Friday, March 8, 2013

Dams may unleash torrent of ill will

Dams may unleash torrent of ill will

by Joel Brinkley

Published 3:01 pm, Friday, March 8, 2013

Here come those dastardly dams! In Asia, Africa and the Middle East,
nations are aggressively building hydroelectric dams, seemingly
heedless of the potentially disastrous effects on the countries

As examples, Laos broke ground on a Mekong River dam that's causing
concern bordering on fury in Cambodia and Vietnam. India is enraged
about a new Chinese dam going up on the Brahmaputra River. And
Ethiopia's new dam on the Nile is angering Sudan, while Egypt has
threatened war.

What's behind all this consternation - and worse? The concerns are
multifaceted. In a broad sense, though, the rivers have provided
sustenance for millions of people for millennia, and dams threaten that.

Because of this, in some places multinational commissions were set up
decades ago to arbitrate disputes like these. One is the Mekong River
Commission, which pledges to "place regional cooperation and basin-
wide planning at the heart of our operation."

Well, that's not working.

The larger problem is, as climate change advances and growing
populations demand more water and power, many upstream nations are
ignoring their responsibilities to their downstream neighbors - and
the guidelines of commissions they helped establish.

Perhaps the most egregious example is Laos, which broke ground on a
new hydroelectric dam on the Mekong late last year - ignoring the
howls of complaint from downstream. Just south in Cambodia, for
example, the Mekong provides the livelihood for much of the population
because of an unusual natural phenomenon.

Cambodia's Tonle Sap River is a Mekong tributary that flows southeast
from a lake of the same name. Each spring, the Mekong swells, and its
current grows so strong that it forces the Tonle Sap River to reverse
course, carrying tons of rich, fertile mud and millions of young fish
back up to the lake.

The lake floods, depositing new, rich soil on thousands of acres
around its perimeter. The fish provide meals for Cambodians through
the year. By potentially restricting the river's flow, the Laotian dam
threatens all of that.

But it gets even worse. Breaking ground, Laotian officials said they
hoped the new dam would help vault their nation from its status as one
of the world's poorest. Many Lao have never even seen a lightbulb. But
in fact, a short time later, the government signed a contract to sell
most, if not all, of the electricity to Thailand. And Laos'
unaccountable, corrupt leaders will almost certainly pocket the

Still, Laos is subject to a perverse form of dam justice. Now, all of
a sudden, those same leaders are quite angry about still another dam
China is building on the Mekong just north of the Laotian border.

Just recently, China made public its plans to build more than 60 new
hydroelectric dams in the next few years, potentially setting off
multiple disputes. One is already under construction on the Yarlung
Tsangpo River, which originates in Tibet and flows south to Bangladesh
and India, where it's called the Brahmaputra.

China's dam "will prove disastrous to the downstream regions of the
northeast," declared Rajnath Singh, a prominent Indian politician. But
China is unrepentant.

In the Middle East, Egypt has asserted full control over the Nile
River since 1929, when the British colonial government prepared a
"treaty" reserving 80 percent of the Nile's water for Egypt and Sudan.
Ever since, Egypt has insisted that the treaty's provisions are still
relevant and threatened to attack neighbors who dared breach it. After
all, for all of time Egyptians have lived off the river, catching fish
and using river silt as crop nutrients.

Right now, however, Egypt is locked in foment over the Muslim
Brotherhood's faltering attempts at governance, and its upstream
neighbors don't seem to fear it any longer. So Ethiopia is now
building what it calls the Grand Renaissance Dam, a $4.8 billion
hydroelectric behemoth.

Ethiopia plans to create a vast reservoir behind the dam to assure a
constant flow of water. But hydrologists say it could take five years
to fill, "drastically affecting agriculture, electricity and water
supply downstream," Haydar Yousif, a Sudanese hydrologist, told Middle
East Magazine last month. What's more, he added, 3 billion cubic
meters of water will evaporate from the dam's reservoir each year.

Late last year, WikiLeaks made public a memo in which the Egyptian
government threatened to deploy fighter-bombers to destroy Ethiopia's
dam. The government protested that the memo was written in 2010,
before the revolution, and was not relevant now.

But if the Nile begins drying up because of that dastardly dam, Egypt
may change its mind.

� 2013 Joel Brinkley

Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford
University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for the
New York Times. Send us your comments through our online form at

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