As Myanmar develops its energy sector, the country faces a tremendous and unique opportunity: As a net sink for carbon emissions, it has the potential to focus on green energy and become a global leader in renewables. Today, only one-third of the country is connected to the central electricity grid. But current plans to power the country are built on coal-fired plants, mines, and large-scale hydropower. Myanmar already has the highest air pollution levels in ASEAN. These “dinosaur” technologies contribute significantly to climate change and threaten public health, biodiversity, and livelihoods across Myanmar’s fast-growing economy. EarthRights works to build a counter-narrative to international and domestic actors pushing “clean coal” and big dams. Instead of costly, ineffective, and damaging centralized projects, EarthRights supports diversified, decentralized, clean energy based on the voices of the people.
Existing coal-fired power plants and mines in Myanmar have damaged the livelihoods, health, and natural resources of frontline communities. The country now operates two coal-fired plants, Kawthaung and Tigyit, but currently has plans to build eight more, though the country has no emission standards for coal plants. According to a May 2017 study by Greenpeace and Harvard University, pollution from currently-proposed coal plants could lead to health problems causing 7,100 premature deaths per year, or a total of 280,000 over a possible 40-year operating life for a given plant.
The Tigyit power plant has already been polluting water sources, farmland, and ecosystems for years. It was constructed in 2002 as a joint venture between the Myanmar government and a Chinese company but is still not fully operational. Villagers affected by pollution from the plant have organized protests, both locally and all the way to the Myanmar Parliament. Responding to pressure from the affected communities, Myanmar’s Ministry of Electrical Power and Energy investigated their complaints. It confirmed that waste from the plant had impacted the villagers’ livelihoods and health. The Ministry ordered the plant’s operators to stop all work until the effects of the pollution could be adequately mitigated. As a result, the Chinese developers pulled out of the project, although the Myanmar-owned firm Wixi Hua Guang soon bought the license to operate the plant.
Proposed coal plants and mines in Myanmar threaten to continue these harms, ignoring the voices of frontline communities and jeopardizing their health and livelihoods. In Ann Dinn village, Ye Township, Mon State, a proposed 1,280 MW coal-fired power plant has been met with strong, organized opposition from local activists. The proposal, sponsored by a Thailand-based Japanese company, Toyo-Thai Corporation, also outlines plans for a new deep sea port to Indonesian and Australian coal to fuel the plant. But the people of Ann Dinn are firm in their stance against coal, pointing out that, as the village is already electrified and the plant poses large threats to their livelihoods, the proposal doesn’t make sense economically. A recent survey estimated that the six villages that will be most affected by the power plant generate about 5.8 billion kyat (4.5 million USD) every year in income from betel nut, rice, and fishing. The communities use these figures in their campaign to demonstrate the severe economic loss the communities would suffer if the plant is built and the inadequacy of the one-time 1.5 million kyat offer made by the developers.
EarthRights supports campaigns to develop renewable energy policies in Myanmar and works with communities affected by proposed and existing coal projects as they call for access to information, compensation, and the cancellation of projects. Developing coal power means missing an opportunity to be a leader in sustainability. It also means fueling future climate disasters in a country that is the second-most vulnerable in the world to the impacts of climate change.
As Myanmar develops its energy plans, EarthRights advocates for public participation at the policy level and around individual projects. EarthRights works to ensure that communities across Myanmar have their voices, needs, and concerns heard by the government. Public participation is necessary to ensure that electrification strategies reflect social needs. In reality, 80 percent of coal-generated electricity is earmarked for export and won’t actually serve the so-called “energy poor” of Myanmar. For all energy projects, there must be fair environmental impact assessments and public consultation processes. If Myanmar skips these steps, the country’s people and environment will end up paying the cost of damaging and short-sighted fossil fuel-driven energy plans, and the Myanmar government will lose some of its legitimacy and power as a net sink for carbon emissions. EarthRights also monitors coal projects that have been proposed for Thilawa and Dawei Special Economic Zones.
To support frontline communities facing coal projects, EarthRights organized a training in 2016 for grassroots advocates from seven areas where coal projects have been proposed. The training focused on the impacts of coal, documenting these impacts, and community organizing. EarthRights now works with frontline communities as they map their own energy resources and build an understanding of the potential for localized projects and of the benefits and consequences of connecting to a national grid.
In late 2016, we co-organized a Green Energy Forum, which brought together renewables and anti-coal campaigners from across Myanmar. The forum resulted in a statement by 422 organizations representing Myanmar’s diverse ethnic communities as well as national and international NGOs urging the National League for Democracy government to abandon plans for coal and big hydropower projects in Myanmar. Civil society groups pushed a similar message at a renewable energy roundtable in July 2017 with international lenders, the private sector, and government stakeholders, including the Ministry for Electricity and Energy.
In February 2017, EarthRights, the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability, and 172 other organizations sent an open letter to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), calling on it to refuse to fund an expansion of the Shwe Taung Cement Factory in Mandalay Region. Because the Shwe Taung firm operates a coal mine in Sagaing Division exclusively for the purpose of powering the cement factory, funding the factory would contradict the IFC’s commitment to supporting the Paris Agreement and its own energy sector strategy, which restricts the financing of coal-fired power plants.