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China-Backed Hydro Dam Upsets Burma Locals

In September, Burma's reform-minded President Thein Sein appeared to heed environmental concerns and suspended construction of a controversial China-backed hydropower dam in northern Kachin state. But the Myitsone dam project has not been cancelled and locals worry what will happen if construction resumes.

The Myitsone is where the Mali Hka and N'Mai Hka Rivers merge in Burma's north Kachin state to form the Irrawaddy, the country's lifeline.

If the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam goes ahead, the reservoir will flood an area the size of Singapore, submerging a scenic area popular with tourists.

Senior monk U Yay Wa Ra says the waterline would reach halfway up his temple's pagoda.

"When the dam project was suspended I felt happy because it meant we could keep the natural beauty of the Myitsone area and we would not lose our temple as well," he said.

Hydropower from the dam could produce several thousand megawatts of electricity, most of which would be sold to neighboring China. China is also backing six smaller hydropower dams planned along the river. The potential profits are huge, but not for local businesses.

La Phai Jar Aung sells roasted fish to tourists on the Irrawaddy riverbank.

"If the dam project resumes we will not know how to make a living," she said. "There is no business and no work at Aung Myin Thar [the relocation village]. So we would have to stay there and be unemployed."

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Aung Myin Thar is one of several villages where the government has moved thousands of people to make way for the dam. Although they received brand new houses and other compensation, many are unhappy about moving.

Farmer U Jang Hkam admits his new house is much better than his old bamboo one, but the farmland is too small.

"There is no space to do farming here to make a living. To earn money, we totally rely on farms and forests. So, we own a house but we have nothing else," he added.

For now, locals can still earn a few dollars a day searching for gold along the riverbank.

They are eager to get all they can in case construction resumes and the Myitsone they once knew is left at the bottom of a lake.