By Richard Cronin – Record flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia and historically low levels of water in the Mekong River in Southeast Asia reflect two sides of the same coin – the abuse of nature in pursuit of development. Global warming attributed to human activity also appears to have been a factor.
The unsustainable depletion of fresh water supplies in the interest of economic development has amplified the effects of natural albeit unusually severe weather conditions, but in completely opposite ways. The catastrophic flooding in Jakarta that killed hundreds of people and sickened as many as 400,000, has been blamed in part on the depletion of fresh water from the underground aquifer. The withdrawal of ground water for drinking and other purposes has caused the land to sink, making the sprawling city of some 12 million people more susceptible to flooding and the intrusion of seawater. In the Mekong Basin of mainland Southeast Asia, the rush by China and its downstream neighbors to exploit the immense hydroelectric potential of the world’s twelfth longest river and its tributaries has interfered with the natural flow of the river and exacerbated the effects of the longest drought in 50 years.
Both China and its neighbors – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Vietnam – are constructing scores of hydropower dams intended to support industrialization and lift remote areas out of poverty. China finances its own dams, but the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the World Bank, and Japan have supported dam projects in the lower Mekong. As one major part of its multi-billion dollar Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) cooperative development program, launched in 1992 after the Cambodian peace accord, the ADB is constructing a region-wide electric power grid to tie the dams together.
Beijing’s Herculean project to build a massive cascade of eight dams on the upper half of the 4,880 kilometers-long Mekong River as it tumbles through the high gorges of Yunnan Province poses the single greatest threat to the river. The reservoir behind the recently completed third dam in the cascade, the 292-meter high Xiaowan dam, the world’s tallest, can store more water than all of the Southeast Asian dam reservoirs combined. Cambodia’s Tonle Sap (Great Lake), the nursery of the lower Mekong’s fish stocks, and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, its “rice bowl,” are particularly at risk from alterations in the river’s unique cycle of flood and drought. To date Beijing has not shared any meaningful data on the operation of the dams or the results of its environmental studies.
Efforts in all of the GMS countries to reconcile the desire for more electric power with the interests of millions of people, many of them ethnic minorities, who depend on the river for their very survival have had limited success thus far. Advocates of sustainable development raise important questions about the currently prevailing institutional processes, guiding principles, and assumptions concerning the promotion of hydropower development, including:
- The unbalanced influence of stakeholders. NGOs and other civil society organizations argue that current institutional arrangements to promote equitable development strongly favor the combined influence of hydropower interests, the multilateral banks and governments. Despite initiatives by the multilateral banks to promote the participation of all stakeholders in the planning process, the voices of those most directly affected by dam projects largely have been ignored.
- “Sustainable” versus “balanced development.” In June 2006 the ADB and the World Bank, along with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) launched the Mekong Water Resources Assistance Strategy (MWRAS). The new approach aims at enhancing sustainable water use cooperation, but it also has subtly replaced the long-standing objective of “sustainable development” with that of “balanced development.” The former involves forgoing some development opportunities in the interest of the environment, while the latter implies the calculated acceptance of some degree of permanent environmental degradation.
- The “cleanness” of hydropower. Hydropower does not directly create carbon-based greenhouse gases, but a comparable degree of environmental damage results from the inundation of forests and the expansion of agriculture on marginal lands. In the case of the Mekong, the environmental impact also includes the need to replace flood borne silt with chemical fertilizers.