Some 40,000 residents of more than 100 villages are threatened by the Upper Yeywa hydropower dam under construction on the Namtu (Myitnge) River in northern Shan State, now scheduled to be completed this year, according to a grassroots alliance.
A report published on Thursday by the Namtu River Protectors—a group of communities standing against dam construction on the waterway—said that 11 village tracts in Hsipaw Township could be impacted by flooding caused by the Upper Yeywa. Locals have opposed the project since it was started in 2008 under the military regime headed by Than Shwe.
The controversial dam is located in neighbouring Kyaukme Township’s Loi Zaung village tract, and after 15 years, it is due to be finished at an undisclosed date in 2023, according to a December 2022 letter from the junta’s township administration seen by the Namtu River Protectors.
Initially, it was thought that one tract, Nar Mark Khor, could be submerged by the dam’s anticipated 60-square-kilometre reservoir, destroying farmland and displacing hundreds of people. However, Thursday’s report said that the recent letter from the military authorities revealed that 10 more village tracts along the river—which is also a major tributary of the Ayeyarwady—could be in the flood zone. They were identified as Baw Gyo, Lao Khun, Kyin-Thi, Man Hai, Nam On, Koong Hsaw, Man Mone or Man Gyawng, Nam Lan, Ho Hke and Kawng Hkam.
Namtu River Protectors said the declaration had “alarmed” locals who did not know that their land and homes were in danger.
These same township military authorities set up a committee made up of “[junta]-appointed village tract chairmen, village clerks, land surveyors and construction personnel” to “collect data” about the potentially affected areas, Namtu River Protectors wrote.
“Since the formation of the committee in December, local communities have received no further information about which areas in these tracts will be flooded,” the report said.
Construction of the 280-megawatt hydropower project is a joint operation between French engineering firm Razel-Bec and its local partner, International Power Group (IPG). The companies work together under the name IPGRB. IPG is a subsidiary of the conglomerate International Group of Entrepreneurs, founded by the sons of ex-general Aung Thaung, who was targeted by US sanctions in 2014. China’s Import-Export Bank is reportedly financing the dam.
Namtu River Protectors spokesperson Nang Mo Hsai told Myanmar Now on Friday that Razel-Bec was believed to be “still involved” in the Upper Yeywa project, despite repeated calls for the company to exit the country.
Razel-Bec’s parent company, the Fayat Group, did not respond to Myanmar Now’s request for comment on the issue.
Since 2018, both Razel-Bec and the Fayat Group have featured on Burma Campaign UK’s “Dirty List” of companies doing business with Myanmar’s military or otherwise supporting human rights abuses.
Workers from the Upper Yeywa dam site joined protests in Kyaukme in February 2021 against the military coup that took place earlier that month, another local organisation, the Shan Human Rights Foundation, said at that time. The workers reportedly held a banner identifying themselves as the “Upper Yeywa Hydropower Project Civil Disobedience Movement,” but were not seen at any further public demonstrations against the dictatorship; it was speculated that their protest had been suppressed by the local authorities or their employers.
In April 2021, local sources raised questions regarding whether construction of the Upper Yeywa dam had halted in the wake of the coup, but Nang Mo Hsai said that operations, and the number of employees active at the site, had simply been reduced.
“Whether the country is in conflict or experiencing a pandemic or under a coup, the dam construction has still been ongoing,” she said.
The project is located in a conflict zone, where Myanmar military soldiers—who also guard the dam site—have been accused of perpetrating human rights violations against villagers, from extrajudicial killing to torture.
Nang Mo Hsai noted that multiple ethnic armed organisations are also active in the region, and that “fierce battles” have broken out in the past between these groups and the Myanmar army.
“We live in fear and anxiety. We don’t know when the battles will occur and we don’t know when we will have to flee,” she explained. “We have lost the right to protect our own land, our own culture, our environment.”
“We are living with insecurity,” the spokesperson added.
Chinese, Japanese and Swiss companies were previously said to be backing the Upper Yeywa, which is one of four hydropower dams planned along the Namtu River. Norwegian investor Scatec announced in April 2021 it was suspending its involvement in one of the other dams, the Middle Yeywa, in the aftermath of the coup.