Aung San Suu Kyi Joins the Campaign to Save the Irrawaddy

Back to Resources
First published on

Having worked in the Australian Prime Minister’s Department and now at International Rivers, I’ve found myself in a panic about what I call “bad things” on three occasions.* Given the current rate of biodiversity decline and scale of environmental disasters, it sadly takes a lot to make it into my bucket list.

The Myitsone project on the confluence of the N’Mali and Mali Rivers, and the start of the mighty Irrawaddy River, is one of three things which have stressed and for lack of a better word to describe the emotional impact, freaked me out. 

The proposed mega project (and it is indeed very big at some 6,000 megawatts) will displace some 12,000 people and have a significant impact on the cultural heritage of the ethnic Kachin people. This is because the reservoir will flood the very heart of their culture – the starting place of the Irrawaddy River. 

No environmental impact assessment has been completed for this project, as environmental laws in Burma are basic. In 2008-09, a team of scientists conducted an environmental baseline assessment and prepared a 500+ page report recommending that the project should not proceed in its current state and that other options be properly examined. Over time, significant seismic risks, hydrological concerns environmental impacts and cultural damage have also emerged as reasons why the dam should not proceed as planned. To me, this project embodies some of the worse violations of environmental planning principles. 

A few days ago, the Burmese government published a refutation to the accumulation of evidence which have been slowly been building up against this project in its media mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar. Amongst many things it said that the dam would become part of the national heritage and by default replace the cultural and environmental heritage it will destroy. Yes, while I may be biased towards environmental protection, from a legal and environmental policy standpoint, the arguments were far from convincing.

Over night, Aung San Su Kyi issued a response and launched a campaign to save the Irrawaddy River. She appealed to China (Chinese companies are building the dam) and Burma to avoid endangering the lives and homes of the local Kachin people, as well as take note of the seismic risks and reconsider the environmental impacts.

She urged that:

“… In the interests of both national and international harmony, concerned parties should reassess the scheme and cooperate to fund solutions that would prevent undesirable consequences and thus allay the fears of all who are anxious to protect the Irrawaddy.”

And so today, I have a little more hope that this project will be properly re-examined. Not just because an international superstar of activism has joined the cause, but because it seems that debate and dialogue about this project may have finally commenced. 

* For those curious as to what my two other shock and awe issues were. They were learning that (1) Damage from over allocation of water resources in the Murray Darling Basin had caused irreversible damage to Australia’s Lower Lakes at the mouth of the Murray River and that any remedial actions would essentially be triage (2) The major threat to Australian Koalas, pushing them to extinction were urinary track infections brought on by stress of ecosystem fragmentation due to urban sprawl and development.

More information