In mountains near Nay Pyi Taw, a test case for hydropower sector

Villages, towns and cities are born for many reasons: Some develop as trading centres, while others spring up as a result of a gold rush. In Myanmar, many are agricultural communities, relying on the fertile fields around them to bring prosperity to residents. In the early 2000s, Nay Pyi Taw was built for strategic and security reasons.

But in the mountains not far to the east of Nay Pyi Taw, another new town has emerged – the first in the country to emerge as a result of a hydropower project. Paunglaung, in southern Shan State’s Pinlaung township, was created due to the Upper Paunglaung hydropower project, a 140-megawatt, K320 billion endeavour launched in 2005.

This month, the project will undergo final tests and its two giant Chinese-made turbines that are designed to generate 140 megawatts a year will start turning. Once it’s running, electricity from the dam will feed directly into the national grid, providing up to 454 million kilowatt hours a year. The newly constructed town, also called Paunglaung, has been promised a regular supply.

But the work has come at a heavy human cost: Nearly 10,000 people from 23 villages were forced out of their homes. Many were settled in the new town, while others were relocated higher up the Paunglaung valley on less fertile hillsides. Most are now unemployed too.

Water is spreading out over the river-plain where their villages used to be, forming a giant reservoir that will cover 61 square kilometres (23.55 square miles) by the end of month.

About 4000 acres of land will eventually be flooded and while some villagers were happy with the compensation they received for homes, buildings, agricultural land and crops, many were not.

“I got K1.5 million in compensation but I spent almost K40 million building a new house in the town,” U Tin Maung Than, a father of three children who has been resettled, told The Myanmar Times recently. “I am now in trouble as I lost my cultivable land. I hope that I can get substitute land so I can MAKE MONEY to cover my living expenses in future.”

Villagers were paid compensation of between K930,000 and K6.2 million, depending on their assets, and were provided replacement plots measuring 60 feet by 100 feet (18 metres by 30m) in the new settlements.

The shift has brought great uncertainty for residents. The government has tried to allay their concerns by explaining it has earmarked 8000 acres of land for agriculture and promising to support the raising of livestock and build a new commodity centre. But no one has received any agricultural land yet, and residents don’t know whether it will be as rich as the land on the river-plain, which supported high-yielding paddy fields.

Farmers grew groundnut (peanut), paddy and turmeric in their old villages but don’t know what crops the new land can support.

Paunglaung town itself, which lies in a beautiful mountain range, clearly seems to be benefiting from the dam. There are many newly built houses and the authorities have promised residents that they will eventually have a full supply of water and electricity as well as better transport options.

Although most are unemployed some of the villagers who were relocated to Paunglaung have profited, selling the plots they received to build a new home for a high price as the town experiences a mini-boom.

Authorities say they are convinced that the benefits will soon spread through the community but concede that much works remains to be done.

“It is a very hard task moving the villages from the flooded area. We have spent more than K27 billion for the resettlement project alone,” Deputy Minister for Electric Power U Maw Thar Htwe told journalists who had been invited to tour the dam.

He said agricultural land had already been designated to hand over to residents as part of the exhaustive resettlement process. “It took almost one year to give compensation to the villagers,” he said. “We did five stages of compensation.”

While the hydropower project was initiated by the previous government, it has been managed mostly by U Thein Sein’s government, which has made greater efforts to avoid conflict over natural resources and ensure energy projects improve the lives of area residents. With many more hydropower projects being planned, the new town of Paunglaung will provide a test case for how – or how not – to handle the tricky but normally inevitable question of relocation, and whether the benefits of the projects outweigh the impact on area residents.


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