Site Logo

Harnessing Myanmar’s hydropower potential for sustainable development

Distributed hydropower can accelerate and unlock more inclusive pathways to meeting the country’s pressing electricity and water needs. By Michael Spolum, Regional Director for Business Development, Natel Energy

Since Myanmar’s phased transition to democracy kicked off in 2010, the country has had one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. Electricity demand is surging past available supplies by 15% annually, and demand is expected to more than double by 2020. Rolling brownouts have become increasingly common, frustrating consumers and deterring foreign investment.

Although often eclipsed by interest in the hydrocarbon and mining sectors, Myanmar’s hydrological resources are arguably its most important natural resource endowment. Hydropower currently generates two thirds of Myanmar’s modest 4.9 GW of installed capacity, a small slice of the country’s 95 GW of untapped hydropower potential.

Authorities have understandably turned to hydropower to help address the widening demand-supply gap. The Ministry of Electricity and Energy is currently planning to develop 50 large-scale (>30MW) hydropower plants with a combined capacity exceeding 40 GW to serve both domestic and regional export markets.

These same hydrologic resources, and the various ecosystems they inextricably link, are, however, also at the core of Myanmar’s food and nutritional security. Rivaling the production of the entire lower Mekong Basin, Myanmar’s inland fisheries yield 600,000 to 900,000 tons of fish and aquaculture annually that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has framed as the most important animal protein source in the Myanmar diet by a factor of 10 to 1.

If developed as planned, the presence of 50 large-scale hydropower projects would segment river systems and permanently flatten the peaks and valleys of the flood-pulse. As sediment is trapped behind dams, annually inundated floodplains will gradually shrink, eroding the productivity of inland fisheries and robbing paddy fields of the fertile silts and water flows that have for centuries sustained yields.

Not surprisingly, the government’s hydropower development plans have inspired a tsunami of opposition from project area communities, civil society organizations, NGOs and other concerned parties. Numerous large-scale projects planned for upland ethnic areas, where distrust of the former military regime still lingers, are also frustrating the government’s efforts to secure a National Ceasefire Agreement.

Fortunately, new materials, such as carbon fiber, and new mechanical innovations are contributing to the development of more cost-effective and modular hydropower turbines, like Natel Energy’s hydroEngine©. The hydroEngine, and the civil works savings it enables, are helping to make the minimum financially viable size of hydropower smaller, and distributed hydropower a reality.

Why is this important for Myanmar?

Integrated networks of distributed hydropower projects are lower-impact, more socially acceptable and rapidly deployable at scale, yet still capable of providing utility-scale power to address Myanmar’s urgent electricity supply shortfalls.

Of equal importance, a distributed approach to hydropower development can help ease tensions between the government and ethnic groups by ensuring the benefits of electricity access and related co-benefits are more quickly and equitably extended to isolated upland areas.

Distributed hydropower projects’ civil works can, for example, also incorporate water supply, irrigation and flood management systems. This amplifies the positive impacts of improved energy access with dual-use infrastructure that serves other social and economic purposes.

Distributed hydropower is by no means the only solution to Myanmar’s energy needs.

Some large-scale hydropower projects will be developed, and should be when the environmental and social costs are minimal and affected communities agree to the proposed energy pathway.

Distributed models of hydropower development do, however, offer Myanmar’s policymakers an accelerated and utility-enhancing solution to meet the country’s pressing electricity, as well as water and sanitation needs.

Michael Spolum is the Regional Director of Business Development for Natel Energy, a California based water-energy development company actively engaged in project development in Myanmar that is also an alumni of Imagine H2O’s accelerator program.