Free-flowing rivers, with their promise of cost-competitiveness and low-carbon power, often top the list for development. The International Energy Agency projects that the world will nearly double its hydropower capacity by 2040, which will require the construction of as many new hydropower dams in the next 25 years as were built in the previous century. But hydropower also poses great challenges for many countries; while it is often a cornerstone of plans to generate economic growth and reduce poverty, hydropower can have significant social and environmental impacts.
This is where Myanmar finds itself. Hydropower could be a primary source in addressing the country’s energy deficit—in a country where only one-third of people have access to electricity, expanding infrastructure is imperative. However, existing hydropower developments will likely lead to continued negative impacts and conflict. With that trajectory, hydropower is unlikely to deliver broadly shared benefits, or even fulfill its energy potential.
Myanmar’s new government provides a great opportunity for the country to avoid that path. Strategic planning, beginning now, could allow the country to select which hydropower investments will work together to deliver the most benefits. Recent moves have opened a door for this approach—the Ministry of Electricity and Energy has announced that it will reassess hydropower projects in light of questions about social and environmental impacts. This re-evaluation could help the country secure low-carbon energy while protecting one of its most valuable resources—its rivers.