With all this in mind, it’s evermore critical to highlight local communities and indigenous peoples who have been championing conservation and regenerative solutions for millennia. While political leaders grapple with COVID-19 recovery efforts, and international actors face funding and travel restrictions, local communities continue to push forward nature-based solutions.
For this 3rd edition of our Earth Voices feature series, we bring you one such example from Shan State, Myanmar. This edition shines a light on one village where local change-makers harness the interconnected benefits of watershed restoration and community-scale hydropower. Read on, to learn how eco-restoration supports reliable power supply and cultural resilience, and to gain a glimpse into the vision and journey of an inspiring community mobilizer.
Please note: Following the February 2021 coup in Myanmar, this article has been updated to protect the safety of HPNET's local partners, with names and specifics removed.
Ethnic conflict and political strife have affected Myanmar for many decades, and the country only recently opened up after a half-century of Military rule. This context has posed various challenges for Myanmar’s energy sector. Decentralization has been ineffective in practice, meaning that region and state governments have little or no control over energy policies, plans and budgets. Additionally, areas controlled by armed groups are present in many regions and sometimes have their own infrastructure. Corruption and foreign export of generated energy further complicate matters and impede progress within the sector. [Hivos Myanmar 2019]
Despite these challenges and conflicts, Myanmar has a long history of locally developed, small-scale renewable energy technology, which has proven its efficacy over the past 30 years. To date, more than 6,000 small-scale hydro systems and 10,000 biomass gasifiers have been implemented by local developers, without donor support, foreign technology or enabling policy. Solar power has also emerged in more recent years, supporting agricultural end uses, with significant benefits for rural farmers across the country. These clean, low-cost energy solutions are attributed to a thriving community of grassroots entrepreneurs, whose resourcefulness has brought transformative impacts to thousands of rural communities.
The village is located in an ethnic self-administered zone, in the picturesque Shan Highlands. The region is home to a government-recognized ethnic group in Myanmar, who have a long history in Shan State. The people have their own language and practice Theravada Buddhism. Their unique culture is hinted in legends such as the Prince Kummabhaya, whose bow and arrow rescued seven princesses trapped in the caves by a giant spider.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, local producers have seen a significant drop in the selling price of tea-leaf and other crops, such as fruits. This has negatively impacted the local economy, however some are less severely impacted than others, in that they aren’t as dependent on external markets.
The region’s fertile land has also supported poppy plantations – the plant from which opium derives – fueling long-standing conflicts. Poppy plantations existed in the region until the late 1960s to early 1970s, at which point a UNDP initiative substituted the plantations with tea-leaf growing. Major townships of have since eradicated poppy growing, however it persists in other areas within Shan State. Some armed ethnic groups still exist in these areas and conflicts between the military and community groups persist in this ‘triangle’ linking eastern, southern and northern Shan.
That said, the ethnic people of the region strive to maintain peace in the region. Residents have heard that the military has plans to establish a base camp in a watershed area in the region, but the local communities don’t accept military entering the area.
Other challenges also persist in the region, stemming from natural resources. For instance, the area has attracted mining and widespread logging, with devastating consequences for local communities and ecosystems. Mining has negatively impacted watershed ecosystems, while deforestation has resulted in frequent landslides and increasing water scarcity in summer months. However, local communities continue to resist natural resource exploitation on their lands. For instance, steadfast local resistance prevented a mining company from establishing itself in a village with an important watershed, which provides drinking water to 20 nearby villages. Across the region, the people continue to work to build back what has been lost, applying indigenous knowledge, innovation and determination to restore and conserve local ecosystems.
In 2000, the government mandated a Forest Conservation Department to lead conservation efforts in the area. However, local communities assert that the department is corrupted by profit motives and is ineffective, with limited human resources. According to local conservation leaders, “only bamboo remains in the government’s forest conservation area”; this is juxtaposed against thriving forest ecosystems that are stewarded by local communities, as per traditional knowledge.
It is the ethnic people themselves who continue to conserve the primary forests, as they have always done, and who endeavor to restore ecosystems that have been degraded by logging and extractive industries. The communities carry an intricate understanding of local ecological systems, and the environment is very much intertwined with their culture and beliefs. In one area, there are, in fact, plans in the works for a “forest conservation festival”, carrying religious significance, connected with Buddha’s teachings around living in harmony with nature.
The establishment of pico and micro hydropower has further strengthened pre-existing environmental stewardship practices among the ethnic people. Small-scale hydro systems have been developed in at least 15 villages, bringing extra incentive to protect the forest, since watersheds provide the perennial source of their electricity. As such, community-scale hydro has become intertwined with reforestation and conservation efforts across the region.
One village provides a bottom-up example of an integrated approach to forest conservation and small-scale hydropower – in this case, largely attributed to the vision of one dedicated community mobilizer. [The name of the village is purposely not being provided to protect the safety of the community after the Feb. 2021 coup, which has resulted in a civil war affecting the region.]
After seeing the wide-reaching benefits brought by community-scale hydro in other villages, the community leader was inspired to bring energy access to his own community through similar means. He learned the required technical skills from experienced local energy entrepreneurs, which he put to use in his small village, toward a vision of ecologically sustainable and reliable energy provision.
Working together with other community members, he led the installation of seven pico hydro systems between 2000 and 2015. Six systems are currently in use, ranging from 1.5-5 kW capacity per system, with a total capacity of 17 kW. Two of the six systems are in the same location but use different transmission/distribution lines. While all of these projects are pico hydro projects, he has also supported the development of a cluster of four community-owned micro hydro projects in the same sub-region.
Today, approximately 150 households are connected to the carefully planned pico hydro systems, out of the 167 households that make up the village. Solar home systems provide lighting for some of the other households, and some families use both pico hydro and solar electricity. Additionally, the local school, temple and monastery are provided with free electricity from the pico hydro systems.
The pico hydro systems have brought multifold benefits for community development. For instance, lighting enables students to study at night and extends the hours at which classes can be taught, with known benefits for learning outcomes. Moreover, the ability to power cell phones, televisions and radios provides access to vital information and communication channels – the importance of which is increasingly evident, as the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold. Soon the village will also trial electric cooking options, to reduce deforestation linked with collection of fuelwood.
Although the government's central grid has reached nearby towns, the village has not received the central grid. The village would have to raise funds for the final transmission and distribution lines. In addition, there is little certainty about the reliability of the central grid. As such, the pico hydro continues to remain a vital community asset, providing multiple benefits to each household at affordable cost.
Integrating conservation and energy access
In the video linked above (People Power in Myanmar), elders observe how deforestation was gradually drying up the river; the community therefore plants trees and protects the watershed ecosystem, in order to ensure consistent and sufficient water levels and flow rates, for reliable energy access.
“Without water, there is not light – we cannot produce electricity. Only if we conserve the forest, we can retain water. So we really need to conserve our forest.” – Elder and conservationist in Shan State
Among small-scale hydropower technologies, pico hydro (< 5 kW) tends to receive less attention and support, particularly as the cost of solar home lighting systems becomes competitive. Yet, we have examples to see the vast potential that pico hydro presents as a local, low-cost, high-impact solution.
A key advantage of pico hydropower is its low cost to sustain, long-term. Up-front costs are minimal, with little civil construction required, and there are no or few recurring costs, since there are no batteries to replace, nor complex technology. Moreover, pico hydro is easy to design, install and maintain, and doesn’t require formal education or training. Nearly all of the components can be fabricated or procured locally. When repairs are required, the simplicity of the system allows the community to be creative in using locally available material to rehabilitate the system.
In addition to its affordability, pico hydro is often favoured by rural practitioners due to its complementarity with environmental values and priorities. When integrated with watershed strengthening, pico hydro brings intersectional benefits for social-ecological well-being and resilience. In Myanmar and other countries across the region, we have seen indigenous practitioners consistently prioritize healthy watersheds, ensuring reliable energy supply, as well as sustainable community development.
Moreover, with appropriate load management, pico hydro systems can power more than household lighting loads. They can be used to power village-scale grain mills and other small machines to reduce physical drudgery and set up local enterprise.
Examples of successful, locally developed pico hydro can be seen all over the world. For instance, in addition to Myanmar, pico hydro also has had a long history in Laos, Vietnam, and India,. There continue to be unelectrified regions with untapped pico hydro potential. With support from WISIONS, HPNET members have collaborated through knowledge exchange activities, to continue advancing pico hydro throughout South and Southeast Asia.
As we navigate a path toward sustainable development and environmental resilience, it is clear that much can be learned from pico hydro, and the locally-rooted practitioners who have championed it across the global South. Moving forward into the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, let us uplift, and learn from indigenous communities, such as in Shan State, Myanmar, that are advancing nature-based solutions for the benefit of their people and our collective future.
With content from HPNET members in Myanmar and the HPNET Manager, Dipti Vaghela