19 April 2016

Mara River Basin Field Research in Tanzania

I recently returned from the field in Tanzania traveling throughout the Lower Mara River Basin in 4 Districts with a team to speak with water users about water quality, quantity, and accessibility. During the field trip we met many interesting people and collected GPS points, local mapping, information, stories, official documents, and overall a greater understanding of the basin on the ground. I will begin to share some of these stories via our team's blog on our webpages. I will repost my posts there on this blog and continue to use this platform for my own insights.

Most of the people that we encountered in the Mara River Basin are Kuria people. They keep cattle, do some seasonal subsistence farming, and in one part of the basin people mine gold. Many people live in traditional bomas, round houses set in a circle on the land. The man and his first wife tend to live in the big house, then second, third, and additional wives live in smaller circular houses set in a circle from the first. Grains and animals are also kept in round houses. The structures are much the same as tukuls in Ethiopia - mud and straw for the walls, some kind of palm or other plant material for the roof.

14 April 2016

Feature Article on Renaissance Dam as Countdown Continues

A recent feature article in Science Magazine highlights the increased dialogue surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam as the project nears completion for initial filling in 2017. The article is a collection of voices from the international community who have either visited, studied, or have other knowledge of the dam project as things stand to date.

I recently spoke with a colleague who visited the dam a few months ago and tells me that all the timber is being harvested, the area up to the fill-line is being denuded of the great forest. This forest included hardwoods, well over hundred year old Baobab trees, and habitat for teems of birdlife, scores of insects, and who knows what else. I still wonder about the big cats I heard fighting at night close to the river and reports from dam workers about lions and striped cats in the surrounding hills. One surveyer was rumored to have been carried off by a lion without a trace.

When I received this news of transformed landscape I was double disappointed that no team of scientists made a successful effort to get in the dam site prior. I still wonder about the biodiversity and undocumented species that possibly inhabited the valley, certainly the people living there are culturally distinctive. Even the Gumuz communities in the Valley had traditions, dialects, and undocumented other aspects unlike the Gumuz living upstream or at a distance from the Valley and its related resources. And I also wonder about the locals - I hear that people are still living in the villages, surrounded by all this transformation, waiting for the day when they too will be transformed, transported to another environment and a new way of life.

Power Play on the Nile by JCVeilleux

07 April 2016

Coauthored Commentary on Cultural Impacts of Dams in Science Letter

The following letter appeared in Science today - my colleague Dr. Elizabeth Anderson and I work on rivers around the world and weighed in with our observations about what is lost (but not widely discussed) when development changes a river system. This is in response to recent discussion in Science about the implications of dam development on internationally shared tropical rivers.


Cultural costs of tropical dams

Science  08 Apr 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6282, pp. 159
DOI: 10.1126/science.352.6282.159
Recent pieces in Science rightly call for greater examination of the environmental, political, and economic trade-offs of tropical dams. In his Feature news story “Power play on the Nile” (26 February, p. 904), E. Stokstad explores political uncertainties of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. In their Policy Forum “Balancing hydropower and biodiversity in the Amazon, Congo, and Mekong” (8 January, p. 128), K. O. Winemiller et al. herald the potential detriment to one-third of the world's freshwater fish species by unprecedented hydropower dam construction. In his Letter “Tropical dams: To build or not to build?” (29 January, p.456), P. M. Fearnside asks a fundamental question about current development. Assessments of impacts of dams on riparian human populations typically focus on economic issues related to community displacement, or food security risks from loss of land or fisheries. However, riparian human populations stand to lose much more than land, food, and income.
Free-flowing rivers hold special significance in indigenous cultures. In the Amazon, the Shawi bathe in rivers, gathering strength from water carried down from mountains and ancestors (12). The Peruvian Kukama believe that people who have drowned in rivers and whose bodies aren't found live in underwater cities, communicating with relatives through dreams or shamans (3). The Gumuz people of Ethiopia's Blue Nile Valley—living in the shadow of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam's construction—have described the river as a second God, providing everything they need for living; most cannot imagine life without the river (4). A legendary water-dwelling creature—Mokele-mbembe, or “one who stops the flow of rivers”—has captivated explorers and locals of the Congo Basin for centuries (5). In the Mekong, many indigenous people believe that ancestral or animal spirits can influence flow and quality of water, and fear of mysterious creatures has prohibited fishing in certain areas (6). Native people of northern Thailand engage in ceremonial practices to show respect and gratefulness to supernatural beings thought to influence water resources (7).
We need better understanding of the implications of tropical dam proliferation for riparian human populations. An assessment of human and water security (8) that includes not only economics, politics, and environment but also culture would more accurately capture the costs and benefits of hydropower development and influence decisions on new tropical dams.