DEVELOPMENT AMID DISASTERS
The struggle to triumph over nature is perhaps a hang-up of modern humans. Certainly, humans had other preoccupations long ago when, per Thomas Hobbes, life was ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. As technology improves, however, we suddenly have the means to bend nature to our will. Look behind the curtain of many of Southeast Asia’s great infrastructure projects, and see how nature is displaced, reordered, or made to retreat. Nonetheless, it is also clear that nature can return with a vengeance once what impeded it falls away.
This was the sad reality for thousands of villagers in Laos’ southeastern province of Attapeu who saw flash floods from the partially collapsed Xe Pien-Xe Namnoy dam wash over their homes on July 23. The floodwater, which caused thousands more to evacuate all the way down the Mekong in Cambodia, was equivalent in volume to two million Olympic swimming pools. The failed dam was months away from starting operation. Despite clear risks of ecological disasters, many governments around Southeast Asia persist in believing that the plus outweighs the minus when it comes to water dams and reservoirs.
Our first Spotlight article by Paritta Wangkiat, columnist at the Bangkok Post, looks at how government efforts to build dams and reservoirs are linked to climate change and potential disasters it might bring about. For years, dams and reservoirs served four functions: irrigate crops, supply water, control flooding, and, more recently, generate hydroelectricity. Extreme weather events caused by climate change threaten to offset those functions. Moreover, reckless development, as Wangkiat puts it, ignores the costs incurred by local communities with limited capacity to adapt to rapid environmental changes.
Meanwhile, our second Spotlight article by Bruce Shoemaker, a researcher with a focus on natural resource conflicts along the Mekong, highlights the institutional factors that enable the flawed planning and construction of Laos’ hydroelectric projects to move forward. The factors are many: a one-party state content to browbeat forcibly resettled local communities, a lack of proper regulation and oversight, a dysfunctional international consensus on ‘sustainable hydropower’. All these have raised questions about the prospects of the 90-something large hydropower projects that Laos has started.
And the questions should not stop there. Southeast Asia is littered with large water-diverting projects that threaten the environment and the lives and livelihoods of communities around them. They range from Indonesia’s Kedung Ombo reservoir, to Malaysia’s Baram dam, to Cambodia’s Sambor dam, to just name a few. The need for irrigation, water supply, flood control, or even electricity generation is valid, but must a fair and caring society wreck the lives of its own people to that end?