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Salween River as Transboundary Environmental Commons

Author: Dr Diana Suhardiman (

Hydropower development as part of regional economic integration

Large-scale infrastructure development is one of the major forces driving regional economic integration in the Global South. In line with national governments’ objectives to promote economic development and modernization, dam building is regularly presented as key components of national development strategies. With regard to hydropower dams in particular, it is also often positioned as strategic means to promote regional economic integration through power generation for industrialization and revenue generation from electricity export.

Originating on the Tibetan plateau, the Nu-Thanlwin-Salween River[1] flows down through China’s Yunnan Province to Shan, Karenni, Karen, and Mon States in Myanmar before emptying into the Andaman Sea. The basin is home to over ten million people, many of whom who depend on its ecosystem for their livelihoods. In China, 13 large dams have been proposed for the mainstream, of which two have been built to date. In Myanmar, at least five large hydropower dams[2] are proposed for construction on the mainstream of Salween and are at various stages of preparation. Furthermore, four large hydropower projects have already been completed on two tributaries of the Salween River in Myanmar, and an additional nine large-dam projects are also at various stages of planning and construction on five major tributaries (Middleton et al. 2019).

Salween River tributary, Hpa An city, Karen state, Myanmar

While large-scale infrastructure development is often positioned as vehicle to promote economic growth, its impact on people’s livelihoods and the wider environment is also well known. Viewing the Salween River as a transboundary commons, this blog draws particular attention on emerging trends and development pathways in regional economic integration in Southeast Asia, with particular focus on civic environmental movement in China, where longstanding intentions for hydropower construction have partly been replaced by – but remain in tension with - environmental protection agendas.

Kaw Ku island on the Salween River tributary, where farmers benefited from sediment flow to farm dry seasons crops

China’s civil society collective action and the Nu River protection plan

Civil society and environmental NGOs in China have played an important role in promoting a proposal for the protection of the Nu River and have acted as one of the forces pushing for greater access to information on dam planning and public participation.

One key organization has been the Kunming-based Green Watershed. Since 2002, it worked with affected communities of the Manwan hydropower dam, one of the dams China had built on the upstream part of the Mekong River (Lancang in China). Following its 180 pages report on Social Impact Assessment of the Manwan dam and media coverage including by China’s Xinhua News Agency, Zhu Rongji, the Chinese Premier at that time, asked the Yunnan provincial government to investigate, and solve the social problems related to dam development including providing compensation to affected communities. This marked Green Watershed’s role as key player in establishing an alternative pathway for Yunnan’s rivers, through its access to influence hydropower decision making processes, especially pertaining to compensation mechanisms, while also granting it access to policy dialogue with hydropower dam developers.

Green Watershed also worked to protect the Nu River basin from hydropower construction in China. Their approach included collective action that linked policy influence at the national level with the need to convey the voice of local communities and potentially affected people. Green Watershed’s ability to push for Nu River protection in the government’s policy agenda was also linked with its close connection and collaboration with other NGOs, which in 2004 formed a loose coalition called the China River Network (see Yang and Calhoun, 2007; Yu et al, 2019). It included Green Earth Volunteers, Friends of Nature, the Global Village, Conservation International, Wild China, Green Island, and Home Watch Volunteers, among others. This network worked together to influence provincial government and hydropower developers by building social pressure, for instance initiating several petition letters to protect the Nu River. They also worked with the media, technical experts, and key institutions, in particular the State Environmental Protection Administration. The NGO network also formed an alliance with prominent political actors, including the China Democratic Party (CDP) Yunnan Branch, which disagreed with the government’s plan to place hydropower as central to Yunnan’s economy, especially on the Nu River. This alliance with the CDP provided not only firm political foundation for the advocacy campaign, but also influenced Wen Jiabao’s decision to suspend Nu hydropower dam development in 2004.

Collective action emerged between Green Watershed and other NGOs, local communities, the media, some influential government officials across scales, namely the local, provincial, national and international. However, it was also a fragmented collective action, in the sense that there was limited interaction with networks in downstream countries.


Middleton, C., A. Scott and V. Lamb (2019) Hydropower Politics and Conflict on the Salween River. In Knowing the Salween River: Resource politics of a contested transboundary river. Edited by Carl Middleton and Vanessa Lamb. Cham: Springer. 27–48.

Yu, X., X. Chen and C. Middleton (2019) “From Hydropower Construction to National Park Creation: Changing Pathways of the Nu River” In Knowing the Salween River: Resource politics of a contested transboundary river. Edited by Carl Middleton and Vanessa Lamb. Cham: Springer. 49–70.


[1] The river is referred to as the Nu River in China, the Thalwin River in Myanmar, and the Salween River in Thailand. In this blog, I refer to its most well-known international name, the Salween.

[2] Three of the five dams, the Upper Thanlwin (Kunlong), Nawngpha (Nongpha), and Ta Sang (Mong Ton) are located in Shan State, while the Hatgyi and Ywathit dams are located in Karen and Karenni States, respectively

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