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One Voice for Laos
March 19, 2013
Environmental Justice Issue: Damming of the Mekong in Laos by Caleb Rudge


One Voice For Laos: Teens for Change member Caleb Rudge wrote the following paper for college. This is a great example of the project carrying over to different aspects of life. Please take the time to read this fantastic piece of writing!

Environmental Justice Issue: Damming of the Mekong in Laos

When delving into the effects of Industrial development, I find that understanding Amartya Sen's quote is key, "Development requires major source of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states." In the United States, American citizens have the privilege of knowing that they have already industrialized; the onslaught of development is already in the past. Looking back, America has already been able to learn from the consequences and benefits entailed in Industrial development. Ten thousand miles away, the citizens of Laos are looking at industrialization from the opposite perspective. There, Laotians are coping with the dramatic changes that go hand in hand with the early stages of development. One pivotal project in Laos is the damming of the Mekong River at Xayaburi by the Thai company CH Karnchang.

This is hardly the first time in the history of human progress that the dollar value of development has been prioritized over the intrinsic value of the environment.

In the National Geographic Learning Reader, "Green", one of the stories is devoted to egregious calamities that the Amazon Rain Forest faces now that underdeveloped countries that lie in its domain race to catch up to the Western world.

There, the profits made by logging drive a seemingly unstoppable movement of deforestation. To environmentalists, the chopping down of an extremely bio-diverse section of forest is considered a sin, but to many, it's the means to survival.

Even more Polar opposites of environmentalists, many people don't even recognize the value of biodiversity or the negative effects of deforestation. For instance, to Blair Maggi, governor of Mato Grosso, Brazil, "deforestation is an overblown issue, a 'phobia' that plagues people who can't grasp the enormity of the Amazon." These incredibly different perspectives shed light on the complexity of environmental issues in the contemporary era.

Another home to biodiversity and poverty, Laos is a front for some of the same issues as Brazil. Instead of the Amazon Rain Forest, however, Laos hosts the Mekong River. Traveling over 2,000 miles through six countries located in South-East Asia, the Mekong River is the 12th longest river in the world.

The Mekong River basin is home to over 60 million people and gets attention from all over the world for its biodiversity, scenic beauty, and incredible fishing industry. In fact, the Mekong River is the most productive river in the world in terms of fish harvested. Even with all the development in South-East Asia, 2,500,000 tons of fish are produced per year. Locals of the Mekong depend on the Mekong for 80% of their protein intake. The River is clearly an asset as well as a means for life in northern Laos, but another aspect of its usefulness is its sheer volume. Near Xayaburi, Laos, the Mekong flows at about 4,000 meters

Although the government of Laos has claimed that it is waiting to go ahead with any hydro powered dams until further scientific research can be conducted, evidence says otherwise. Already, infrastructure necessary for the building of a billion dollar dam has been constructed.

Laos, which some are calling the future battery of South-East Asia, seems to be following its own rules, ignoring the international pressures which asking for more time. An undercover envoy by International Rivers was able to take pictures and report to the BBC about their finding on the Mekong in Laos.

Kirk Herbertson from International Rivers stated, "What we see from this is that preparatory construction is now finished and that full construction is now under way."

The Mekong River has been the site for many wars in South-East Asia, including the Vietnam War, but now it is an environmental battleground that stages the titans of hydropower and fisheries.

The dam in Northern Laos is reported to be the first of eleven proposed dams to be placed on the lower Mekong in the next few decades according to The Diplomat.

With a GNI of only $1,130 dollars per capita in 2011, Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. To put that in perspective, the GNI for a United States citizen in 2011 was $48,450.00. Laos is itching for development and sees the Mekong River as one of the surest ways to ensure a future for its economy and its people on the global stage.

Based on U.S. Department of the Interior's analysis of hydropower, to say that hydropower is attractive would be an understatement. The following are the first three of many bullets highlighting the benefits of hydropower listed on the U.S. Department of Interior's website:

Clean - Because hydropower utilizes water to generate electricity, it doesn't produce air pollution or create toxic by-products like power plants that burn fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas.

Renewable - Hydropower is renewable because it relies on the hydrological (water)cycle driven by the sun which provides a renewable supply of water. Hydropower facilities harness the natural energy of flowing and falling water to generate electricity. About 96 percent of the United States' renewable energy comes from hydropower.

Reliable - Hydropower can meet changing demands because it can go from zero power to maximum output rapidly and predictably.

The lack of toxic air pollution is normally enough of a draw for environmental groups to be supportive, but in this case, many groups say that the clean power comes at too great of a cost.

According to an executive summary put out by the French government's department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, "Habitat loss or alteration, discharge modifications, changes in water quality and temperature, increased predation pressure as well as delays in migration caused by dams are significant issues."

Specifically, dams are considered detrimental for fish populations for an assortment of reasons. Fish which migrate up and down the river to spawn are often unable to because of the concrete foundations of the dam.

When swimming downstream, fish often die in the water turbines. Even if they are able to create fish ladders and block the fish from entering the turbines, water temperature is greatly affected by dams. Dams release water into the streams below them from the bottoms of the lakes they support. Water at the bottom of lakes is significantly cooler than the water near the surface.

In Colorado, the Colorado River is dammed right before the canyon. Above the dam, the water has a mean temperature of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. However, below the dam, the water temperature is usually about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Today, native fish to the Colorado River can only be found in the tributaries to the Colorado River. Although the lack of native, natural habitat is a shame to most environmentalists; human lives, livelihoods, and businesses were not negatively affected by the dam because comparatively to the Mekong River Basin, very few people live near the Colorado

According to National Geographic, 80% of the fish in Mekong are already endangered. Many of these fish depend on the open flow of the Mekong in order to migrate to mating grounds.

Specifically, the Mekong is home to a few species of extremely rare giant catfish. They are so rare that there is not much information about these ancient creatures regarding their ecology. Many worry that a disturbance as large as the dam in Xayaburi Laos would lead to extinction. The fears have roots in the many other fish or aquatic animals that have seen population loss throughout the 20th century due to dams.

Not so far away from Laos, the Yangtze River in China was home to the Yangtze River Dolphin. The Three-Gorges Dam, one of the largest dams in the world, has been called the final straw for Yangtze River Dolphin population, which is now speculated to be extinct. This is the only species of dolphins to ever be pushed to extinctions by

The Laotian government believes that what it is doing is the best for its people. For the environmental movement that includes members of International River and World Wildlife Foundation, this is not justification. These people see the problems that the Western world faced 100 years ago and the problems the Western world still faces today and tries to guide newly developing countries so that they don't have to cope with the same issues.

To parts of the world, this is seen as meddling. Activists will always fight for their cause thanks to the rhetoric of people like Derrick Jenkins. In an article within Orion Magazine, Derrick Jenkins explains that humans should take advantage of the fear we have caused and use it to make change.

One quote that sums up his argument for action states, “When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we're in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free—truly free—to honestly start working to resolve it.

I would say that when hope dies, action begins." With rhetoric like this coursing through the environmental movement, it seems like the Laotian government has a tremendous amount to contend with.

The damming of the Mekong is seen as a turning point for both the environmental community as well as the Laotian government.

For the environmental movement, this would mean an incredible and irreplaceable loss of biodiversity. For Laos, this dam could mean a gateway into the 21st century and all the benefits that tag along with being industrialized.

Both perspectives root from similar human traits that want to improve the world.

Is poverty less of an issue than a lack of biodiversity? Is it the Western world's right to implement their morals on the rest of the world? What is the most sustainable path for the future?

All these questions have answers and all of these answers have contradictions. The damming of the Mekong River is certainly an issue that everyone should keep an eye on, for better or for worse.

Posted by Cassandra Hastie at 04:47 PM | Comments (0)

One Voice Global is a humanitarian aide organization, based in Woodstock. Our mission is to help Hudson Valley teenagers develop the kind of mindset, skills, and abilities they need to become compassionate humanitarians, social activists and global citizens. We accomplish our goal by improving the lives of orphans and other children in need through fundraising projects, cultural exchange, and onsite service visits to the organizations we serve.

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