Social Impacts

The flood zones created by dams that BRN has researched will displace an estimated 100,000 people. They will be left without their land, homes, or livelihoods. As populations near dam sites are mostly living at subsistence levels, it is highly likely that the displaced will be forced to migrate, most probably to other countries, to find work. In addition to the direct displacement from dam reservoirs, anti-insurgency campaigns and the “clearing” of a dam site area by the military prior to construction has already displaced tens of thousands (See Militarization).
Displaced family with their only remaining belongings
To get a sense of how displacement for a dam project happens in Burma, the country’s first large hydropower project in Karenni State is a useful case study. Twelve thousand people were displaced by the Mobye dam’s reservoir and the Lawpita hydropower stations in the state. Many did not know that they had to move until the flood waters reached their doorsteps. Villagers were ordered to move to military-run relocation sites that were overcrowded and unhealthy. Those that left the sites had to impose themselves on relatives or live in the jungle. The pittance offered as compensation was so insulting that most refused it in anger. Farm lands were confiscated without compensation to make way for associated infrastructure such as spillways and the power plants.
The World Commission on Dams (WCD) estimates that 40-80 million people in the world have been displaced by dams, and that women and indigenous peoples have suffered disproportionately from displacement. According to the Commission, physical and livelihood displacement leads to “landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalization, food insecurity, increased morbidity, loss of common resources, and loss of social and cultural resilience” resulting in an “often irreversible decline in living standards.”

Food security
Displaced family prepares food in the jungle in Karenni State
Dams trap sediment from the river and keep it from reaching downstream areas. This decreases floodplain and delta agricultural productivity and decreases nutrients for fish and aquatic plants. This is of special concern for the Irrawaddy River, the delta of which provides nearly 60% of Burma’s rice. Agriculture and fisheries in the delta of the Salween River also produce food for over a million people in Mon State and Rangoon. Dams located in tremendously biodiverse areas will flood rich lowland areas where hundreds of unique cultivated species could be lost to the world forever. People displaced by dams and those that lose their farmlands or forest foraging areas to dam reservoirs also face food insecurity. The impact of dams to fisheries and the loss of rich river bank farms also decrease food security.

Health Concerns
Increase in disease
An increase in the incidence and transmission of malaria has been directly linked to dam reservoirs as they provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Changes in vector biology coupled with migration have also resulted in shifts from vivax malaria to the far deadlier falciparum malaria. Similarly, dams and resultant flooding in some cases have resulted in increases in Wuchereria bancrofti infection, a parasite causing lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis). (see article Dams, Diseases and Displacement). The incidence of schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic worms, is also connected to the construction of dam projects.
Toxic releases from reservoirs
As water sits behind a dam in a reservoir, bacteria transform any mercury in the water into methylmercury, a central nervous system toxin. When the water is released, it sends this toxin downstream. Scientists have become increasingly aware of the accumulation of high blood mercury levels of people living downstream of dams. Toxic releases are of particular concern with dams nearby mining sites, such as the Irrawaddy/N’Mai/Mali dams and the Yeywa dam.
As methylmercury passes up the food chain, it becomes increasingly concentrated. Methylmercury exposure in the womb, which can result from a mother’s consumption of contaminated fish, can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system, impacting cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills.
Health vulnerability
According to the World Health Organization, the healthcare system in Burma at the moment is among the worst in the world. Increases in diseases and toxic water releases in areas where health is already vulnerable and health services inadequate will cause further distress. Increased health problems, especially the introduction and spread of HIV/AIDS, at dam construction sites and surrounding communities, is a growing concern in dam projects around the world. The traumatic disruption of life caused by displacement also increases health risks.

Impacts on women
Displacement affects women differently
Women that rely on forests for livelihoods will suffer from dam displacement

Displacement and resettlement from dam projects affect women differently than men. The breakdown of family, village and social units affects women much more severely and it is harder for them to seek waged work in towns than it is for men. Women find it harder to maintain their livelihoods as their access to forests and materials is cut off. Compensation is often only given to the male head of a household.
Sexual violence
Sexual violence committed by Burma Army troops against women in ethnic areas has been documented in many reports. The vast majority of rapes committed by Burma Army soldiers go uninvestigated and perpetrators are not charged. In the current atmosphere of impunity, there is grave concern for the safety of local women following increased deployment of soldiers to dam sites. (See Militarization)
Sex industry at dam construction sites
A large-scale construction project such as building a dam produces a situation of transient workers living in squalid conditions, coupled with limited job opportunity and low wages for women. Women who work in the sex industry face the dangers of violence and disease as well as the trauma of community censure.
Vulnerable to trafficking from loss of livelihood and migration
Displaced migrants need to seek employment in new places. Current restrictions on travel and lack of access to information leave women vulnerable to trafficking when they migrate. Studies by the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand document how women desperate for work are tricked into following traffickers in search of legitimate work only to find themselves trapped in a cycle of involuntary sex work or sold as wives to Chinese men across the border. This pattern will worsen should the number of desperate migrants increase due to dam projects.

Loss of culture
The homelands of the Yin Ta Lai will be submerged by the Weigyi dam
Dam reservoirs will flood areas of rich cultural significance, destroying historical artifacts and the homelands of entire people. In Karenni State, the homelands of the Yin Ta Lai people, recognized as the original ancestors of all Karenni peoples, and who now number just 1,000, will be entirely submerged by the Weigyi dam. The confluence of the N’Mai and Mali rivers in Kachin State is considered the cultural heart of the Kachin people and will be destroyed by the Irrawaddy Myitsone dam. The main historical mission center of the Roman Catholic Church in Kachin State will be lost under the flood as well. The Kayan people, who were displaced by the Lawpita Hydropower Project over 40 years ago, will be forced to move again for the Upper Paunglaung Dam. All dams will impact the cultural life and livelihoods of ethnic peoples as forests and farmlands are flooded and river flows become unnatural. Local knowledge may be rendered useless, for example the use of traditional fishing gear may be impossible after dams are built.

Voices of the Dammed

Development in Burma