Coal: the new power battleground

The strong monsoon wind blows thick, rain-filled clouds in from the Andaman Sea to the fringes of the Ayeyarwady delta. Thoung Khon is just 60 kilometres (37 miles) from Yangon, on the west bank of the Yangon River, but the lack of roads – it’s difficult to travel to the region by car – makes it feel as remote as some far-flung border area.

Most residents in this Kungyangon township village subsist on fishing and farming and for decades their lives have changed little. But that appears set to change due to the region’s proximity to both Yangon, a city bursting at the seams and in urgent need of infrastructure, and the ocean.

Conglomerate Asia World’s controversial plan to build a coal-fired power plant in the area has divided residents. Some argue that it is needed for the development of their villages and will bring much-needed infrastructure and jobs, while others fear it will simply pollute their homes for the benefit of Asia World and electricity users in Yangon.

“Now we’ve heard about this project and we are very worried about our future,” said resident U Aye Shwe, 63.

He said villagers fear that if the plant is developed they will lose access to the waterways in which they catch fish for a living, and that drinking water will become polluted.

“We rely on ponds for water because it is not possible to dig wells,” said U Mg Htay, 52, from Thoung Khon. “How will we get water if the coal power plant is built right here?”

They also worry that land will be acquired to expand the project in coming years. But for now, at least, land confiscations are not an issue. In early 2012, Asia Green, a subsidiary of conglomerate Asia World, purchased 400 acres of land at K700,000 an acre from local farmers, ostensibly for an agriculture development project.

In August of that year, Virtue Land, another subsidiary of Asia World, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Electric Power to build a 300 megawatt coal plant on the 400-acre site on a build, operate and transfer basis. The plant could later be expanded up to a maximum of 3270MW, according to the company.

Virtue Land manager U Myint Oo insisted last week there was nothing untoward about the land purchase. “We paid above the market price so the farmers were very happy to sell,” he said.

U Myint Oo said Asia World had decided not to press on with the agriculture project because, just months after buying the land, the government had proposed the development of a coal power plant in Kungyangon. In what U Myint Oo described as a coincidence, the Asia Green parcel was deemed suitable for the project.

The future is coal-powered

The plant is one of four ringing Yangon that the government has approved in recent years to fuel the city’s growing power needs. In Htantabin township, to the city’s west, Htoo company and China’s Huaneng Lancang will build a 270MW plant. To the east, in the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, Japan’s Toyo-Thai will build a 650MW plant, while in neighbouring Kyauktan, a local firm, Diamond Palace, has teamed up with investors from Malaysia and Singapore on a 500MW power station. All will be fired by coal.

The coal plants in Yangon Region are part of a broader government plan to diversify Myanmar’s sources of power and move away from the current heavy reliance on hydro.

Agreements for five other coal plants, in Ayeyarwady Region, Sagaing Region, Shan State and Tanintharyi Region, have also been signed, and the government expects the nine plants to generate more than 10,000MW by 2030. Over the same period, the proportion of power generated by coal is expected to rise from just 3 percent to 33pc.

In an address to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw in Nay Pyi Taw in July, Minister for Electric Power U Khin Maung Soe said the nine projects – seven of which are joint ventures with foreign firms – are expected to get underway by 2015.

Acknowledging the widespread concerns over the impact of coal-fired plants, U Khin Maung Soe promised the projects would use the latest technology to meet international environmental standards and minimise the impact on area communities.

Not in my backyard

There’s only one catch: getting residents to agree to have the plants built near their homes.

Under Virtue Land’s MOU, the government will not allow the company to proceed with the project if residents are not in favour. It is not clear how the government will assess whether locals support the building of the plant.

Videos of public meetings between the company and residents held earlier this year underscore the tensions over the project. Officials can be seen telling residents that if they object to the coal plant, they will be consigning themselves – and their families – to a future of poverty.

While company officials were adamant on this point, they were less clear on other aspects of the project. Ko San Oo, one of the organisers of the Kon Gyan Gone Network, which was formed in January 2014 to prevent human and labour rights violations and land grabs in the area, said there was no response when residents asked about the environmental impact of the project.

“Residents asked who would be responsible for any negative impacts from the project but there was no clear response,” he said.

A Ministry of Electric Power director, who asked not to be named, told The Myanmar Times last week that the clause in the contract about community approval was not just for show. He insisted the companies building the plants would have to win the trust of local communities in order to get the green light.

President U Thein Sein has previously cancelled one major coal project, a 4000MW plant in Dawei, because of community opposition, while the Myitsone Dam, a 3600MW hydro project, was suspended in September 2011 for similar reasons.

“The companies have to built trust and be transparent with residents about the projects,” the director said.

He said that while the ministry does not plan to commission more coal plants, it is confident that the direct impact of the current projects on area communities can be kept to a minimum.

“We can use clean-coal technology and guidelines from the World Bank to reduce the side effects,” he said.

This has been disputed by environmental activists, however, who have been working in Kungyangon to build local opposition to the projects.

They argue that the plants will have a direct impact on the local environment and the health and economic opportunities of residents, while at the same time fuelling conflict in the long run by contributing to global warming. The latter argument resonates among delta residents, an estimated 2.5 million of whom live less than 3 metres (10 feet) above sea level and as a result are particularly vulnerable to rising waters.

U Win Myo Thu, director of environmental NGO EcoDev, said he was concerned about the potential that the plant’s sulfur dioxide could cause acid rain to fall in the agriculturally rich delta region.

“The sulfur dioxide emissions from a 500MW coal power plant can result in 1 tonne of acid rain each year,” he said.

‘The government will decide’

To assuage these concerns, Virtue Land has been required to undertake environmental and social impact assessments in Kungyangon. These were submitted to the government as part of the company’s feasibility study, on the basis of which the government will decide whether to green-light the project.

The assessments were carried out in 2013 by local company Myanmar Engineering Consultancy (MEC), Nippon Koei from Japan and British public relations firm Bell Pottinger.

“We were working on the survey with Japanese experts for four months. We researched about 300 households in four villages near the region,” said project coordinator U Nyi Nyi Aung, adding that, overall, most of those surveyed support the coal plant.

But the assessments have proven controversial. Residents opposed to the coal plant told The Myanmar Times last week that they could not accept the results because they were not interviewed by MEC.

U Win Myo Thu said four months was not long enough to properly survey the impact for such a large and controversial project.

Residents in Thoung Khon said only the village administrator and those close to him, such as family and friends, support the building of the power plant. In a show of opposition, 800 people attended an August 23 meeting called by activists to discuss the project. Officials from Virtue Land were invited but failed to turn up.

Despite these sentiments, Virtue Land officials say they have no plans to cancel the project. If the government gives permission to move forward by the end of this year, they plan to start building the first 300MW plant in 2015 and expect construction to take less than three years.

“We will follow the rules and regulations of the government,” manager U Myint Oo said, “but it will be the government that decides whether to give permission.”

Thoung Khon resident Ko Zaw Min Htike said this is exactly what residents fear. He said they feel they have little chance of stopping a project bankrolled by a firm like Asia World, which has significant influence among decision-makers in Nay Pyi Taw.

“All our experience has tought us that rule of law in this country is still weak,” he said.

Waving a book on sustainable use of natural resources through the air, he said, “What we want to know is who will take responsibility for the side effects of having coal power plants in this region.”


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