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Myanmar's power supply a political concern

Publication Date : 23-05-2012

 

Power shortages in Myanmar could become a political concern and a threat to ongoing reforms in the country if the government wrongly addresses the issue by politicising it and trying to blame armed ethnic groups.

People in second largest city of Mandalay lit up candles on Sunday night in front of the Myanmar Electrical Power Corporation's regional office to protest at frequent electricity cuts in the city since April.

Myanmar has faced power shortages for a long time. In the former capital city of Yangon, people have also suffered electricity blackouts several hours a day. Many of them rely on power from personal diesel-fuelled generators.

Power shortages in Myanmar have been common, since the country has never produced enough electricity for local consumption due to the previous junta's poor economic management.

However, the government put the blame on the rebellious Kachin Independence Army (KIA) for destroying part of a power grid in eastern Shan State.

Posts numbered 73, 206, 207 and 208 of the Shweli-Mansan 230-KV power grid were destroyed in a mine blast on May 19, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper. Consequently, 200 megawatts of electricity generated by the Shweli Power Plant were cut from the regional grid, it said.

The KIA dismissed the claim, saying it had no policy to destroy such public utilities and the area in question was not its operational territory.

Indeed, the major root of the problem of power shortages in Myanmar, as the state-run paper has already said, was the low electricity production capacity.

With or without the power from Kachin State, Myanmar still faced blackouts. The authorities did not need to mention the KIA, which is the sole ethnic group that has not reached a peace agreement with the government.

Politically, trying to paint the ethnic group as a "bad guy" is part of the problem with the administration's reconciliation plan, and no solution in terms of energy supply.

Power shortages are a matter of energy strategy, not politics. All generators in the country were able to produce only 1,340 megawatts of electricity this summer, while consumption in the same period was as high as 1,850 megawatts.

Myanmar has some 29 power stations across the country - 18 hydropower stations, one coal-fired station and 10 gas-fired stations - and they supply electricity to all regions nationwide.

Only people in major cities and towns can access the power supply. Three quarters of the population are left in darkness for long periods due to the lack of grid coverage.

Although Myanmar is rich in natural gas and exports it to neighbouring Thailand, the country's gas power plants generate only 340 megawatts annually for local consumption.

The authorities in Nay Pyi Taw need to look back into what the previous regime did - or failed to do - in terms of a national energy strategy. Protesters in Mandalay accused the government of selling too much energy to Thailand and China and failing to meet local needs.

Hydropower plants, which Myanmar plans to build more of, have their own problems. Dams can help produce high volumes of electricity only in the monsoon season with full storage in their reservoirs, but consumption in the rainy season is usually low.

In the dry season when the level of water gets low, dams around the country generate only 1,000 megawatts while demand for energy is much higher - 1,850 megawatts or more.

President Thein Sein suspended the huge Myitsone dam and hydropower project in Kachin State due to concerns about the social and environmental damage it would do to the Irrawaddy basin.

But the dam, if it was or is built, would not solve Myanmar's problems, as 90 per cent of power generated would be exported to China's Yunnan province.

Myanmar still needs energy but the right issue to be addressed is how to have sufficient, clean and environmentally friendly sources of power - for local consumption.

 

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