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Myanmar villagers want an end to darkness|
Global Times | 2013-10-20 19:38:01
By Yu Jincui
We bumped along a backcountry road along the upstream of the Ayeyarwady River, also known as the Irrawaddy River, heading for an interview in a local village. The undulating road, with fist-sized stones jolting cars or motorbikes, was over 40 kilometers far away from Myitkyina, the capital city of the Kachin State in northern Myanmar.
I met a girl named Sai Mhai when resting in a shabby wooden hut on the way. The 15-year-old, who was forced to drop out from her middle school not long ago because of an unaffordable annual tuition fee of 150,000 kyats ($153.90), recalled her days when reading in dim candlelight and told me that she longed for a better life with electricity.
Without power lines, the villagers inhabited along the road are lit only by candle at night. Extreme poverty makes ear-splitting electricity generators for home use a luxury that can be only afforded by a few people.
Residents in Kachin State are accustomed to being in darkness. Even the power supply in its capital Myitkyina is troublesome. The city had been plagued by power blackout for over a month and a half when I visited there on October 10.
The local power source, a small hydropower station with an installed capacity of 15,000 kilowatts, was out of service due to damages by floods in August.
Official statistics show that 70 percent of Myanmar's cities, towns and villages suffer power shortages. And the past years have seen constant power cuts in Kachin State and surrounding regions due to conflicts between the government army and the Kachin Independence Army, as well as several street protests over months of power cuts in big cities such as Yangon and Mandalay.
This is the place where the controversy around the Myitsone dam project started. On September 30, 2011, Myanmar President U Thein Sein announced the suspension of the project.
The controversy was stirred up around the concerns on environmental protection, dam safety and cultural heritage preservation, which distracted attention from how to change the extreme poverty and backwardness of the villages along the Irrawaddy River and solve the power shortages.
Those of us living in modern cities may find it hard to imagine that villagers could still die of malaria since it takes hours to reach the nearest hospital by motorcycle. The whole region is plunged into darkness at sunset.
Thein Sein said in a speech on June 19, 2012 that the Myanmar government was determined to actively attract and utilize domestic and foreign investments in electric power industry that was in dire need of development.
Myanmar has abundant hydropower resources, but its utilization rate of hydropower is less than 3 percent, compared with above 70 percent in the developed countries. Many scholars have pointed out that the best way for Myanmar to solve electricity shortages is resorting to clean and renewable power.
The suspension of the Myitsone dam project is entangled in politics, economy, environment and culture, with some also blaming the non-transparency of the project or the hasty decision of the Myanmar government. But what deserves more attention is how to find a solution, given the suspended but not terminated status of the project.
Should the benefits of the project to both sides, especially to the Myanmar people, be elaborately clarified and solid and convincing proofs be provided to disperse local environmental and safety concerns, the project could lead to a win-win result for China and Myanmar.
The electricity generated could be used to meet the power demands of Kachin State and other regions in Myanmar, and governmental revenue from the project could help northern Myanmar to alleviate the poverty and improve the economy.
There are some calling for an open debate on the feasibility of the project. The Chinese side has begun a second investigation into the impact of the dam, which the Myanmar government needs to respond to rather than treating it as a live wire issue.
On October 10, a tentative peace deal was reached between the Myanmar government and the KIA, paving the way for an end to fighting in northern Myanmar. But beside an end to war, local people are also longing to rid themselves of poverty and darkness.
The author is a reporter with the Global Times. firstname.lastname@example.org