Two Rivers: The Chance to Export Power Divides Southeast Asia
By Jeff Smith (National Geographic)- 10/25/11
Despite being two separate waterways, the Mekong and Irrawaddy Rivers are crucial to both the human and animal population that currently rely on it to survive. As China continues to grow industrially at its current rate, on a continent that is“energy hungry,” Laos and Burma are in the midst of determining the economic benefits and environmental downfalls of constructing hydropower dams on the rivers.
Hydropower dams have potentially devastating consequences for migratory fish and wetland ecology along the rivers. They redistribute water with the mindset that producing energy is the main goal. Generally speaking, dry season river flows tend to increase while the wet season peak flows tend to decrease in order to maintain the proper levels of energy production. While this would seemingly lead to a more hands on approach to flood control that is not the main priority of these dams, and thus, not a guarantee.
The risks for these projects are straightforward: besides from the obvious environmental disruption, it threatens the ecology and animal habitats it supports. Additionally, it threatens to disrupt the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers alike who rely on its flow to support their families and are the economic engine for small villages along the river. Contrastingly, a hydropower dam will generate potentially billions of dollars by exporting the megawatts of energy it produces to countries such as China and other neighboring countries where energy is in high demand.
Intriguingly, Laos has seemingly accepted the risks and has moved forward with construction of a dam on the Mekong River whereas in Burma, the government has ceased work on the construction of the dam in the Irrawaddy River. The Irrawaddy has significant spiritual significance for much of the Burmese population who were surprised by the government’s democratic acceptance of the public’s outcry. Although many activist groups in Laos are fighting intensely to have the government overturn its decision to move forward with the project it is likely that both countries are still in limbo. It will be interesting to see what the near future holds.
Hopefully, we can get a conversation started about the following environmental ethics debate.
*As the world is demanding more and more energy and there is an increasing global push for alternative forms of energy (rather than fossil fuel), is risking the ecology and habitats of these rivers a worthwhile investment environmentally speaking? Clearly the economic incentive is there, but as the fossil fuels of the world continue to decrease while simultaneously affecting our climate, is hydroelectric power a reasonable, if not, crucial alternative in the coming years?