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Damning the dams is all very well but what's the alternative?

By John Roberts
18 October 2010 06:35:00

Unless you are sensitive to the rumbles & the shockwaves that come off our big river you could be forgiven for missing, or maybe not, an event so momentous that, even weeks later, our humble local village of Sob Ruak found her way into the dateline of the New York Times.  It certainly was news big enough to register on the newswires, big enough for the news sniffer's of the world to book their ticket to Chiang Rai or Luang Prabang or Vientiane or Saigon and talk to folks on the ground, interview Government ministers & begin to draw their own conclusions.

What, according to Google alerts & twitter, seemed to get the world's attention was that, late last month, Laos formally announced that she intends to build the first (for her) of several dams across the Mekong at Sayaburi, down South of Luang Prabang but still in an area where Laos owns both banks.  

Laos is a signatory to the Mekong River Commission and is thus bound to go through a consulting process before just going ahead & building a wall across the river we all know & love.  This they have done & it is this that bought the plan to the world's attention, the phrase 'the battery of South East Asia' was bandied about & a Government Minister shrugged & said "We're tired of being poor".

Almost universally, in the circles in which I roll (role? - sorry, need some help with modern slang), this has been condemned as a bad idea and, by almost every study I've read, interview I've seen, dream I've had & world I've imagined, it is.  Dams do not help rivers, they prevent fish migration, people along the banks lose their land - maybe there is a community of relocated people somewhere in the world that are happy they were moved from their riparian perch to a pre-built village of concrete houses & metal roofs but they don't find their way into the articles & the TV shows half as often as those that don't feel the promises were honoured.

Dams do not help wildlife, they drown habitat (contrary to the opinion of an ex-Prime Minister commenting on a dam that hasn't yet been built, certain species can't just up & move to a different valley - hopefully because that valley already supports enough of their kind but more likely because the habitat you are drowning doesn't exist elsewhere), they block migration routes or access to feeding grounds, force (let's talk about elephants for a change) wild elephants out into cultivation.

Also, being a wildlife kind of guy, I'm actually far more interested in the, seemingly already signed, sealed to be delivered dam on the Nam Fa river.  A river that I have never seen but that has been held out to me since I got here, variously as one containing Grade 5 rapids in certain seasons, as being in wild elephant territory, a river so up my street that it has a National Protected Area named after it (Laos lubbers will tell me if I have the wrong river, won't you?).  That it empties out into the Mekong above us, of course, and is in what I presume to be wild elephant territory is my excuse for it twitching my telegraph needle more than the, perhaps globally more significant, cutting of the world's 12th largest river - but I wonder why no-one else seems to have noticed this one?

So before I go on with my traditional polemic, let me start by reiterating, we don't like dams, we like rivers flowing freely.

When the journalists arrived, they interviewed lots of folks who have, for generations, made a living along the river who explain that this is the worst they've ever seen it, more seriously, in Vietnam, they're predicting devastating, life changing, water shortages in the very near future.  Earlier this year a Thai official (who hopefully wasn't sitting in his office by the Mekong) was quoted & then syndicated worldwide in saying that the Mekong had run completely dry - I didn't have to, but when I read that, I went down to the banks of our mighty river which was, admittedly, less mighty than it might have been but was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, flowing.

I have two problems with the stories as they go out.

Firstly, they all seem to point to the Chinese dams as the source of all problems. 'Tis true the mother Mekong has had an odd year & it is easy suspect that someone with their finger on a floodgate somewhere upstream may be responsible for the odd fluctuation patterns, but, thanks to the Mekong River Commission's website we know that, here, in Chiang Saen except for about five days in July the river level has been within historical maximum, minimum levels - this stuff is recorded & displayed in plain sight.

I grant you it has been an odd year, but not it seems, a ground breaking one.

The same website points to something our own little elephant camp rain gauge showed, July was a very dry month - actually, it seems, historically dry & that it took until the last week for the rainfall to catch up into historical norms (where it now sits well within the averages).

So we are forced to admit that, dams or no dams, here in Chiang Saen there's nothing going on that hasn't been going on since records started to be taken.  Might the lack of fish stocks be due to something as simple (& forgive me for this but I have just spent a wet season aiding/hindering negotiations with villagers & pulling up fishing nets on our newly enforced no hunting/no fishing flood land), fishing methods that are determined to leave no fish, however small or young, un-caught, no season, however un-sustainable, un-fished (and an increase in people using them), farming methods that (even since I arrived seven years ago) have cleared the vast seasonally flooded grasslands where many fish appear to breed to plant (& irrigate from the river) corn during the dry season leaving open lakes, free of grass stalk cover, during the wet (& yes, we're hand's up guilty to a certain extent - having thirty elephants spend the dry season playing in our grassland has destroyed perhaps half of what we had).

While dams MUST have some effect on the river eco-system, an effect that is more-than-probably degenerative, might we not also look at out own actions before pointing North & blaming it all on our upstream cousins?

My final point is made gently as someone with a tendency to love the wilder side of our planet & to see human interference as a blight. 

Laos is not building these dams in a vacuum, her neighbours have already agreed to buy all the electricity generated by these dams (even down to deciding which sub-station will receive the power), having guaranteed the purchase in advance of the building we can be reasonably sure the thirsty (possibly literally it seems but I'm talking figuratively) neighbours are sure of a demand.

Whether or not you believe in climate change (& believe we must, I tend to feel - a lot of clever folks seem to be quite sure there's something going on) you have to admit the continued use of the Earth's resources as though they would last forever cannot be a good thing. 

My question is, what's the alternative? ...are we to wait for Gordon Gekko's stolen millions to crack nuclear fission (or was that just a story, I get confused)? ...or do we (& by we I mean all of us, not just those of us living on the banks of the river - some of whom are in the first generation of guaranteed electric light) somehow reduce our need for electricity? (well, yes, obviously, but that's only going to work if we all work very hard to do this).

Looking it up & down, unfortunately, dams seem to be the greenest form of bulk energy, after all, there's not much point in my trading in my big diesel pick-up for a Hybrid if the electricity to power it is generated by burning lignite is there?

...despite what the bill boards claim.
PS. The elephant camp tractor runs on recycled kitchen fat, but the fat is turned into usable fuel using a process that requires electricity.

PPS. I saw a quote the other day that said it was a pity that all the people who had all the answers were at home commenting on the internet, well, I don't have any answers so would welcome comments from those that do.

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