How a systems-scale approach can solve Myanmar’s electrification woes and more

Power lines stretch across farm fields in Hpa-An, Myanmar. How can a systems-scale approach solve Myanmar’s electrification woes? Photo by: Markus Kostner / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Environmental advocates are calling for a holistic, streamlined approach to building out Myanmar’s hydropower sector, which is attracting growing interest from donors and investors, including multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank as well as countries such as China.

Systems-scale planning, can help encapsulate sustainability, environment, economic and social concerns into projects’ design, implementation and impact, said Jeff Opperman, lead scientist at The Nature Conservancy’s Great Rivers Program. The approach looks at and guides design and implementation of projects based on a system — such as river basins or lakes — and not as individual projects that are not well-coordinated and which can lead to inefficiencies, conflicts, degradation and missed opportunities.

Myanmar is perhaps the most endowed country in terms of hydropower potential in all of Southeast Asia with 10 river basins that can generate more than 100 gigawatts of power to light up and electrify millions of households all over the former pariah nation. Yet in reality, only about a third of Myanmar’s more than 50 million citizens have access to electricity, and only 16 percent of the rural population are connected to the grid.

Aid and investments have started pouring in to help electrification in the Southeast Asian nation after ending decades of economic isolation four years ago, but current practices in pursuing infrastructure programs including hydropower have invited criticisms centered on environmental concerns and economic constraints.

“Systems-scale planning allows for the comparison of many factors — including energy but also other values such as fisheries and navigation,” Opperman told Devex, highlighting the importance of looking at the bigger picture by considering these various elements — whether the project will affect livelihood, disrupt the ecosystem, degrade the environment, or displace people — and beyond the straightforward goals of producing energy and connecting communities to the grid.

“Thus the projects that emerge from this approach are much more likely to work together as an integrated system that can meet objectives,” he said.

Opperman added the approach is also “conducive to a transparent and informed approach.” It emphasizes stakeholder mapping and dialogue from the earliest stages of planning and therefore more “likely to be in the greater public interest.”

Other organizations echo the same sentiment. Kate Lazarus, team leader for the International Finance Corp.’s hydro advisory program in Asia, has previously emphasized the need for a “holistic approach that aims to ensure water resources are developed sustainably” in the country — a welcome suggestion in a prevailing system where projects are chosen on technical and financial reasons without necessary attention on impact and tradeoffs.

The recently elected government has expressed a more open stance towards the resumption and exploration of more hydropower projects around the country — with some suspended ones already being deliberated for resumption. In line with this, the approach is something Opperman is hoping could help governments make better decisions and entice more interest and commitment from investors and donors for hydropower and other projects in the future.

Building a system

Systems-scale planning is particularly necessary now, because past dam and hydropower projects have followed a more fragmented approach, according to Opperman, citing the findings of a short-term project funded by his organization along with the U.K.’s Department for International Development, World Wildlife Fund and the University of Manchester.

“Dams are generally proposed and built one at a time, with little or no understanding of how continued development will impact other resources,” he explained.

This has been the case with recent foreign-funded infrastructure projects like the Myitsone Dam, which was suspended in 2011. That project divided opinions in a country in dire need of energy sources while also trying to protect its environmental, social and cultural resources.

Myanmar’s situation is echoed across the region, as growing energy demands are pushing countries to find innovative solutions that consider green energy parameters and low-carbon commitments — a list of requirements experts hope that hydropower can fulfill.

Yet hydropower can also have significant social and environmental impacts. “Poorly planned hydropower dams can have dramatic, irreversible impacts on rivers and the people and ecosystems that rely on them,” Opperman said. Such difficulties can result to conflict and project delays or cancellations.

Concrete steps

A system-scale approach could mitigate some of those risks, he said. “System-scale approach can identify multiple development options to meet energy objectives while minimizing negative impacts,” Opperman explained. “It also allows stakeholders and decision-makers to visualize tradeoffs and understand the full set of rewards and risks associated with investment decisions over time.”

In the context of Myanmar, some of the metrics representing stakeholder interests used to construct a systems-scale approach according to the report include average and firm electricity generation, investment costs, flood control, navigation, displaced people, forest loss, fish productivity, fish biodiversity and sediment load.

Opperman called for states to think holistically about options to meet energy and water objectives before setting specific targets for a single sector, such as hydropower. He said that it is crucial, as with any development programs implemented on the ground, to give all stakeholders a seat at the table and use transparent, collaborative approaches to planning and decision-making.

“Ensure accurate accounting for the value of diverse social and environmental resources of rivers and integrate these throughout the planning process,” Opperman urged, adding that addressing Myanmar’s electrification woes should not come at the expense of social and environmental sacrifices.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.