China has reached an agreement with Thailand to fund a hydroelectric dam in Burma - the first of five such projects planned along the lower stretches of the Salween River. The dams are designed to meet rising energy needs in the three countries. But environmentalists and rights groups fear the projects will have far-reaching ecological and humanitarian effects.
The Salween forms one of the last free-flowing river systems in Asia, traveling 2,800 kilometers from the mountains of Tibet to the Gulf of Martaban, which lies between Burma and Thailand.
Sinohydro Corporation, China's largest hydropower company, agreed last month to partner with Thailand's Electricity Generating Authority, or EGAT, in building a $1 billion hydroelectric plant at Hutgyi in Burma.
The Hutgyi plant, about 30 kilometers from the Thai border, is the first of five to be built along the lower Salween by the partnership, which also includes Burma. The dams will generate 10,000 megawatts of power.
Thailand's energy minister has said the projects are necessary to cut his country's dependence on fossil fuels and lower energy costs.
Jean-Pierre Verbiest, Thailand country director for the Asian Development Bank, or A.D.B., describes Thailand's energy needs.
"There is no doubt that if you look at Thailand's energy production and consumption - first the margin between peak production and peak consumption is narrowing - so there is additional investment needed in energy production," he said.
Burma also is desperate for electricity. Power cuts are common, and businesses rely on small diesel generators, which are noisy and dirty.
And China needs energy to fuel its fast-growing economy. Beijing is planning 13 dams or diversions along the river in its territory, in addition to the joint projects with Thailand and Burma.
However, the hydropower projects have generated fierce criticism from environmentalists, who warn the dams will destroy the unique environment of the Salween - home to a wide variety of rare or endangered plants and animals.
In China, where it is known as the Nu River, the Salween forms part of the United Nations's Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site because of its contribution to the area's biodiversity.
Pianporn Deetes is a spokeswoman for the Salween Watch Coalition, an environmental umbrella group. She says some communities in Burma will suffer because the dams will flood their land, affect fish supplies and disrupt the river's flow.
"Those affected the most are the ethnic minorities along the Salween River - especially from Shan State, Karenni and Karen state," she explained.
The A.D.B.'s Verbiest says such environmental and social issues need to be taken into account.
"This production from the Salween power plants would (be) one of the ways of diversifying," she said. " The other aspect - the environment, the impact on the people - would all be very important. Probably more important than the commercial aspect."
The A.D.B., which is a non-profit development lender based in Manila, is not involved in financing the Salween projects, although it has helped finance the construction of other dams.
According to the Karenni Development Research Group, one of the dams in Karenni state is expected to flood 640 kilometers of land, inundate 28 towns and villages including the historical Karenni capital of Bawlake, and displace 30,000 people.
Moe Moe Aung of the Karenni Development Research Group, which studies regional social issues, says the damage to communities forced off their land will not only be economic.
"The Karenni people, they have lived for a long time in the land; so we like to keep our land. This is our home, already our home, so we don't want to move to the other place," Aung said.
Environmentalist Pianporn says a lack of information makes it difficult to assess the dams' effects. She accuses the Thai electricity authority, EGAT, of withholding details of its deals with the reclusive Burmese government.
"It is obvious that the degree of transparency for the project along the Salween River is extremely low," she said. " EGAT always refuses to disclose the relevant project documents."
EGAT and the construction company working on the dams declined to be interviewed about the project and its possible environmental and social ramifications. The Thai government has made few comments about the projects. In one report carried by the French news agency AFP, construction company officials said that some villagers had to be relocated but the company would push for their resettlement "under international standards."
Rights groups are concerned that Burma's military is using the dams as an excuse to move minority groups living around the Salween in a bid to end their fights for independence.
Some of Burma's ethnic minorities have resisted government rule for 50 years. As a result, more than 140,000 people have been forced to refugee camps along the Thai border.
The United States, the European Union and others have imposed sanctions on Burma for human rights violations. But the sanctions have been undermined by deals Burma has signed with neighboring countries eager to tap its energy resources.
Debbie Stothardt, spokeswoman for the rights group Alternative ASEAN Network, says such projects could backfire on Thailand.
"The Salween projects involves displacing tens of thousands of people out of that area just to generate electricity that can be sold to Thailand," she said. "Thailand is the biggest beneficiary of the Salween dam project and Thailand will suffer the worst consequences as more and more displaced people flee to Thailand because they are oppressed by the military regime."
If all the projects go ahead, the Salween will become one of the world's most heavily dammed river systems, with all the dislocation to people and wildlife that entails.