We in the United States may not pay attention to hydroelectric projects because we went dam crazy decades ago , but the world right now is undergoing a massive and dangerous craze in building hydroelectric dams which are often very damaging to the livelihood of people in the search for electricity. Having already commented at some length about Burma’s massive dam-building craze to provide power for China (and not even itself) , today I had the chance to read some rather skeptical reports about a boom in building dams in rural Laos along the critical Mekong River . Even Thailand is not exempted from this dam building boom.
I read earlier today about the dam projects in Laos and their risky nature for poor and rural Laos peasants who are being sold on prosperity and not aware of the risks or dangers of hydroelectric dams (of which there are dozens in the pipeline in Laos). What really caused the point to hit home was a series of rather innocent questions from one of my Lahu students here at Legacy. He comes from a very small Lahu mountain village in the north of Thailand. His village is so rural that one cannot get any cell phone reception there at all, and it is high in the mountains in the very far north of Thailand, near the Burmese border.
After class this afternoon, this student asked me how to spell and pronounce hydroelectricity. I was a bit puzzled, and figured it would be easier to draw the answer. So I drew a river with a dam across it and electric wires running from it on the board. Then the student drew a picture of his little village and the “house” that they are building to take water from the river and run it through turbines in the mountain. By the time we were both done drawing and explaining (and I had drawn another picture of a turbine), he understood and I understood that his little village was getting a hydroelectric dam.
This greatly puzzled me. Apparently, in the mind of whoever makes rural electrification decisions in Thailand (certainly not I), it was more cost effective to build a dam in the mountain river by the village than to shoot transmission wires from “civilization.” Hearing the student talk about the dreams of himself and his fellow villagers for lights and refrigerators (another word I had to spell for him), I wondered if he and the Laos peasant villagers were sold the same bill of goods, and if both will find themselves disappointed by the reality.
Far be it from me to disparage any village in the boondocks from having the lights and fans and fridges that a westerner like me takes for granted. But it hardly seems proportionate to build a dam (with who knows what problems that will create for a farming village in the long term) simply to electrify a small and obscure mountain village. I can’t help but think there is some larger game in town. Either there are some political favors being done here, or the real impetus for the hydroelectric product is a far larger user of electricity and a far wealthier customer than a small Lahu mountain village. It simply does not make sense to build a dam simply for one small village, though if one wants to build a dam in a specific location because of geological factors, it is certainly wise to try to curry the favor of those downstream (fortunately) villagers who will live in the shadow of the hydroelectric project. One wonders if those promises made are going to be genuinely realized or if they are just promises in the dark.
At any rate, the undeveloped world appears to have gone dam crazy. And that’s no wonder. Nuclear energy is seen (whether accurately or not) as extremely risky. Fossil fuels are widely criticized for their role in greenhouse gas emission, and I have not heard of any great coal supplies in Southeast Asia (at least not to my knowledge). What Southeast Asia has a lot of is water (sometimes too much of it), and it is no wonder that they use what they have to get what they want–the power and energy and electricity that Westerners have.
And again, as is always the case here, I feel horribly complicit and also deeply unhappy with what is going on. For one, as a westerner (and an engineer-in-training in civil engineering no less) I have taken advantage of our infrastructure and our electricity and taken it for granted my whole life. I do not want to return to the days before electricity, to go back to the times of whale oil lamps or candles. And yet I dislike the destruction and waste of so much good and beautiful land. If only there was a way to have both development and modernization without destruction. I wish I had better answers for these starry-eyed villagers because I cannot criticize their desires and longings nor do I rejoice at the destruction of their virgin watersheds. I just wish I knew a better answer for both them and for myself.