Myanmar’s Chindwin river is the largest tributary to the Irrawaddy. It originates in the Hugawng Valley of Kachin State and flows through mountain ranges and forests, passing through Sagaing Division, until it reaches the large Irrawaddy. Hundreds of thousands of people from different ethnic groups (Kuki, Kachin, Shan, Naga and Chin and Burmese) depend for their livelihoods and culture on the unique and biodiverse river ecosystem. The Tamanthi dam (Sagaing Division), proposed by India’s and Myanmar’s governments in 2004, would have changed the Chindwin River irreversibly. The dam projected provoked strong civil society opposition over the large social and environmental impacts and human rights abuses documented during the early stages of development. The dam was eventually cancelled in 2013 [1,2,3].
The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the Tamanthi dam was signed between Burma’s government and India’s National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) in 2004. About 80% of the generated electricity was supposed to be exported to India, while most of the remaining electricity was reportedly planned to power the Monywa mining operations. In 2006, the Burmese organization BANCA carried out and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). A second agreement between India and Burma followed, signed on September 16, 2008, stating that India’s Department of Hydropower Implementation (DHPI) would form a joint venture with NHPC for the development of both the Tamanthi and the Shwezaye dam. Construction work at the dam site started in 2007 and was accompanied by militarization of the zone. In 2009, Senior General Than Shwe visited the construction site. Continuous surveying by NHPC followed over the next years [1,2,3].
The social impacts of the initial stages of the hydropower development were devastating. According to the civil society group Kuki Women’s Human Rights Organization (KWHRO), the entire planning occurred in secrecy and lacked any participation in decision-making . The construction site started to undergo rapid changes. Logging companies started to clear the reservoir on a large scale, causing deforestation. The increased presence of military forces that accompanied the start of the construction work reportedly led to growing human rights abuses against local residents [1,2]. In 2007, about 2,400 people from the prosperous Kuki villages Leivomjang and Tazong in Sagaing Division were forcefully relocated at gunpoint and houses, churches, the cemetery and farms were bulldozed [1,2]. Residents from nearby settlements were forcefully recruited to help with the evictions . Evicted villagers received as little as 5,000 Kyat (5 USD) of total compensation for their house and garden and were forced to sign that the relocation was voluntary, documented KWHRO . The relocation site, named after Burma military Generals, was 40 miles (ca. 65 km) away and lacked fertile farmland and water supply. Many refused to leave their original homelands and erected temporary shelters to stay. The loss of livelihood forced some to migrate elsewhere to seek new incomes . It was reported, that some villagers had so little income that they were not even able to cover their daily rice needs . If fully developed, the Tamanthi Dam would have displaced no less than approx. 45,000 people from an estimated number of 52 villages and the entire town of Khamti, stated KWHRO .
The potential environmental impacts were also far-reaching. Approximately 139,600 ha of land (of which 6,880 ha was fertile agricultural land) would have to be flooded [1,2,4]. The EIA commissioned by the Burmese government in 2006 was incomplete, because the assessment team was not provided sufficient time to conduct it properly. “Nevertheless, they documented 332 species of birds, 59 species of mammals, 333 species of insects, 57 species of reptiles, 67 species of fish, and 526 species of plants, some of which are critically endangered in the dam’s flood area" informed KWHRO . The reservoir would also flood parts of the Tamanthi Wildlife sanctuary that is home to globally endangered large mammals, such as tigers (Panthera tigris), elephants (Elephus maximus), and the endemic Myanmar’s Roofed Turtle (Kachuga travittata) . The proposed dam site was furthermore located at the Sagaing fault line, which experienced two earthquakes in February 2011 [1,3].
Strong opposition against the hydropower plans emerged. Alternative reports were produced (2011) that documented the vast ranging impacts. Civil society groups such as KWHRO demanded from the two governments to immediately stop the dam plans, and to let relocated villagers return home with proper compensation . The opposition movement also faced repression. After Kuki activists organized a prayer ceremony to protect the river, eight organizers were reportedly interrogated, beaten up by army soldiers and forced to agree to stop any further resistance activities . In 2012, a detailed report found the project financially unfeasible without government-backed funding from either India or Myanmar . The plans for the dam were eventually cancelled in June, 2013 [3,5]. In a communication to India’s foreign ministry, Myanmar scrapped both the Tamanthi dam and the Shwezaye dam project because of the high adverse social and environmental effects, the strong local opposition , as well as over concerns over the dam’s economic viability . According to the Media platform livemint.com  Myanmar’s then-minister for environmental conservation and forestry said that “In searching for development, we have to pay attention to the environment, which is our priority. In the past, we haven’t practised procedures such as environment impact assessment (EIA) study […] Our people have become aware of these measures. Today, we are focusing on people. Even if there are EIAs in place, if our people say no, we wouldn’t go forward. Our policies are people-centric.” [cited in 6].
The cancellation of the dams was warmly welcomed by civil society groups . While fears remain that the Tamanthi dam may, one day, be back on Myanmar’s hydropower agenda, a strong civil society network across the country is monitoring the hydropower development in Myanmar .