Climate change “doesn’t seem to be a priority issue for the government as yet,” Myint Zaw told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“They’re preoccupied with achieving economic progress, but if you are unable to adapt to the changing climate, regardless of however hard you try, poverty eradication is going to be very difficult. That’s for sure,” he added.
Aung Myint, general secretary of the Renewable Energy Association Myanmar (REAM), agreed.
“We now have 132 dams (in Myanmar). In 2013, we noticed the water in these dams was only 25 percent (of capacity). This is the sign of climate change, of deterioration of the watersheds,” he said.
As a result of low water levels, the dams were unable to operate properly for either agriculture or electricity production, he said. Despite this, yet more dams are being planned along Myanmar’s waterways, something activists warn could lead to the further degradation of the country’s rivers.
Myanmar is a resource-rich, cash-poor country the size of France and England combined. After suffering half a century of brutal military rule, it embarked on democratic reforms after a quasi-civilian government took power in March 2011.
The country has always relied on the exploitation of its natural resources for income and now that Western sanctions have been suspended or lifted in response to reforms, Myanmar is looking to attract big money from eager foreign investors.
It already sells gas and hydropower to energy-starved neighbours such as Thailand and China while only one out of four Burmese has access to the grid. In rural areas, the number of people with access to grid energy drops to one in six, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said.
Activists like Aung Myint and Myint Zaw are concerned that infrastructure projects such as dams are being planned with little involvement of local communities and scant concern for the environment.
In September 2011, Presiden Thein Sein suspended the controversial planned $3.6 billion, Chinese-led Myit Sone dam following a public outcry. About 90 percent of the electricity generated from the project was expected to go to China.
Myint Zaw said the state-owned Chinese Power Investment Company is now renewing its push to resume the environmentally destructive dam.
Aung Myint said the answer to electrify Myanmar is not big dams but to upgrade and commercialise village electrification systems that are already available. These use renewable energy resources such as biomass, solar and micro-hydro, he said.
“The government is only concerned with expanding the grid which is going to be very expensive and environmentally damaging,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Myint Zaw asked, “We need investment and to improve our infrastructure … but are we able to (endure) the problems faced by other countries because of their “Growth first, clean up later” approach?”