A river on the China-Myanmar border just turned red: what does it mean for the Belt and Road Initiative?

Photo showing how the Shweli river has turned red. Photo: Shan News

The waters of the Shweli river in northeastern Myanmar have turned red, prompting concerns about pollution along a major corridor of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Residents and politicians blame Chinese factories upstream, raising questions about accountability for the impacts of cross-border development.

By Skylar Lindsay

Local reports say a river that forms part of the China-Myanmar border has turned red, prompting major concerns about pollution and accountability along a key trade route for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure and industry plan.

The Shan Herald reported that the Shweli river, on the border between Myanmar’s Shan State and China’s Yunnan province, changed color around June 10. Local residents suspect the change is due to factories upstream in China dumping waste into the river.

“We have never seen water color changes like this before. This is the first time I have ever seen the water red. I don’t know what China has done,” said local resident Sai Aye, who lives on the bank of the river in the border town of Muse.

The Chinese portion of the Shweli river, known as the Ruili river in Chinese and Nam Mao in indigenous Shan, is lined with factories that process sugar, paper, meat and fish for canning. The Shweli is a tributary of the Irrawaddy river, the largest river in Myanmar and the source of irrigation for much of the country’s agriculture.

“I think a factory in China dumped polluted water into the river. We have already sent an opposition letter to China’s external affairs department in Shweli [Ruili] city in Yunnan province,” Sai Kyaw Thein, a Shan State parliamentarian for Muse, told the Shan Herald. “We already sent a water sample from the Shweli river to a laboratory in Mandalay.”

Though the cause of the red color hasn’t been found, the possible pollution raises major questions about environmental regulations and accountability around the BRI in Myanmar.

As governments and companies assess the feasibility of a railway or industrial estate, their studies have to find a way to account for transboundary effects on ecosystems, livelihoods, health and even peacebuilding efforts.

China and Myanmar both have laws on the books that require environmental impact assessments and other processes before a development project can be built. Local groups in both countries have also used domestic law to push for help cleaning up pollution or securing compensation for damage caused by industry. But in cases where the desire for “growth” negatively affects lives on both sides of a border, local residents are looking to their governments to address unanswered questions.

The Shweli river area and the Muse border gate are central to China-Myanmar trade

The Shweli river sits along the planned China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a key artery of the BRI that will link Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, with commercial hubs in Mandalay and Yangon as well as the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine State. 

Map showing Chinese-backed projects in Myanmar. Credit: The Irrawaddy

The corridor runs through Muse, one of the primary gates for cross-border trade between China and Myanmar. Around half of Myanmar’s land border trade passes through Muse, worth an estimated US$6 billion per year according to official figures. Billions of dollars also change hands illegally as drugs, gems, wildlife and people are bought and sold. Due to the coronavirus pandemic however, trade through Muse has been heavily restricted.

The Chinese and Myanmar governments have discussed how stepping up the pace of BRI projects could play a central role in Myanmar’s recovery from the economic impacts of COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, the two governments signed a growing stack of agreements to construct expressways, “economic cooperation zones” on the border and the US$9 billion Muse-Mandalay Railway. The planned infrastructure will give China valuable access to the Indian Ocean, speeding up the transport of goods as well as refined oil and gas.

Myanmar residents are concerned about responsible development

Local communities in northern Shan State are already wary about the social and environmental impacts of infrastructure and industry projects backed by Myanmar’s Union government. 

Earlier this year, a popular Shan political party, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), stressed to both the Myanmar and Chinese governments that any development projects in the area must have the consent of local residents before they move forward. If not, infrastructure and industrial projects for the BRI may provoke further violent conflict in the area. 

Shan State is the site of ongoing armed conflict between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups. There are six different armed groups active in northern Shan and the area around Muse (the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Kachin Independence Army, Shan State Army-North and the Restoration Council of Shan State). Only one of the groups has signed the country’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement; the other five are involved in active fighting with the military.

As Myanmar ethnic affairs analyst U Maung Maung Soe told The Irrawaddy in August, “The CMEC won’t be successful as long as there is fighting.”

“Since there is a major security issue, they cannot do business. China and Myanmar need to consider not only making peace with ethnic groups, but also granting them their rights,” he added.

As in many places, Beijing’s global infrastructure plan has drawn debate around how to handle the cross-border impacts of development projects. Many local groups have been pushing for increased transparency and access to information for years, as Myanmar emerges from decades of military dictatorship. The current case of the Shweli river offers a test of how Myanmar and China will handle the possible transboundary toll of industry.

About the Author

Skylar Lindsay
Skylar Lindsay is a writer and photographer focused on development, the envrionment and conflict, primarily in Southeast Asia.