Dam construction poses the single greatest threat to the Salween River.
China plans up to 13 large hydropower projects in a cascade that would transform the free-flowing river in upper basin into a series of channels and reservoirs.
The upper Salween is characterized by high elevation and deep gorges, which give it great potential for hydropower generation, but also eliminate most options for limiting the severe environmental damage that would ensue.
Nine of the proposed dams are located on the main stem, in national nature reserves, and very close to the UNESCO World Heritage site.
China’s Yunnan Provincial Government is proposing one of the highest dams in the world and China appears to be progressing without consultation with the downstream riparian residents in Myanmar or Thailand.
Myanmar’s government is also planning or has begun several medium to large dam projects along the Salween River.
By far the largest and most advanced project is the 228m high Tasang Dam which would create a 640 Km2 reservoir flooding the lower sections of 3 major tributaries. Although no needs assessments have been conducted, and the Environmental Impact Assessments are incomplete, the detailed design study is underway.
Three quarters of the electricity generated by the Tasang would be exported to Thailand, and this project is part of wider negotiations for the Greater Mekong Subregion Power Grid.
As well, last year, Thailand and Myanmar resurrected a proposal to create a 62 Km tunnel along the Thai-Myanmar border to divert 10% of the Salween’s flow in Myanmar to the Bhumibol reservoir in Thailand, 300 Km away.
There are serious questions as to the safety and economic feasibility of the proposed dams, and risks to the social fabric of the basin residents.
Although the slopes surrounding the Salween are more stable than the Mekong, variations in water levels and landslides threaten its banks and China’s proposed projects are in a mountainous area which has frequent earthquakes and landslides.
China’s hydropower cascade would also displace 50,000 ethnic minority people .
In Myanmar, dam construction and water diversion may be particularly devastating for the indigenous communities because the military government is notorious for human rights abuses. Further, foreign revenue from the exported electricity flowing into Myanmar may be expropriated by the governing junta.