The good folks over at New Mandala continue their fine analysis and posting (see their current warnings about jumping to conclusions on the recent bombings, e.g.). This piece on the trouble with dams is quite good, and relevant all the way up and down the Mekong, especially in Cambodia, which I tend to think of as Asia’s liver, thanks to the Tonle Sap. I sense that the editors of New Mandala and I disagree on the possibility of dams doing good. I tend towards the extreme of seeing all large dam projects as simply bad, unsustainable, and terribly damaging to the ecology of the area. There are good examples of dams that are both large and productive, but these tend to be radically different in type from the dams currently going up all over Asia’s river systems right now. (Infuriatingly, one of these good dams is to be found at the soon-to-be-closed Ford Assembly Plant here in the Twin Cities; the dam here provides all the plant’s power needs without negatively impacting water flow or local ecology). The New Mandala folks say:
Whether villagers receive the prosperity they are looking for is still open to question, as Imhof and Lawrence note, “they have been promised new and improved livelihoods, but if history is any indication, these promises are bound to be broken”. Yet it should be recognised that many villagers in rural Laos worry about the impacts of dams while at the same time actively searching for ways that the dams can deliver them the prosperity they want.
And I’m right there with all of them – the villagers and the editors of New Mandala. The problem is that these dams are simply proving, one after another, to be radically bad ideas. They can potentially improve local economics, for a short time, though even in those cases, as Imhof and Lawrence point out, the benefits almost never ‘trickle down’ to the villagers to whom the benefits have been promised. The only possible excuse for such projects seems to lie in the belief that with enough electrical generation, the local economy, and specifically the production sector, can be stimulated enough that the country as a whole can achieve a sort of ‘escape velocity’ and join the industrialized world, which we are currently watching collapse under its own ravenous consumption.
I don’t believe that the industrialized world deserves its prosperity, or that others shoudl be prevented from sharing it. Quite the opposite, in fact. However, I don’t think it’s actually a question of what any of us want, much longer – it’s a question of what our environment will look like when we’ve destroyed our world’s body: its arteries, its lymph, its tissues, organs, and pores. Building dams in hope of achieving a doubtful prosperity that will destroy the local ecology seems like a really bad idea, especially in light of the Peak Oil that even the mainstream press in the US is now accepting as a looming reality. It’s bad for all of us, but perhaps especially bad for those who will have to depend on those very river systems from now until the end of their lives, for such basics as food.