November 7, 2009

“Battery of Southeast Asia”? Or harbor for dolphins, rare dragon, spiders the size of dinner plates?

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In yesterday’s post we described the eight-nation investigation that found the tactics employed to fight climate-change legislation in the United States are being used across several continents.

Today we think we’ve found a kind of perverse example, a situation that serves as a harbinger of the hard choices ahead:

In Laos, Living On Earth’s Mary Stucky recently spotlighted a dam whose construction has buried 19 villages, displaced some 6,000 people and covered 174 square miles with water.

That’s the human cost. Consider, though, that this region is one of those rich repositories of rare and largely unexplored species of plants and animals. In a recent 10-year period, more than 1,000 new species were discovered there, including a rat thought to be extinct for 11 million years; a hot-pink, cyanide-producing dragon; and a species of spider that’s as big as a dinner plate, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund. And the Mekong is the home of about 80 Irrawaddy dolphins, a species that is declining rapidly.

Stucky interviewed the World Wildlife Fund’s Stuart Chapman, who — after treating her to Loa delicacies such as the cricket — discussed the affects of the dam construction in an area where the dolphins come to feed:

Opponents say the dam at Siphandone would devastate the remaining dolphins and affect fish catches dramatically. The World Wildlife Fund’s Chapman says areas like Siphandone should be avoided but he supports allowing some dams in less sensitive places and wants to be sure people are provided with a way to make a living. 

OK, so what does this all have to do with climate change? Just this: These folks are in need of jobs and economic growth. This dam will produce electricity that will be sold to Thailand by a private company that will pay the Lao government $2 billion in royalties over the next 25 years. (Not huge… but it’s something.) And it’s being justified on grounds of climate change. Here’s Stephen Lintner, a technical advisor for the World Bank, which has loaned money to the company building the dam:

What’s happening is with climate change you’re having less predictability of the amount of rainfall you’ll have, so that dams are being increasingly used to store water to allow for better regulation.

So you get the idea. Here in the Pacific Northwest, at least, we’ve found that dams can definitely hurt fish runs. And yet it gives this region a pretty light carbon footprint. It’s a bit of dilemma for those who strive to do the right thing environmentally.

In Laos, enviros are trying to argue against the dams and in favor of solar and wind. Carl Middleton of the advocacy group International Rivers told Stucky:

The Mekong region has an opportunity to leapfrog the destructive dam development we’ve seen in other regions of the world and instead jump into a renewable energy future, into a sustainable energy future. There are far better technologies now for generating electricity, which makes dams last century’s technology.

So as you can see, this ain’t gonna be easy.

— Robert McClure

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