The Snowy Mountains Engineering Corp has defended its role in drawing up an environmental impact assessment report for a controversial dam in Myanmar that faces strong local resistance.

The 7,000 megawatt dam on the Salween River in eastern Myanmar is backed by Chinese, Myanmar and Thai companies, and will flood 676 square kilometres of low-lying farmland and forest.

The dam, in eastern Shan State, is being funded by China Three Gorges Corporation and Thailand’s Electricity Generating Authority, and is also known as the Mong Ton Hydropower Project.

Despite strong resistance from local communities SMEC says it is undertaking the environmental and social impact assessments (EIA/SIA) and adhering to international best practice.

“Conducting the (EIA/SIA) process with certain community representatives has been challenging, with planned consultations sometimes disrupted,” the SMEC said.

“(The) SMEC aim is to conduct an EIA/SIA process that is inclusive, constructive and transparent,” the corporation said.

SMEC, which has a long history in Myanmar dating back to 1989, acknowledged “some planned consultations had been disrupted by community groups”.

But SMEC said the local consultation was “an essential element of an EIA/SIA process” and it would continue to make efforts “to improve communication with the local community”.

The company says it “maintains a neutral position on this project, whereby it is simply reporting the facts, both positive and negative”.

The dam, the first on the Salween River, which at 2815km long stretches back to China’s border, is one of several being planned between Thailand, Myanmar and China.

Shan community groups say the dam lies in an area contested by several of the largest ethnic armed groups in Shan State.

Between 20,000 and 300,000 people are expected to be displaced by the project.

An environmental scientist familiar with the project stated the dam would introduce huge risks, especially in areas of health and biodiversity, and the killing off of 104 species of fish, 80 per cent of which are migratory; it will also impact sedimentary flow.

Dr Thomas Gray, a WWF manager in Phnom Penh, says a lack of studies on the Salween River’s biodiversity calls for caution in building the dam.

“By far the precautionary principle would say `don’t do anything unless you can understand the consequences’.”

By Ron Corben