Environmental Degradation


Arakan, in Western Burma, site of the Shwe Gas Project, is an ancient kingdom that has an abundant cultural heritage. Most people make a living from farming and fishing – indeed, fishing is an integral part of Arakanese culture. Through the displacement of villages along the anticipated pipeline corridor, which in the case of the Yadana/Yetagun pipelines were up to 15 miles on each side of the pipeline, the military would divide centuries-old communities and destroy buildings of cultural importance.

[a] By examining past gas pipeline projects under the Burmese military regime (State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC), it is clear that the Shwe Project poses an imminent threat to Burma’s cultural heritage and environment.

Threats to Burmese Rainforests

Perhaps most pressing are Burma’s growing energy needs, which the SPDC’s Shwe Project ignores in favor or exporting gas for profit. This hunger to fulfill basic daily energy needs such as cooking and heating is leading to rapid deforestation. Not only are Burmese forests dwindling from precious wood exports, but because wood represents a basic fuel source for most Burmese. Fuelwood accounts for nearly 90% of domestic energy consumption in Burma, in comparison to less than 1% from electricity. Together with logging, this is putting considerable strain on Burma’s remaining forests. [b] Rising energy demand is outstripping supply and the annual deforestation rate was in 2000 was estimated at 1.4% per year. [c] However, instead of addressing these local needs, the military regime is exporting an important energy source in exchange for cash—in hopes of securing its own perpetuation.

Threats to the Arakanese Way of Life

As with the Yadana/Yetagun pipelines in eastern Burma during the 1990s, the offshore Shwe wells and related infrastructure will damage the local fishing industry. Local fishermen claim that they are not allowed into a radius of 10 miles of the Shwe drill ship and semisubmersible drilling platform. Construction of permanent production facilities would further decrease this access by local fishermen, yet to date no debate has been held regarding possible alternatives or modes of compensation.

Threats to Endangered Species

Already, the military has sold off many of Arakan’s natural resources, which has led to large-scale environmental destruction. The rapid development of the military-controlled shrimp industry, for example, has devastated large areas of Mangrove forests. Around the Arakan capital Sittwe, a majority of the stationed army battalions 270, 306, 344, MI-10 and the central.

Western Command have all confiscated land from farmers and have turned these into 160-250 acre large prawn farms, with income funneled back into the military. The remaining Mangroves along the Arakan coastline are now further threatened by the infrastructure of the Shwe gas project. Already endangered animals such as the Arakan forest turtle (heosemys depressa), among the most endangered turtles in the world, [d] and the Irrawaddy River Dolphin (orcaella brevirostris) now risk extinction, with the development related to Shwe.

Environmental Contamination

The construction of drilling and production platforms, leakage of chemicals used in the drilling process as well as potential gas blowouts will be detrimental to the Arakan coastal area.

Although often sold as a safe and clean energy source, gas exploration can create the same environmental problems as oil exploration. During exploration, the most damaging effects are those of the drilling muds, which are used to maintain downhole pressure, lubricate the oil bit, and pull cuttings away from the well head. These muds contain volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydro carbons, arsenic, barium, lead corrosive irons, naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) such as radium 226, and other hazardous substances. Commonly dumped into the water column, drilling wastes reach the seabed, which rob the water and bottom sediments of oxygen and as a result kills large proportions of life on the ocean floor, including shellfish beds.

Another form of waste generated by natural gas exploration is that of toxic brine. Enormous quantities of this substance must be separated and dealt with at exploration and production sites. This toxic substance is made up of hydrocarbons which have been extracted from reservoirs that include oil, gas and water that is trapped along with the hydrocarbons in a formation called “produced water”, as well as other gases and compounds. Produced water contains NORM, cadmium, lead, benzene, naphthalene, zinc, emulsified oil and grease. Historically, the industry disposes of this toxic waste either by dumping it offshore or onshore. The dumping of this waste has a disastrous effect on wet lands, fish and wildlife as well as polluting water supplies. [e]

Unfortunately, the existing legislation in Burma regulating the exploration of oil and gas does not say anything with regard to the environment. [f]

Under the current system of military dictatorship in Burma, no transparent and independent environmental and social impact assessment of the project is possible, nor is genuine consultation with local stakeholders.

Sources

[b] Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), report on the national training workshop on woodfuel trade in Myanmar (1996)

[c] UNESCAP, Conrado Heruela, Integrating energy and rural development (June 2003)

[d] http://www.turtlesurvival.org/25TurtProfiles0503.pdf

[e] SAIN and ABSDF, Burma: Human Lives for Natural Resources (June 1994)

[f] Burma Lawyers’ Council, Legal Issues in Burma Journal No. 9 (August 2001)