A deal signed between Thailand and Myanmar would clear the way for the first large-scale hydropower plant on the Salween River in north-eastern Myanmar. The project could displace and negatively impact upon tens of thousands of poor and marginalized people from ethnic minorities in that country, warns WWF.
The Salween River is the longest undammed waterway in south-east Asia, running for 2,800 kilometres. Of the seven large rivers that arise on the Tibetan Plateau only the Salween and the Bhramaputra remain free flowing.
"The Salween is the only free-flowing river linking the Himalayan glaciers to the coastline of the Andaman Sea," says Robert Mather of WWF's Living Mekong Programme.
"We are destroying the Salween before we even know what we're losing. From what little we do know about its large number of endemic fish species and abundance of freshwater turtles, we can conclude it is likely to be globally exceptional."
WWF warns that this and other dams on the Salween will stop natural sediment reaching down to the coast. "With no replenishment of sediment on the coast of Myanmar and Thailand the effects of sea-level changes are going to be exacerbated as well as vulnerability to tsunamis," adds Marc Goichot of WWF's Living Mekong Programme.
WWF says that local communities wouldn't benefit from this dam as the electricity is primarily for export to Thailand. It would be cheaper for Thailand to better manage demand for power and invest in biomass and wind power than to venture into more hydropower development in neighbouring countries.
"It seems more reasonable for Thailand to rely on its own reserves of natural gas for energy security than to be dependent on imports of electricity from a neighbouring country with a high degree of political uncertainty," says Kraisak Choonavan, former Thai Senator and Head of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Thai Senate.
WWF recognizes the benefits of hydropower and supports environmentally sound hydropower projects. But as the long-term and cumulative impacts of many dams cannot be adequately gauged as yet, the global conservation organization suggests that governments keep safe some ecologically intact systems for the benefit of current and future generations.
"As well as the destruction of wildlife and livelihoods of people of the Salween, river by river, the world is in danger of losing one of the greatest natural phenomenons," says Jamie Pittock, Director of WWF's Global Freshwater Programme.
"Wild rivers are home to significant wildlife populations, including massive fisheries, and sustain the livelihoods of millions of people."
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