29 April 2013

Is Sustainable Development an Oxymoron? Or are the failures because we are morons?

I had a conversation this morning about development in Laos. The woman I was chatting with asked me what I thought about sustainable development. I laughed, "I am not entirely sure if anyone even knows what sustainable development actually looks like in reality, including me." She then told me a story from her days at university. Just before graduation, the professors of her department gave presentations on their own research. One old man got up and presented and his final words were, "and sustainable development cannot work. I do not believe in it." She immediately asked herself, "What the hell are we doing then?"

Good question. Do you think that sustainable development is possible? Perhaps in theory. A quick google search reveals a variety of definitions that include the words humans and natural resources and environment. Check out the wiki definition if you want some background. This vague idea states that one may at once alter the environment to serve human needs while living in harmony with natural systems that are fully functioning (with the aim of more return later). The hope is for at least 100 years of so of this harmony. This I know is perhaps oversimplification, but bear with me.

This present case study I am working on, Laos' Xayaburi dam, is a classic example of how complex this seemingly innocent concept can become. Different interests can manifest, influenced by the competing interests of the world's human systems. Think about this: Lao government wants to alleviate poverty through national development plans, move toward satisfying steps toward the infamous Millennium Development Goals. The international community pushes for this, but does not want to put itself out of business, so their messages are confusing and often conflicting - but they are really good at writing endless reports about the real and the imagined. I digress. The international community can provide donations and support for such moves, but increasingly want developing countries to do this for themselves. Investors want to make a profit, so they are eager to help development. Fund a hydropower dam, for instance. And finally, the NGO community wants to preserve not only the last vestiges of our natural world, but traditional ways of life. Put this in a pot and mix. What do you create? An idea or project that no one can agree about.

If you take water as the sector...there are competing uses and needs. But there is no reason that these needs and uses cannot be in harmony. This takes careful planning and management and enforcement. The country of Laos needs development, but the donors want them to do this themselves. They turn to what they have for resources in order to do so. Let's just consider water. Laos has a lot of running water in the Mekong and tributaries to the Mekong. What can you use water for? Biggest worldwide use is for irrigation - growing crops. But, you need equipment, processing facilities, sophisticated transportation mechanisms to move the food into the global market. Challenging. Okay, what else? Second biggest use is for energy/industry. Thailand is next door. They manufacture lots of "stuff" for sale in the Western markets. Clothes, for instance. They are feeding the beast of Western throw-away society. Thailand has an energy need. Laos has energy potential. Good marriage. So, Laos can develop water energy with their resources and sell to a customer. But how to develop this sector? This is where the investors come in. But investors want to make a profit, right? There is no bank in the world that does not give a loan with the intention to lose money. But, water is a hard sector to make money in, when considering investing in infrastructure. Water is a service. So, then the investors invest in projects that have social and environmental implications. Potentially political and economic too, but let's focus on the link with the NGOs first.

Because there is a cost somewhere, the easiest way to offset cost is to take from another sector. A project like a dam must use the natural resource to exist, but this means that the resource will be taken at the cost of other uses, perhaps, like subsistence communities. In this case, the NGO community has stated that the dam will take away from the ability of the natural system to continue the way that it would before the dam. Fish will have a harder time to migrate, even with modifications like fish passages. Flow will change and possibly cause changes in temperature and nutrient load, carried by sediments. Because this is an international river, places as far away as Vietnam may feel the impact. Salinization of the Mekong Delta, an important rice producing region. Perhaps. Modern dams can modify to deal with these challenges, and in the case of Xayaburi, the developers put modifications into the design. This is not a storage dam, it is a run of river dam. This means that flow will be minimally impacted, according to engineers and research. Fish passages and sediment flushing gates have been incorporated due to the goodwill commitment of the Lao government. Great. But, it is still a dam. And the worry is that this is the first of many dams for the Mekong mainstem. China has already built 5 dams upstream that impound water. Due to the hydrology of the Mekong system, this is not totally devastating for the entire river, but to be sure, this has already altered the river markedly. People who live on the river have seen this with their own eyes.

Livelihoods, another area of concern. Less fish migrating means less fish, means people who fish having to change how they obtain protein, how they potentially make a living. Fish farms can be an answer. These are already considered. But these also have a drawback. Pollution associated. Genetic alteration of species already existing in the river equates to loss of biodiversity...but others would argue that fish loss is already a large problem and needs to be addressed, dam or no dam. Why are their less fish? More people fishing to sell to open trade markets perhaps? Alteration of land-use along the river? Global climate changes to rainfall patterns? Deforestation? How about probably all of the above. How the hell do we manage this then?


This river is shared with other countries. The final pieces of economics and politics - indeed both are impacted. Building diplomatic relations with neighbors through providing something they need - electricity. Creating diplomatic tensions with neighbors through potential results of the development to fish, flow, sediment. The downstream neighbors rely heavily on their use of the same water. Cambodia for the Tonle Sap, an important fishery. Vietnam for the Mekong Delta, an important food producing area. Studies have been conducted to find that the impact of Xayaburi will not have an international reach in flow, sediment movement, or fisheries. Given this information we move forward with good faith that this is true. Fine. It is no joke, not taken lightly. The Lao Goverment is spending on this, is moving people, is getting a lot of flack from critics in the international community. The Thai investment banks have put the money forward. This is a serious matter and complex in nature.

Again - NGOs want to preserve livelihoods and the environment. Investors want to make money. The international community puts the pressure on for achieving the hard to attain MGDs. And a government still listed on the Least Developed Countries is not just a label. There are malnutrition issues and other things related to poverty that you can guess at. Said government wants to alleviate poverty but cannot go this alone. I would ask, given all this complexity, plus people getting angry and feeling confused, other people optimistic and hopeful: does an answer start to emerge for us? Does it take a first step, determination of a goal. There is something nice in the world of mediation called shared future vision. This needs to be clear and concrete to work. Does it have to do with working together toward shared future visions? Does it have to do with a change of heart? Forget sustainable development for a minute. Are these cases really about the value of human beings and the value of the planet in which the human beings live? To me, this puzzle touches upon something deeper, something we are avoiding because it requires sacrifice. Big sacrifice and no one wants to even approach where that would start.

A Marine Colonel once told me (or more than once), "humans are competing for space, resources, and ideas." But what are we cooperating for? You cannot have a society without cooperation, and so it must exist. We can build upon it.

How would you approach this situation differently? Solutions appreciated.

28 April 2013

Nile Basin Community Project needs yours support

Please check out this project currently fundraising to actualize in Kenya. The coordinator is a man involved in the Nile Project and has great ideas to promote the Masai community. They will appreciate your donation and support!

26 April 2013

Informative article on Mekong fish research project/database

Here is an article based on an interview with Harmony Patricia, a researcher who is compiling a database about Mekong River fish. Sounds like cool and useful research.

Couldn't paste it properly here...lots of great photos. Check it out!



25 April 2013

Photo Essay of Lao hydropower

Al Jazeera has put together a photo essay of hydropower and of communities related to hydropower, in Laos, PDR. I have also pasted below. The only dam currently being constructed on the Mekong, in Laos, is Xayaburi. Five dams have been commissioned on the Mekong in China, and three more slated for commission in the near future. Those are much bigger and are storage dams. Presumably they have displaced more people - combination of the dam and resulting reservoir size and population density.

In pictures: Damming Laos' Mekong River
The landlocked country is building several huge dams, displacing hundreds and unsettling environmentalists.
 Last Modified: 25 Apr 2013 09:54
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The landlocked southeast Asian country of Laos is going full steam ahead with a series of dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries, despite objections from the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam and concerns from environmental groups.
Construction is already underway on the Xayaburi Dam, a 810-metre-long and 32-metre-high Laos-Thai megadam, expected to be completed in 2019. Around 95 percent of electricity from the hydropower dam will be exported to Thailand as part of a massive development drive by the communist, one-party state to lift the nation of Laos from the ranks of Asia's poorest countries.

Along with the immediate environmental effects of such a huge project, hundreds of villagers have been resettled to make way for construction of the Xayaburi Dam. The first group of around 300 people were shifted to Natornatoryai, an arid site around 35km from the river. Despite retraining programs and new homes, those relocated lament that they are unable to earn a living away from the river and that compensation from the dam authorities was withdrawn after one year instead of the promised three. More than 20 families have already left the site to return to the river.

Further downstream, more than 60 million people in the Lower Mekong Delta depend on the Mekong for food, income and transportation.  A total of 11 large hydropower dams are planned by the governments of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, while China has already completed five dams on the Mekong's upper reaches, with another three under construction. China is also the driving force behind a cascade of dams on the Nam Ou River, a tributary of the Mekong in northern Laos. 

Environmentalists fear these dams' impact on fish numbers may have a devastating effect on food security and biodiversity in the region.
Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
A young girl and her puppy sit high on the banks the Nam Kham River, a tributary of the Mekong. Laos is going ahead with building a number of dams on the Mekong and its tributaries, despite objections from the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam and concerns from environmental groups.


Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
A fisherman stands in his small boat as he pulls in a fishing net on the Mekong River. Millions depend on the Mekong River for food, income and transportation.


Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
Ferryman Si Manasit wears a cowboy hat on his brightly painted tug boat emblazoned with a Soviet flag. The ferry is close to the Xayaburi Dam. The 810-metre-long and 32-metre-high Laos-Thai megadam is expected to be completed in 2019 and will export electricity to Thailand.


Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
A view of the new bridge at Thadua, upstream from the Xayaburi Dam. According to locals, this bridge is being built in partnership between the Laos government and private Korean and Thai firms.


Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
A villager stands on a site that will become a garden in a new village next to the Xayaburi Dam for people relocated by the project's construction on the Mekong River. Many residents are dissatisfied with the relocation and compensation, but feel they have little choice in the matter.


Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
A bulldozer clears a road as workers pass by at the massive construction site for the Xayaburi Dam.


Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
An earthmover and a pickup truck carrying workers and a soldier with an AK-47 assault rifle pass a street cutting through the relocation site for residents of Paknern Village, who were moved to make way for the Xayaburi Dam.


Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
Boatman Lot (who has no second name), a 23-year-old, steers his boat on the Mekong River, upstream from the Xayaburi Dam.


Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
 Two boys walk down a dirt road at an arid relocation site for those displaced by the dam construction. The first group of around 300 people was resettled to Natornatoryai, around 35km from the river.


Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
Somsack Inthajak, 55 makes a fishing net at his home in Thadua, upstream from where the Xayaburi Dam is being built. "When the dam is finished, it might be easier to fish - like a big fish pond," he says. "It could be a problem for those downstream though." Environmentalists say these dams could have a devastating effect on food security and biodiversity in the region.


Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
Fish traps set by members of the Khmu ethnic minority on the Nam Ou River, near the massive dam project by Chinese hydropower giant Sinohydro. Nam Ou 2, which is expected to be completed in just three years, is part of a cascade of seven dams on the river.


Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
A Chinese worker at the site of the Nam Ou 2 dam. The Nam Ou River is a tributary of the Mekong.


Dave Tacon/Al Jazeera
A local worker is dwarfed by the Nam Ou 2 dam, currently under construction.

24 April 2013

General musings on field work from Laos

I started to pen a post two weeks ago, when I returned from the field. I may still post it, it is about logistics. Being in the middle of field work - data collection in my case consists of interviews, which can take 2 hours or 15 minutes, transcriptions of said interviews, content analysis and mapping of each interview as a count of one, and then connection to the larger body of work I am attempting build - is time consuming.

The next time I do this, I want a team of reliable souls so I can delegate some of this work out to them. The dream of a grad student struggling to handle all this data...

A team of people who go out and do studies about interesting phenomena. I know this is done, but it seems to me that whoever I encounter doing this is doing it in some official capacity. Are there still teams of renegade researchers going out in the world and collecting data about something they deem important?  I mean them vs. the powers that hold the purse strings. Or has all of this been relegated to the confines and bounds of the funding agencies? Funding agencies...hmm.

I am unfunded in Laos. Not for lack of trying. I applied to about 10 big pools of funding for this year. I fell on my face. Usually without explanation I was rejected. It is a mystery. One person, here in Laos, commented that I am lucky. There are no constraints or expectations on my work because of this. I am of course grateful to be free in my work. I am also annoyed that my work has not been supported by anyone in the world of science - be it social or physical - less so for the money, but more the acceptance. I would like them to embrace me. I am studying something interesting. Maybe it is not uber important to anyone. Maybe it is not life altering or global shifting or earth shattering. But it is still an interesting question to research. I am fully capable of pulling it off - getting the data I need, dedicating the time and energy. If I were not a stubborn (and perhaps stupid) person, I would have let the idea go, not pursued it, chosen something less challenging and closer to home, been in more comfortable climates, relegated myself to the powers that be and given them a project with buzz words and promised lies of what can be achieved by looking at certain aspects of rivers and geography.

In the end, the work is just information filtered through a model that highlights the strength and weaknesses of this given situation - dam development in two fo the world's least developed countries - relevant maybe to the people it involves. But beyond that? Do we care so much about the world's least developed countries? How about dams? Do we want to do some mental gymnastics to understand how water and poverty are related somehow, and that development is some link between the two - some link that can either exploit or benefit populations of impoverished people? I would say, most people glaze over with this talk. Not to say I do not believe in my work. I do. I love it. Otherwise how could I wake everyday, early, to transcriptions and analysis. How could I stay awake at night working on text and edits? How could I pester people for interviews, begging, as it were, to be met with and given some time? I couldn't.

I enjoy the mania of intense work periods. The long days of interviews, the long hours on transcripts, the endless thinking about how to organize this work into something readable, something digestible. It is a creative project and should be fun. Maybe I am obsessive.

I guess this musing is for other researchers and dreamers and artists out there who have an idea, or just an idea of an idea, that can be fixed with wings. Go for it. The research, the project, will take care of itself somehow, just give it some breath of life. And don't worry about those big funding vehicles. Maybe they love you and want to see your work come to life. Maybe they could care less. But it is YOU that have to make it work, make it live, make it relevant to yourself, to someone else, somewhere, someday. Be true to yourself, against the odds. Why not? We may only have this moment, and this chance at this moment. Passion and truth are ingredients for success. Or at least the very least, these things move us in that direction and provide the hope that it will all work out.

22 April 2013

Article about Fear claiming to be about Fisheries

Article about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam from Egypt, posted below and linked here.

This article is strange. I am not sure that I understand where the data - the figures presented - are being taken from. The GERD, as far as I understand, is not going to alter any flow from the Blue Nile river. It is an impoundment dam that holds back water in a reservoir to generate hydroelectricity. It is not a diversion dam. In order to generate electricity, water needs to be released. Nor is it possible, in my honest opinion, to hold back so much water to reduce the flow to Egypt and Sudan as stated.
Also, if this really were the case, this is a technical matter that can be resolved by water managers in the three countries. Why the fear? If the Blue Nile is to have dams developed, like GERD, coordination between countries on these matters is of upmost importance.
The other troubling thing about this article is that it says nothing really about the authority of the woman who is quoted expert field: fisheries. Is this person making a political statement or one that holds concern for her field of expertise? If the GERD is going to impact fisheries downstream, tell us how and where. Perhaps this information is needed to make further discussions possible, to bring up issues that may have been missed to date. It seems the only concrete thing that is raised is a loss in hydropower production. But are the dams in question running at full capacity now?

I am not sure that this article holds any real information worth publishing, but rather fear. But that, in itself, is an important issue to consider.


More is "understood" or "known" about the GERD through perception than through reality.

Fisheries Authority concerned by Ethiopian dam



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Fisheries Authority head: ‘Egypt is facing a real disaster’
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Egypt has long received the largest share of the water from the Nile, as per agreements signed in 1929 and 1959, which guaranteed Egypt 55.5bn cubic metres annually of the estimated total of 84bn cubic metres. (AFP Photo)
Egypt has long received the largest share of the water from the Nile, as per agreements signed in 1929 and 1959, which guaranteed Egypt 55.5bn cubic metres annually of the estimated total of 84bn cubic metres.
(AFP Photo)
Head of the Fisheries Authority Amani Ismail has warned of the threat posed to Egypt by the construction of a dam in Ethiopia.
Writing on the authority’s official website, Ismail said: “There is no longer room for doubt that Egypt is facing a real disaster in the coming months.” She said that the impending disaster is a result of the Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Baha’a El-Din’s recognition of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.
Ismail highlighted that the GERD will change the course of the Blue Nile, a tributary of the Nile. She believes that this will cause Egypt and Sudan to lose out on 18m cubic metres of water and reduce the electricity produced by the Aswan Dam by approximately 25%-30%.
Ismail accused the governments of President Mohamed Morsi and former president Hosni Mubarak of not taking action to prevent these losses.
Ismail’s criticisms come after Baha’a El-Din asserted that Egypt is committed to fair distribution of the water from the Nile.
The GERD has led to strained relations with Sudan and Egypt, as it will greatly reduce the amount of water flow and consequentially reduce their share of Nile water.
In September 2012 Egypt denied allegations of a plot to bomb the GERD. The story was printed by a Sudanese newspaper that cited whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks as a source.
Egypt has long received the largest share of the water from the Nile, as per agreements signed in 1929 and 1959, which guaranteed Egypt 55.5bn cubic metres annually of the estimated total of 84bn cubic metres.
Egypt has held a number of meetings and consultations on the issue, including talks with Burundi and Sudan. In January, Egypt refused to sign the Entebbe agreement with other Nile-basin countries. Baha’a El-Din claimed that it was not suitable for downstream countries like Egypt.