Dam Safety

 There is no assurance that proper social or environmental impact assessments of dam projects in Burma can be done, that there will be a proper and well-monitored construction process, that local residents will be provided with adequate information regarding water releases and the potential dangers of dams, or that there are adequate emergency preparedness procedures in place. Dam safety is therefore a serious concern.

Earthquakes and dam breaks
The Washawng dam in Kachin State breaking in 2006; the resulting flood completely destroyed the dam
Several dams in Burma are under construction or will be constructed in earthquake-prone areas. The proposed Salween dams and the Irrawaddy/Mali/N’mai dams are on or very close to active earthquake fault lines. Depending on the magnitude, location and characteristics, an earthquake can cause cracks in dams or even a dam break. Dam breaks in Kachin State in 2005 and 2006 destroyed power plants, dam structures, and homes, killing five people and leaving a humanitarian emergency in their wake.

According to data from the Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program, Burma lies in a region with high to very high seismic hazard that increases steadily to the north in Kachin State and Sagaing Division. Recent earthquakes along the China-Burma border have sparked fears of what would happen if the Irrawaddy Mytisone dam is built (see articles). Concerned citizens in China petitioned their government to suspend big dam projects in southwest China after the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 (see article).

Vulnerability to floods
Main Street becomes a muddy river after flooding in Kachin State
After extensively reviewing the effectiveness of large dam projects across the world, the World Commission on Dams found that dams have increased human vulnerability to floods. While some dams can stop small floods, dams can increase the damage from large floods. When a large flood occurs and the reservoir cannot hold back the water, it will spill over and make the flood very dangerous. This is of special concern in the case of the Irrawaddy Myitsone project, as it is merely 40 kilometers upstream from the city of Myitkyina. Severe flooding has been getting worse in the area recently; some have attributed this to the destructive gold mining along the river banks which has changed the direction of the rivers’ flows as well as deforestation that has diminished a natural mitigation of floods. In July 2004 the city was inundated, impacting 19,000 people and leaving local community-based organizations and churches scrambling to provide for the sick and homeless.

Sudden water surges
Unusually low water levels and unexpected surges on the Mekong have caused boating accidents
Production of electricity at a dam site causes unnatural releases of water from the reservoir. Dam operators upstream will decide when they need to release water depending on power generation needs (which may be determined as far away as in China). When there is a release, water levels can increase rapidly and people using the river downstream may not get any warning. People have lost their boats and fishing gear, and some have even drowned, from such water surges. Along the Mekong River in eastern Shan State, Lahu villagers have reported boating accidents and sudden unexpected surges caused by fluctuations in the water’s flow. 

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