Conceptualizing Chinese engagement in South-East Asian dam projects: evidence from Myanmar’s Salween River

New study by Julian Kirchherr, based on his doctoral research conducted at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, explores Burmese dam development.

A major boom in dam construction is underway in Myanmar, with the Burmese government planning up to build up to 45 dams in the near future. However, to date, these projects have been subject to limited scholarly research. One academic, who has worked redress this balance is Julian Kirchherr, Assistant Professor at Utrecht University’s Faculty of Geosciences and recent DPhil graduate from Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment.

The International Journal of Water Resources Development, recently published the latest paper from Kirchherr’s doctoral research. This work examines the motivations behind seven dams to be built on Myanmar’s Salween River, one of which, the Mong Ton Dam project, would be the largest dam in mainland Southeast Asia and the 6th largest dam worldwide if completed.

Previous scholarly work has described these dams as Chinese-led initiatives, offering limited side benefit to Myanmar – extractive endeavors designed to “suck resources (or is it blood?)” from Myanmar (Lamb and Nga Dao, 2015).

However, Kirchherr argues that most of the projects are actually Thai-led. He bases his argument on more than 70 interviews with dam developers, government officials, project-affected communities and NGOs in the region which he visited between 2015 and 2016.

“The interviews showed that the Thai government initiated most of these projects, hoping to export the dams’ electricity to Thailand. No dams can be built in Thailand these days due to the sweeping resistance of civil society”, Kirchherr explains. Indeed, 4 of the 7 Burmese dam projects feature electricity exports to Thailand, according to this research; 90% of the Mong Ton Dam’s electricity would be exported to Thailand.

He further argues that the Chinese were engaged by Thai players in order to make use of their significant expertise in mega-dam construction.

“The Chinese have accumulated significant experience over the years – they have constructed half of the world’s 45,000 large dams”, Kirchherr argues. “Mega-projects such as the Mong Ton Dam can only be carried out by Chinese players: Thai players lack the relevant experience.”

“Scholars tend to think that any dam project with Chinese involvement must also be a Chinese-led one”, says Kirchherr, ‘this is not the case.’

Kirchherr hopes that the work will encourage scholars to consider Chinese engagement in dam projects overseas on a case-by-case basis:

‘There is growing evidence that Chinese dam developers often act solely as contractors in large overseas dam projects, and not lead the overall development effort”.

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