23 February 2014

Inga Dam 3, a blog from IRN

The Inga dams story has always been strange, but this IRN blog by Peter Basshard suggests things have gotten stranger. Why don't we yet have the World Environmental Organization that can oversee projects like this and create some accountability to process? The world is a tired place of haves and want to have more calling the shots. Yes, today is a cynical day. But if this language is true, that the Bank and USAID of all organizations and whoever outside of the sovereign rights of the DRoC government are deciding about DRoC's natural resources, how is this any different than colonial control of one country or in this case, international organization with no real country, over another?

Monday, February 10, 2014

The World Bank's Inga 3 Project Goes From Bad to Worse

The World Bank's Inga 3 Project Goes From Bad to Worse
By Peter Bosshard
International Rivers, February 10, 2014

The Inga 3 Dam on the Congo River, which has incited the dreams of dam
builders and investors for three decades, was finally scheduled to
receive its first grant from the World Bank on February 10. Last week
the Bank added another twist to the Inga saga and withdrew the project
from its board calendar. Working with a Chinese company, the Bank now
plans to develop the dam as a private investment through the
International Finance Corporation (IFC), rather than as a public
project. This is bad news for poor people and the environment in the
Democratic Republic of Congo.

With a capacity of 4,800 megawatts and a price tag of $12 billion, Inga
3 is the World Bank's biggest ever hydropower project. The IFC has no
expertise in developing such complex projects. The biggest hydropower
project it has ever managed is the 600 megawatt Upper Marsyangdi 2 Dam
in Nepal. Because wind and solar projects are becoming ever more
attractive, the IFC's support for hydropower projects has shrunk from
$300 million to a mere $50 million per year since 2008.

The IFC has a poor social and environmental track record. Only in recent
months, the Corporation was admonished by its own ombudsperson for human
rights violations and other abuses in the Tata Mundra thermal power
plant in India and the Dinant oil palm project in Honduras. The Upper
Marsyangdi 2 Project was rocked by strikes as well. International Rivers
has documented that the planned Environmental Impact Assessment for Inga
3 falls short of good international practice. We can expect further
environmental short-cuts and compromises if the project is developed by
IFC and private investors.

The mining sector and other heavy industries consume 85 percent of all
the power generated in the DRC. Less than 10 percent of the country's
population has access to electricity. Increasing access is the highest
development priority for the DRC's energy sector. Yet this is of no
interest to private investors. A World Bank evaluation of the power
sector found in 2003: "In most countries, the rural poor tend to be
overlooked because private operators are reluctant to serve low-income
clients given that these markets are not financially viable on a
freestanding basis."

Similarly, Ali Mbuyi Tshimpanga, the director of the existing Inga
hydropower station, warns: "The problem is that, with a public-private
partnership, you patch up only the part of the grid that interests the
private financiers. It's of almost no benefit to the community." The
Inga 3 Dam is designed to serve mining companies and the South African
market. If it is developed as a private investment, poor consumers are
bound to be excluded from its benefits.

As International Rivers has learned from internal sources, the IFC deal
was arranged by the heads of the World Bank, IFC and USAID behind the
scenes, without any accountability to the DRC parliament, the World
Bank's board of directors and civil society. Such elitist,
non-democratic approaches will not bring about broad-based development
in the DRC. Non-transparent deals like Inga 3 are the best recipe to
entrench corruption in the country further.

Public support for a privatized Inga 3 Project becomes ever more
indefensible. International Rivers will continue to oppose destructive
mega-dams in the DRC and other countries, and will promote clean local
energy solutions that are more effective at reducing poverty and
protecting the environment.

Peter Bosshard is the Policy Director of International Rivers. He tweets
at @PeterBosshard. 

19 February 2014

Renaissance Dam: Diplomatic Problems with Egypt/Ethiopia Relations - some believe Egypt working to halt construction

Is Egypt Working to Stop Ethiopia Building Renaissance Dam?

I hesitate to repost speculation, rather than facts about diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Egypt, but I was alerted to an article talking about Egyptian and Ethiopian diplomatic failures, though the quoted officials indicate that talks will continue. I personally think it is too soon to assume that Egypt is going to try to halt progress of Renaissance Dam. The dam is so popular in Ethiopia, that this would be a strange strategic move on behalf of Egypt - Ethiopia has a formidable military and spirit behind this project. But, this article on Al-Monitor suggests that an anonymous source has leaked information pertaining to Egypt's attempt to stop Ethiopia's development plans.

Egypt is said to be seeking international support for the halt of the dam. Part of this is coming from the statement in the article that Ethiopia has not guaranteed Egypt will experience no impact. As far as I understand international treaties, and I am not a lawyer, Ethiopia is in its legal right to develop this dam. And as far as I understand the hydrology - Lake Nasser, evaporation rates ignored, contains 2 years worth of Nile water storage.

Here is the elephant in the room. There are water issues within Egypt that are not addressed. Water is political in Egypt. If you are a small scale farmer, your water rights may be passed up for some commercial concession. What about all that cotton? Egypt is planning to channel water out of Lake Nasser to farming efforts in the desert. It is not the problem of the small scale farmer in Egypt that will suffer because of Renaissance dam. This is already a domestic political problem. It is Egyptian GDP on all the products made commercially from the Nile River waters. Threaten the national economy, threaten the political stability. Egypt's political stability? Tenuous at best. The water use and distribution of the river is not discussed enough. People keep pointing to the problem - 80 million dependent Egyptians - don't touch the water! Don't change the system. But also, don't look at the man behind the curtain here - what is the system we are really talking about?

It reminds me of the population control arguments in carrying capacity discussions. Some people say that population is the problem with limited resources, some people say it is the distribution of these limited resources to a select type of population, namely, the USA - consumption capital of the world.

The Nile River is a poster child for sediment transport changes to delta areas - the Nile went to virtually zero sediment transport once Aswan was commissioned. This means that no material is regenerating space in the delta - and combined with sea-level rise - this is eating up habitat and land, allowing for salt intrusion, subsidence, and other physical changes to the system. There are about 50 million Egyptians living in between Cairo and Alexandria. Sediment loss is a huge problem for these people for the reasons listed. Nevermind the loss of flood recession agriculture, loss of nutrients carried within the sediment.

So much involved in this discussion that never gets addressed. Instead we are all focused on this macro-scale political diplomacy and if Egypt and Ethiopia will go to war. To avoid war, there are many avenues, not currently being explored, for discussion. Communication is the only sane way to move forward. I hope the countries continue to communicate on these issues, and expand the discussion to include different scales of challenges - the local subsistence farmers, the cities that depend on the water for municipal supply, the commercial farms important for national economies...

Changes to Terrestrial Ecosystems, Starting with Predators (wolves in this case), Changes Physical Geography of Rivers

Changing Biodiversity, Changing Environment, Changing Rivers 

This is a fascinating short documentary on the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone. Before you roll your eyes about the contentious issue, watch all 4 + minutes. The film is great, not just because of the enthusiastic narration of George Monbiot, but because it talks about the unexpected connections between systems.

These seemingly separate systems around us, in nature, as we understand them, are in fact interconnected, but it is not always clear where the connections will lead to complete system shifts - changes in one system driven by changes in another dependent or interdependent system.

In this case, reintroducing wolves changes habits of their prey animals, the deer and elk, which in turn allows for vegetation to regenerate, attracting other species, and in turn buffering river banks, and essentially, changing the entire physical landscape and channel of the rivers and streams in Yellowstone.

This is definitely something to think about when discussing land-use changes along rivers, overall watershed management to include ecosystem management, and the delicate balance that can be so quickly disrupted by removing just one species. It would be great if someone would look critically at the loss of salmon impact on river systems physical geography over time. Probably someone already has.

And in my opinion, wolves are awesome.

18 February 2014

Xayaburi Dam Documentary Film Critique

Documentary about Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong

This documentary about Xayaburi Dam was posted to Youtube in December of 2013, and was produced sometime in 2013. It is a good attempt to capture the complexity of issues surrounding development in the Lower Mekong River, centered around the most current and noteworthy development projects: Xayaburi Dam. The movie tells an alarming story that is captured in one of the interviewees who states that in the past the Mekong River belonged to the people, but now the benefits of the river are going to the private sector.

I think this sort of thing can be seen around the world, but most especially in places like Southeast Asia where the environmental resources are exploited and/or removed by numerous interests, companies, and other countries. I said more than once, when I was in Laos and heard about yet another resource being exported to China, China eats the World.

Now, of course it isn't always China. There is also some responsibility of the country governments in this process. There is also responsibility of outside institutions, like the World Bank, who lends money for large controversial projects. And certainly Western countries, like the United States, aren't off the hook for development elsewhere - electricity demands in Thailand are related to the booming industry that produces more stuff, like expensive outdoors-active clothing, to buy in the West.

Back to the film. Well-enough made, not well-enough balanced. No one is interviewed directly from the Lao government, or from the villages. Was the film crew not even allowed in Vientiane? Some of what is presented contradicts. Some of the opinions given are too conspiratorial for me, I think reasons are usually much simpler. Some of the opinions are xenophobic.

 The one big point as I understand, and contrary to how it is presented in this film, is that the legal processes through which the Lao government had to proceed given teh 1995 agreement and through the MRC for prior notification, requires just that - some 6 months of notification of some development project that will touch the Mekong mainstem. However, this notification does not require CONSENSUS from the Lower Mekong countries. Consensus is required only when water will be diverted from the mainstem. That Vietnam first asked for further studies or that the MRC recommends further studies or that the US government has given funds for further studies, does not obligate the sovereign government of Laos to halt construction of this project. That the European company Poyri is slimy or corrupt or bias is not relevant to the issue of a sovereign decision to build the dam. Xayaburi is not an illegal dam, it is a controversial dam.

 Although the ideas put forward for public participation are ideal in the case of shared resources management, Laos is a communist state. Public participation is not a valued participation. Most governments in the world do not ask consent of people before they make a decision about a national-level resource. Perhaps this film is pointing to a larger trend of people wanting more participation in national resource issues.

I take exception to the statements made by Ian Baird about regions or governments like Laos not being capable with expertise (or having political will or having the budget) to assess an environmental impact assessment. There are plenty of educated and intelligent people in the government of Laos, and in the civil society to be called upon if needed. If the insinuation in this film is that Poyri is pulling the wool over the Lao government's eyes or that the Lao government is attempting to pull the wool over other people's eyes, I am not sure what to say. Also, when Ame Tranden from International Rivers Network states that there has been enough scientific research done to indicate that this dam will adversely impact systems downstream in Cambodia or Vietnam, or even locally in Laos and Thailand, I am not sure what science she is referring to. Is this the same science that is lacking in capturing what types of fish species live in this section of the river? There is not enough known about the species in the river - there are two places for fish assessment - at the mouth of the Tonle Sap and in one of the big waterfalls in the south of Laos. Those two transitional spaces are not sufficient to collect data on an entire river - especially in calmer reaches, like where Xayaburi is happening. Not enough is understood about the hydrology or sediment transport post-China dam commissions. Not enough time has elapsed.

Finally, the question of fish runs deeper. Great presentation of the situation of fish in the Mekong. Much is unknown, but so many people depend on this protein source. This is especially important for communities that experience malnutrition and are, as often is the case in Laos, cut off from markets - both economic and trade. When we are considering Xayaburi specifically, it is still a reach to relate this development to Cambodia, especially when Cambodia has its own dams planned north of the Tonle Sap that threaten to change the entire delicate balance.

There is a real issue of fish changes in Laos. This is due to several compounding factors, as I understand from my interview collection.

  1. Many more people are fishing the Mekong. There are no regulations in Laos on fishing other than a restriction on fishing with electricity - this is outlawed. In some places I heard about seasonal moratoriums, but this requires local enforcement - and enforcement depends on the village chief. Some villages along the Mekong cannot be reached by road. More people are fishing the Mekong now than in the past. Many people come from outside the villages to fish for profit. The village fishing tends to lean toward subsistence. 
  2. The seasonal patterns are changing. Local communities responded over and over again that the rains do not come at the same time anymore. The river fluctuations were more predictable in the past. As were the seasonal monsoon flooding. People would know this since they plant and fish and live right on the banks of the river. 
  3. Not only are there less fish, but the size of the fish has changed and some types of fish are no longer found in the river. The fishermen I spoke with stated this over and over again as well. The actual fish population has changed. And this is in the wild reaches of the Mekong in Laos, just upstream from the Xayaburi project site. 
These existing changes should be amplified - something is already strange with the system. Changes are visible as of the last 5 years. If these changes are ignored or discounted, people in the future may be pointing the finger once again at the wrong culprit - Xayaburi dam or its brother projects - instead of pointing at the overall major changes that the Upper Mekong is going through - the Lancang River in Yunnan - to include major dam commissions, rubber plantations, and land-use changes in Chinese modernization efforts. Also, what is happening in the tributaries in Northern Laos where Sino-hydro is constructing a cascade of something like 8 dams. Where rubber plantations and clear-cutting are trimming riparian forests in upper Laos. Tributaries, I am told, impact the hydrology of the Mekong much more than is understood and are important for fish spawning as well. Some huge amount of fish were lost due to damming of important spawning tributaries in Thailand.

I do think people have their hearts in the right place when they oppose environmental resources exploitation in favor of private industry, in favor of diplomatic dealings out of the public eye, in favor of sustaining local traditional lifestyles. The documentary brings up important facts and figures about fish consumption and how many people are dependent on the river system for fish. What it does not do is point the finger at the right culprit. It is not so simple to say that the problem is the Xayaburi dam or some sketchy Finnish company cashing in on Lao contracts, the government of Lao, the Thai cement companies or engineering firms or electricity network. Dams were planned on the Mekong River decades ago.

Global economies have shifted and where before dam development wasn't possible because of lacking funds (unless you and the World Bank could make a deal), they are now being constructed, and quickly. Hydropower is popular again as an alternate to the deadly disasters from nuclear energy, and carbon heavy emissions from petroleum-based burning. Energy markets are viable for sharing and selling across borders. Communist regimes are changing economic policies. No mention at all in this documentary about the changing water itself - the quality change due to upstream land-use change and development - the volume change due to localized climate changes, weather pattern changes, and upstream Chinese dams.

The documentary brings up great talking points - and it sets the stage for more discourse about development. I am thankful that Rajesh Daniel took the time to make the film. More needs to be discussed.

The Mekong is undergoing major change and it is the river dependent people who will suffer most of all - the original quote from this entry - that the river was once for the people, but now the benefits are in private hands - is a chilling thought for now and the future of a place where modernization is coming in the form of top down modifications to the economic system. I am interested to see what solutions will come from such challenging issues.

16 February 2014

FEATURE SERIES IV: Field Research on climate change adaptation in coastal communities: An Interview with Miriah Russo-Kelly, OSU PhD student

FEATURE SERIES IV: Field Research on climate change adaptation in coastal communities: An Interview with Miriah Russo-Kelly, Oregon State University (OSU) PhD student

Miriah Russo Kelly is an environmental communication scholar interested in the human dimensions of natural resource management. We are PhD students together at OSU and I had the opportunity to hear about how her work as a dual Speech Communications and Environmental Sciences student has evolved. She studies interdisciplinary and timely topics related to climate change, at-risk communities along the coast, stakeholder participation, and collaboration. Although her work is oceans, rather than freshwater, she is still dealing with water issues in relation to change - some of which has been exacerbated by coastal engineering responses for decades, allowing communities to grow in areas where they are essentially at risk.

Miriah was recently interviewed by OSU's Marketing online publication, Terra about her involvement in the UN's Climate Change Meetings in Cancun in 2010. This interview is about her current research in US coastal communities. She also works for Oregon Sea Grant on education, outreach and engagement projects. She is a trained mediator and facilitator, as well as an educator who enjoys working with local community members, non-profit and governmental organizations, as well as undergraduate and graduate students. 

With her field work recently completed, she is now working toward completing her degree requirements. I asked if she'd take a minute to share her experiences in the field with me. 

JCV: Your work is climate change adaptation in the Coos Bay region of Oregon and the Saco Bay region of Maine. Some of what you look at relates to water resources. Can you please tell me a bit about what you are researching and what aspect of water resources you are working with?

MRK: My work is focused on understanding the nature of community-based collaboration in the context of climate change adaptation. Water resource issues are at the forefront of concern in two of the four climate change adaptation case studies I am documenting in my research. One group is focused on addressing their storm water management issues at the municipal level and the other is focused more on water quality management at a larger more watershed scale level. Both projects are predicated on science that indicates that environmental change is happening and will continue to happen, thus exacerbating the issues they already face. In my research am focused on understanding the ways in which stakeholders are working together to address these complex scientific problems in the face of environmental change. 

In each community I studied a multi-stakeholder project that was addressing some impact related to climate change. They are : Coastal erosion, storm water management, changing watershed conditions, and coastal flooding/sea level rise.

JCV: The fieldwork component of your research has taken you to different field destinations. Can you please share a bit about the logistics of how you reach and stay in your field site?

My field sites are in rural Maine and Oregon. I reached out to the community through gatekeepers. I contacted the leaders, and did a lot of discussing/relationship building before I submitted a research prospectus to them and asked for their permission to conduct my research. I also made preliminary visits to each site to get to know participants before returning a few months later to conduct interviews. I think it was helpful for them to have met me prior to them sitting down for an hour to talk about these (somewhat) sensitive issues.
I would say that the biggest challenge “getting” to these places physically really arose out of my inability to secure consistent funding for my project. I ended up piecing together funds and self-funding to be able to get to the places I needed to go to investigate my research interests.  The other challenge was “getting there” mentally. I first had to identify case studies that fit my criteria and then get them to agree to let me research them. This was very time consuming and required a long-term commitment to building relationships with participants.

JCV: Has anything interesting come up with your equipment or support team?

After doing 40 interviews in two states I was in the last interview on the last day. I was using a digital voice recorder for all of the interviews and had not erased any of them up until that point. So toward the end of the interview I ask my participant if they had any other thoughts before I end the interview and just then the recorder shut off and read FULL. It would not let me record any more. The participant said they had nothing to add anyway, but I thought it was funny that the recorder was full at the exact point that I didn’t need it to record any more. Thank goodness. I took from this that I should always know how much space is left on the recorder before starting an interview.

JCV: That is timely, and pretty typical of field work - things either go remarkably well, or horribly wrong... What have been the biggest challenges with your fieldwork?

Funding, time, and consistency. All of which can be overcome. Qualitative research can be very time consuming because it requires interpersonal interaction and is therefore often costly. At the same time, funding can be difficult to acquire, especially for qualitative researchers. Mixed methods and quantitative approached seem to be more appealing to funding agencies. Qualitative research can also be difficult to standardize. I found it a challenge to develop a set of interview questions that related to all of participants in each of the four case study sites. That said, I feel that even given these barriers I was able to complete my fieldwork in a timely, cost-effective, and consistent manner. 

JCV:  What is the best thing that happened?

All in all it was a great experience. The best thing that happened was that I met a number of interesting and amazing people who are intelligent, outgoing, and committed to their communities. I undertook this type of research because I really wanted to do something that was meaningful to people. It has been an amazing experience getting out of the university and getting to places where people are affected by and use science generated by academic institutions.

JCV:  What is the funniest thing that happened?

While in rural upstate Maine conducting one hour interviews with research participants I was trying very hard to find a time to meet with one key participant who is a very busy person. I almost left town to head back home when I received an e-mail that said that he could meet, but it would have to be immediately. So I hopped in my car and made it to the location and was able to interview him. We had a great exchange and at the end he gave me a t-shirt that read “I am meSSI. The three capital letters standing for the organization that he belongs to. I laughed when he gave it to me because I am messy, and this is known amongst all of my friends and family. I love to cook, but no one wants to clean up after I have been in the kitchen. My brother won’t sit next to me at family meals because he claims I get my food on his plate. And, I accidently flung a bagel at one of the guests at the rehearsal dinner for my wedding. Just a few examples. So I laughed because it was the most appropriate gift he could have given me. When I got back to my brother’s house I told him about the shirt. So I went to the car to get it and when I opened it up it already had a huge stain on the front….only five hours later and I hadn’t even worn it yet. So, not related to my research necessarily, but we had a good laugh about it.

JCV:  Did being a woman have any impact on your research in these rural communities in Oregon and Maine? 

I am not sure how the fact that I am a younger female affected my study. If anything I would say that I have been called "affable" by some and I think having a warm and open demeanor helped me, which may be a result of my femininity. Otherwise I think it didn't really affect the project overall. I think my being a social scientist affected the project more than my being a woman.

JCV:  Have you experienced a moment of enlightenment or realization while in the field? How did that happen and did it lead to changes in your research design?

I wouldn’t say enlightenment, but I would say that I had many moments of realization. I think that at the point where you start seeing themes in what people are saying, and being able to connect those themes back to theories, your research starts to become real. I had a few aha moments where I thought to myself, wow this is really interesting and important stuff! I wouldn’t say these moments made me change my research design as much as they called me to reconsider the ways in which I was thinking about the research questions I posed.

Miriah, thanks so much for taking the time to share your field work & research experience. I wish you heaps of luck with the next phase of analyzing and writing. I look forward to hearing more about your next plans with your work timely and relevant work. Great practical application - something highlighted in OSU-based research.