce the 40-minute documentary film Meltdown in Tibet (2009), and last year a book of the same name.

The author describes what is happening in Tibet as "ecocide" and contends that China is destroying Tibet "on all fronts".

"The wildlife in Tibet was one of the first casualties of the Chinese occupation. Another casualty was clear-cutting the forests," he says.

Meanwhile, Tibet's glaciers are melting fast, and China is "aggravating the situation" with massive dam-building and mining projects. Buckley's book supplies numerous statistics for a litany of "hydro megaprojects" in China that have already started affecting countries downriver, as well as for projects in the planning stages that will magnify the devastation.

"What appears to be just a Tibetan Plateau problem or a Chinese problem is going to become an Asia-wide problem. There are no boundaries when it comes to environmental impact," he writes, warning that as a result of China's policies "Asia will tumble into chaos".

Among the downstream effects of China's frenzy for "progress" will be the destruction of fisheries and the blockage of nutrient-rich silt vital to farming. Without fresh silt, farmers must resort to increased use of expensive, environmentally destructive artificial fertilisers. Another casualty will be mangrove forests.

"Mangroves are your first line of defence against sea-level rise and against cyclones," Buckley said during his appearance at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay in March.

"But mangroves need silt and fresh water to grow. If you put a dam upriver, silt and fresh water are not getting through to the mangroves, and the mangroves will slowly disappear, which leaves you open to disasters along the coast."

This is of particular concern in Bangladesh as well as in Myanmar's Ayeyarwady delta.

Buckley has visited the site of the Myitsone Dam, and in an interview with Mizzima last month he posed two questions concerning the current state of the project: "Why are the Chinese workers still there? Why are the people who lived there not allowed to come back?" He is clearly unconvinced that the dam will ever be officially cancelled.

He is also concerned about the Thanlwin, which he describes as "a virgin river untouched by big dams". But China aims to nullify this idyllic state of affairs with plans for five major hydropower projects.

"If they build the five dams that are planned, it means [Myanmar's] water flow can be controlled by China at any point," Buckley said.

"China will say, ‘We're solving your flooding problems.' But most downstream countries want the flooding because they need it for rice and fishing. It's an annual cycle. So the Chinese dams do not solve the problem, they only create other problems. By the time they put all those dams up, they're going to ruin the river and affect the people who depend on the river."

Buckley said that in supporting the construction of dams on the Ayeyarwady and the Thanlwin, Myanmar would be sacrificing its own people and environment for the sake of greed.

"But who can stop China? Nobody can stop China because they're too entangled in economic relations and nobody wants to upset the Chinese government. So they're getting away with this," he said. "It's insane what China is doing."

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