30 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.


  1. I think you just wrote your dissertation! Enjoyed this, Jennifer - thought-provoking. It also reminded me of a list of 'sustainability' definitions assembled by the graduate students of a former colleague (economist). Your head will spin.

    1. Finally got through this list. Thank you for sending on! Head spin, yes. Inspired to do something similar for human and water security terms...maybe during my pause moments while writing the dissertation!

  2. Last week I was sitting in the comfort of first class on the TGV racing from Montpellier to Paris at 500 km/hr watching the landscape change from dry Mediterranean to chilly northern. It's a beautiful landscape that's been constantly transformed by for thousands of years and it continues to sustain people and ecosystems. Why would anyone deny a country like Laos or Zambia or Boliva the right to do the same? Meanwhile, I've been reading my latest favorite sci fi writer Paul McAuley who writes about colonizing the moons of Saturn, Jupiter and Neptune. The science is quite plausible and you can see the technologies he talks about in nascent form today. His habitats are complex, beautiful and sustainable. Merriam-Webster lists five definitions for 'develop'. In the context of this discussion, my choice would be, "to explore the possibilities". There will be mistakes, but exploring possibilities is one of the things that makes us human.