By Joel Brinkley
Here come those dastardly dams!
In Asia, Africa and the Middle East, nations are aggressively building new hydroelectric dams, seemingly heedless of the potentially disastrous effects on the countries downstream.
As examples, Laos broke ground on a new Mekong River dam that's causing concern bordering on fury in Cambodia and Vietnam. India is enraged about a new Chinese dam going up on the Brahmaputra River. And Ethiopia's new dam on the Nile is angering Sudan, while Egypt has threatened war.
What's behind all this consternation -- and worse? The concerns are multifaceted. In a broad sense, though, the rivers have provided sustenance for millions of people for millennia, and dams threaten that. Because of this, in some places multinational commissions were set up decades ago to arbitrate disputes like these. One is the Mekong River Commission, which pledges to "place regional cooperation and basin-wide planning at the heart of our operation."
Well, that's not working.
The larger problem is, as climate change advances and growing populations demand more water and power, many upstream nations are ignoring their responsibilities to their downstream neighbors -- and the guidelines of commissions they helped establish.
Perhaps the most egregious example is Laos, which broke ground on a new hydroelectric dam on the Mekong late last year -- ignoring the howls of complaint from downstream. Just south in Cambodia, for example, the Mekong provides the livelihood for much of the population because of an unusual natural phenomenon.
Cambodia's Tonle Sap River is a Mekong tributary that flows southeast from a lake of the same name. Each spring, the Mekong swells, and its current grows so strong that it forces the Tonle Sap River to reverse course, carrying tons of rich, fertile mud and millions of young fish back up to the lake. The lake floods, depositing new, rich soil on thousands of acres around its perimeter. The fish provide meals for Cambodians through the year. By potentially restricting the river's flow, the Laotian dam threatens all of that.
But it gets even worse. Breaking ground, Laotian officials said they hoped the new dam would help vault their nation from its status as one of the world's poorest. Many Lao have never even seen a light bulb. But in fact, a short time later the government signed a contract to sell most, if not all, of the electricity to Thailand. And Laos' unaccountable, corrupt leaders will almost certainly pocket the proceeds.
Still, Laos is subject to a perverse form of dam justice. Now, all of a sudden, those same leaders are quite angry about still another dam China is building on the Mekong just north of the Laotian border.
Just recently, China made public its plans to build more than 60 new hydroelectric dams in the next few years, potentially setting off multiple disputes. One is already under construction on the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which originates in Tibet and flows south to Bangladesh and India, where it's called the Brahmaputra.
China's dam "will prove disastrous to the downstream regions of the northeast," declared Rajnath Singh, a prominent Indian politician. But China is unrepentant.
In the Middle East, Egypt has asserted full control over the Nile River since 1929, when the British colonial government prepared a "treaty" reserving 80 percent of the Nile's water for Egypt and Sudan. Ever since, Egypt has insisted that the treaty's provisions are still relevant and threatened to attack neighbors who dared breach it. After all, for all of time Egyptians have lived off the river, catching fish and using river silt as crop nutrients.
Right now, however, Egypt is locked in foment over the Muslim Brotherhood's faltering attempts at governance, and its upstream neighbors don't seem to fear it any longer. So Ethiopia is now building what it calls the Grand Renaissance Dam, a $4.8 billion hydroelectric behemoth.
Ethiopia plans to create a vast reservoir behind the dam to assure a constant flow of water. But hydrologists say it could take five years to fill, "drastically affecting agriculture, electricity and water supply downstream," Haydar Yousif, a Sudanese hydrologist, told Middle East Magazine last month. What's more, he added, 3 billion cubic meters of water will evaporate from the dam's reservoir each year.
Late last year, WikiLeaks made public a memo in which the Egyptian government threatened to deploy fighter-bombers to destroy Ethiopia's dam. The government protested that the memo was written in 2010, before the revolution, and was not relevant now.
But if the Nile begins drying up because of that dastardly dam, Egypt may change its mind.