Category Archives: Sustainability and Resource Management

Silence of the Dammed

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In the ongoing controversy over the costs and benefits of hydropower in the Mekong River basin, there is much debate among governments, private business and civil society especially in Thailand and internationally. But one voice seems to be always silent in this debate: that of the local communities of Laos in whose country at least two mainstream Mekong dams are being built or planned and who will face the brunt of the projects’ impacts.

We never get to hear or see an informed opinion from local communities in Laos about the dams under planning and construction although many of these communities would face being displaced or resettled and lose their fisheries and other river-based livelihoods.

Laos is often perceived as a peaceful, Buddhist country with verdant mountains, rivers and a rural (and laid-back) way of life. While this may be true on the surface, it is a daily fact of life for Laotians that the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains control over the country’s press and civil society.

This also gives the impression that Laos has for the most part a passive citizenry that is least interested in politics. During three years of my field research in Laos, however, I found many Laotians I met always enjoyed talking about politics with me. They have access to Thailand’s radio and television channels, and understanding Thai language is not a problem. Its just that the politics that they could freely talk about was about Thailand not Laos.

It is not surprising then that the debate about hydropower in Laos is met with silence among Lao people, especially communities, and the people who do voice their opinions are usually those in government or the hydropower business.

Missing voices in Don Sahong

I interviewed people about 10 km from the site of the Don Sahong Hydropower Project (DSHP) located on the Mekong River’s mainstream in the Siphandone area of southern Laos, less than two kilometers upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border.1

The Don Sahong Dam threatens the rich subsistence and commercial fisheries in Laos and could pose impacts also in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. It also threatens the last remaining population of the Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos whose habitat is the Siphandone area. Moreover, the planned water diversion from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls could undermine the area’s tourism.

The dam builders and government officials have organized many public information activities about the dam and social or environmental assessment studies to evaluate the potential impacts of the DSHP.

I asked my interviewees – the local people in the area – whether they were involved in these studies. Most said they have never engaged in these studies, and did not know about the DSHP’s expected impacts.

“Laos has only one communist party”. Local people always repeat this sentence several times, before somebody clarifies watchfully: “Nobody is allowed to express their opinions against the party. Whether we like the Don Sahong dam or not, it will be constructed..

When I asked them if they know about the potential impacts of the dam, a fisher replied: “I cannot foresee what will happen if the Don Sahong dam is completed. The officials said nothing is going to harm our life. However, I am worried about the reduction in fishing.”

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Dam developers have announced no-fishing zones around the Don Sahong dam site although local fishers have used these areas for their livelihoods for more than a hundred years. (Photo by JeeRung.)

To my surprise, many did not even understand the concept of a dam. One sixty-five year old woman said: “I do not know what is a dam. Will a dam be built here? I asked my children to explain the meaning of a dam.” Another fisher asked: “What is the Don Sahong dam? I never heard any news if it will be located here?”

“Public information activities”

The public information activities being held by the DSHP developer are not like a “public hearing” process where citizens can freely debate the merits and demerits of the project, ask for information, provide alternatives, raise concerns, etc. In fact, the DSHP’s public activities does not include the free, prior and informed consent from potentially affected people before going ahead with the project. Moreover, the available documents such as EIA, mitigation and other plans are not made available in the local language.

I conducted in-depth interviews with local people who had an opportunity to participate in the DSHP’s public information activities. Most interviewees said the information they received were about the dam’s positive impacts provided by the dam developers, but there was no information about the negative impacts. The summary of these efforts at misinformation by the dam proponents are provided in the table below.

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Restrictions on media and other freedoms, weak civil society

There are few local civil society or nongovernmental organizations (CSOs/NGOs) dealing with issues of hydropower projects and monitoring them in Laos. Moreover, any emergent grassroots-level NGO working on public policy monitoring are viewed with government suspicion as politically subversive troublemakers. Although a few international CSOs especially based outside Laos have voiced critical views about the Mekong hydropower projects in Laos, their views are ignored by official state policy.

The citizenry of Laos (apart from state officials and some influential groups) has only minimal access to information about pending legislation, changes in regulations, or government policy. There are no established mechanisms for government consultation with civil society groups.

Lao people are also subject to severe restrictions on freedom of expression. The government controls all print and electronic media through the state news agency, Khaosan Pathet Lao. All media content is vetted by the Ministry of Information and Culture. A press law announced in 2001 that would allow limited private media ownership has not yet been adopted. If enacted, it would still impose strict controls, including the power to close publications deemed to be “anti-government”.

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Once Don Sahong is completed, the Don Sadam secondary school will be taken for the site of the hydropower transmission station. (Photo by JeeRung.)

Freedom of speech is restricted by provisions in the penal code that forbid “slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.”

Article 59 of the penal code sets a prison sentence of 1 to 5 years for anti-government propaganda. Journalists who do not file “constructive reports” or who attempt to “obstruct” the work of the LPRP may be subject to jail terms of 5 to 15 years. Previous violators are believed to have incurred prison sentences of between 1 and 5 years2. The authorities usually harass the English-language press when it does not toe the official line.

The act of expressing views opposite to the official view of the state administration or public policies in public spaces is considered taboo. Lao authorities have consistently suppressed political antagonists, cracked down on those expressing critical opinions with arbitrary imprisonments and sometimes enforced disappearance3. The most high-profile case has been the “disappearance” of Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone. He was last seen in Vientiane in December 2012. Through these measures, Laotian authoritaries have instilled a fear among the populace of free expression of views.

Given this situation described above, it is not surprising that we do not hear about or see the genuine participation or expression of critical views by local communities in Laos regarding the Mekong hydropower projects.

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This article written by JeeRung was originally posted here on the Mekong Commons site.  It is reposted with permission of the author and Mekong Commons.

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Kunming to invest in public electric car fleet

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The Kunming municipal government is moving toward the acquisition of all-electric cars that will be made publicly available by year’s end. Once delivered, the vehicles would become the centerpiece of a public transportation initiative designed to reduce general traffic congestion and cut down on overall tailpipe emissions in the Spring City.

Kunming deputy mayor Wang Chunyan (王春燕) traveled to Hangzhou on a fact-finding mission concerned with the scheme earlier this week. While there, he met with government counterparts and automotive industry leaders to discuss the city’s electric car-sharing fleet — a first in China when inaugurated in 2013.

Hangzhou officials have been lauded for the implementation of a public car rental system that relies on automation and cars using no gasoline. Wang wants Kunming to emulate this system. Following a meeting with Hangzhou deputy mayor Zhang Zheng (张耕), Wang told reporters he expects the Spring City to make an initial purchase of 2,000 electric cars by December 2015.

At its inception, Hangzhou’s ‘micro-transport’ (微公交) system made available two thousand electric cars built by Zhejiang-based Kandi Technologies, a subsidiary of manufacturer Geely. People who need to rent a car for a few hours or days can present their national identification cards and driver’s licenses, along with valid credit cards, at rental centers resembling outsized vending machines. Once registered, customers choose between two- or four-seat cars, both with top speeds of 80 kilometers per hour and a single charge range of roughly 90 kilometers.

Two years on, the Hangzhou fleet has quadrupled in size to 9,850 vehicles. They rent for between 20 and 25 yuan per hour, a fee that includes insurance. Long-term leases are also available — 9,000 yuan for year-long use of a two-passenger car and 14,400 yuan for a four-passenger version. The cars can be re-powered, or have their batteries replaced, at any rental facility or at an expanding network of quick-charge locations.

Deputy mayor Wang said Kunming would adopt the Hangzhou project and adapt it for implementation in the city. Kandi cars will be utilized, but a pricing scheme has yet to be announced. Kunming urban planners want to alleviate at least some of the traffic jams that stifle commuters on a daily basis. Wang’s proposal also targets the related problem of perpetual parking shortages — which once caused some garage spaces to fetch yearly prices of 180,000 yuan (US$29,000).

Kunming’s frenzy of car buying perhaps reached its zenith in 2010, when 1,000 new cars were being registered in the city each day. Costly infrastructure projects aimed at easing traffic congestion have been largely hit-or-miss. This newest solution of publicly sharing e-vehicles has become quite popular in China’s largest metropolises, as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chengdu and now Kunming have all followed Hangzhou’s lead.

This article written by Patrick Scally was originally published here on the GoKunming.com site on July 16, 2015.

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Filed under China, Current Events, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Yunnan Province

New Research: Rubber Expansion Threatens Biodiversity and Livelihoods

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Xishuangbanna prefecture in China’s Yunnan province has seen an explosion of rubber cultivation in the past 15 years.

Increasing amounts of environmentally valuable and protected land are being cleared for rubber plantations that are economically unsustainable, new research suggests. More widespread monitoring is vital to design policy that protects livelihoods and environments.

The research was recently published in Global Environmental Change and constitutes a joint effort by scientists at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) East and Central Asia office, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the University of Singapore and the East-West Center.

Although global natural rubber prices have fluctuated strongly in the last fifteen years, they are likely to continue rising as synthetic alternatives are no match for natural latex. This financial incentive, as well as the expansion of oil palm, an even more lucrative rival, has caused rubber plantations to expand beyond their tropical comfort zone in Indonesia and into the margins of continental south-east Asia.

This has brought wealth to some, but not all, say the researchers. As marginal lands are often too dry, too slanted, too high, too wet, too cold, too windy, or a combination of the above, rubber plantations require increasing amounts of input in the form of fertilizer, pesticides, and labour in order to maintain yield levels – and even then may not be profitable.

The research also suggests that climate change will render 70% of current and another 55% of future plantation areas environmentally poorly suited for rubber. Smallholder farmers’ livelihoods face additional threat from price fluctuations, loss of food security, and the narrowing of income sources.

The environment also suffers. The surge in rubber demand saw valuable and even protected lands being converted into rubber plantations, drastically reducing carbon stocks, soil productivity, water availability, and biodiversity. This is particularly tragic given the high chance of failure.

“There is clear potential for loss-loss scenarios when forest is being cleared for rubber plantations that are not economically sustainable, and that have negative impacts on soils and water balance,” says lead researcher Antje Ahrends from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the World Agroforestry Centre.

Widespread monitoring of rubber expansion and its economic sustainability will prove vital for land-use planning and policy interventions. The team argue that carefully formulated payment for ecosystem services programmes, and a certification scheme for “environmentally friendly rubber” have potential to reduce the environmental impact of rubber expansion while ensuring the supply.

“Oil palm has received much more global attention than rubber, but in fact environmental and social impacts are comparable and the dynamics of the two are related. It may be time for a roundtable on sustainable rubber where the private sector, public parties and scientists can try to bridge the various interests and agree on standards,” says Meine Van Noordwijk, chief science advisor at the World Agroforestry Centre.

This article was authored by Sander Van de Moortel and originally published on the World Agroforestry Centre website. The article is republished, in its entirety, with full permission from the author. 

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Filed under Agriculture, Environment and sustainability, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management

Bright City Lights: Urban Trends and Futures in Southeast Asia

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

Traffic congestion in Bangkok

This year, Jakarta earned the unsavory title of “World’s Worst Gridlock.” The city of 23 million is now reputed for having to most congested streets in the world. Another Indonesian city, Surabaya, took the number four spot. If you continue down the rankings to number eight, you will find yet another Southeast Asian metropolis – Bangkok.

The tendency for gridlock in these cities is more than a daily inconvenience for residents. These levels of traffic congestion are indicators of a trend in the wider Southeast Asian region. In this part of the world, urban populations are growing faster than municipal and national governments can handle.  When managed sustainably, cities can be a valuable vehicle for economic development and socio-demographic transition. For example, cities can facilitate productive trans-border connections and slow birthrates, which enables more women to enter the workforce. Nevertheless, urbanization is a double-edged sword.

Rapid, unplanned growth results in unsustainable development that threatens social, economic, and environmental stability.  In a landmark report that analyzes 10 years of urbanization data from East Asia, the World Bank suggests that urbanization in East and Southeast Asia will have “long-lasting effects on the region’s social, economic, and environmental future.” Understanding the growth trends in Southeast Asia will boost the region’s ability to avoid the pitfalls associated with the rapid type of urbanization that has been observed over the past decade.  In other words, the region needs to pay attention to these changes if they don’t want to spend the rest of their down time stuck in traffic.

Dominant Urbanization Trends

Between 1990 and 2010, Southeast Asia increased its urban population by at least 12%, per United Nations estimates. The fact that Asian cities are growing is not a fresh realization, but few observers of these phenomena have questioned how these cities are growing, instead of just how big.

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For example, in the past 10 years, East Asia has experienced more urban growth in small- and mid-sized cities than in major metropolitan areas. This has several more nuanced implications for the region. Successful development in smaller metropolitan areas could relieve much of the pressure put on high-population areas. For example, a Thai development strategy used tax breaks to encourage people to take up residence in the regions outside of Bangkok . Unfortunately, the government failed to provide infrastructure and facilities to support business development in outlying regions. Bangkok remained the prime area for investment, and the program floundered.

Megacities like Bangkok often gain international reputations that afford them opportunities to advertise for foreign direct investment.Small and mid-sized cities, on the other hand, have to fight for attention and funding from national governments and lack the resources necessary to advertise to a wider range of investors. Take the case of Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, two metro areas in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is the country’s largest city and Da Nang was only about an eighth of HCMC’s size in 2011. However, the rate of urban population change in Da Nang was 4.5% as of 2010 and HCMC was 3.9%. While this may appear to be a narrow margin between two cities, imagine the national impact when every mid-sized city in a country grows at this rate. The need for infrastructure would surely outpace the investment available to these smaller metropolitan areas.

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In addition to major growth in small- and mid-sized cities, the fastest growth of urban population was experienced in East Asia’s low- and middle-income countries, namely Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Japan, South Korea, and even Thailand place far behind these countries in their rates of urban land and urban population increase.

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The less developed countries in the region face administrative and financial challenges on a national level, which creates an environment where a single city in the country, often times the capital city, experiences the majority of the urbanization. The massive, resource-hogging cities that result are known as “primate cities” in the vernacular of urban studies scholars. Concentrating an entire country’s political, cultural, and economic capital in one area creates national vulnerability if there is a crisis in that single city.

Urban primacy is especially detrimental for a country when there is massive migration to the core and a development lag in the country’s periphery. This phenomenon plays out the same way in developing countries across the globe: Rural poor migrate to urban areas in search of better economic opportunities, but financially and administratively inept governments cannot provide migrants with adequate resources for finding jobs and homes. Densely populated and amenity-poor settlements result as migrants join the informal economy of the city.

Bangkok, Yangon, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Jakarta, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur have all reached primacy within their respective countries. As previously mentioned, Bangkok is one city that has acknowledged its primate city status and attempted to reduce its dominance of Thailand’s geography. Countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar will also need to take steps to ensure that Phnom Penh and Yangon do not morph into unsustainable networks of unplanned settlements. The challenge lies in the fact that countries like Cambodia and Myanmar lack the administrative and financial capacity to shift rural to urban migration trends. However, it is promising that smaller cities in the region are doing most of the growth, even if they have a long way to go before they can compete with these metro areas.

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Finally, Southeast Asia’s urban populations are growing faster than the region’s urban land. At present, the main reason for dense urban growth in the region can be attributed to the lack infrastructure available on the periphery – a far cry from the smart growth policies that many cities implement to promote compact growth. Even so, high-density urban growth is associated with many positive outcomes when it is effectively provided for. Namely, high-density development tends to have fewer negative environmental consequences than urban sprawl. Kuala Lumpur is actually an exception to this trend in Southeast Asia, and has been criticized for failing to compact its urban growth. A heavy reliance on automobiles has been detrimental to the city, but other emerging urban areas in the region have the chance to get ahead of the car craze and promote smart growth that emphasizes efficient land use and practical transportation.

By and large, dense urban growth still has a number of caveats. As mentioned, the reason density in the region is high is due to a lack of amenities outside of core cities. If population growth outpaces the ability of the core to provide services, the quality of life in many cities will quickly degrade. Overcrowding is also a serious challenge that many cities in the developing world are faced with, and Southeast Asia is no exception. Comprehensive urban planning will be necessary to prevent overcrowding from becoming another major trend in the region.

Urban Planning and Governance: Missing Links

When you combine all of the formulas for urban growth in Southeast Asia, the results are two-sided: There is potential for inclusive, sustainable urban areas, but there is also a chance for the region to mushroom into a clutter of poorly planned development. When planning is neglected, poverty, environmental degradation, and land use conflicts ensure. For Southeast Asian cities to avoid falling victim to, say, the level of air quality degradation that many Chinese cities now face, spatial planning and good governance are crucial.

A 2009 assessment of urban governance prepared for UN Habitat is grim: the report asserts that the capacity of both local and national governments in the region is fragmented and weak, with a serious lack of simple management skills and adequate budgeting for necessary infrastructure. “Good” urban governance requires transparency, political will, and funding, but many Southeast Asian governments underperform in all three categories. There is always a propensity for countries to urbanize, regardless of political stability. With that being said, Southeast Asia’s urbanization trends alone illustrate that not all growth is good growth. A solid political environment at least ensures that there is a structure for discussing urban needs when they arise, although definitive actions need to be taken if there is going to be any change.

Administrative fragmentation is another burgeoning obstacle for Southeast Asian boomtowns. This term refers to the spillover of growth from one municipality into neighboring jurisdictions. One example is Manila’s urban area, which spans 85 municipalities and seven provinces. The World Bank predicts that many of the growing small- and medium-sized cities will soon experience this type of administrative challenge, if they are not experiencing it already.  Different jurisdictions often struggle to coordinate plans for infrastructure development and management, leaving many areas underserved.

The ecosystems impact of such trans-boundary urban areas is also notable because rivers, lakes, and forests require cooperative management.  Overcoming administrative fragmentation appears daunting in a region where political stability is scarce, but regional planning associations have proved to be an effective way to manage fragmented urban areas. The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) is one such organization tasked with monitoring urban development, but it struggles with a low budget and limited regulatory power. Even so, the future of many urban agglomerations in the region would look brighter if such organizations were widely utilized. Urban management organizations have the ability to pull multiple institutional actors together when questions arise about different stakeholders’ opinions.

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Urban Futures

Southeast Asia’s urban population has not yet reached 50% of total population, an indicator that more urban growth is still to come. The future of the region’s urban areas will in part be dictated by the trends that have been observed in the past decade, but also by events that remain to be seen. Climate change is one of the foremost worries in the region, but political stability and economic productivity will also play roles in the ability of the region’s cities to develop sustainably. Metropolitan areas in the region need to get ahead of urban growth and expansion in order to take some of the uncertainty out of the future.

Climatology experts maintain that no part of the world will remain unaffected by climate change, but Southeast Asia is actually a particularly high-risk area. A number of Southeast Asia’s urban centers falter in climate change scenarios that involve sea level rise, drought, saltwater intrusion, and severe weather events, and famine. As metropolitan areas in the region continue to develop, resilience is a topic that needs to be kept in mind. Cities like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh need to have planes in place for flooding and typhoon events. Manila needs to ask itself how to feed a metropolitan area of 16 million if crop productivity plummets due to droughts or heat waves.

Besides the need for climate change adaptation measures, Southeast Asia also represents a large market for mitigation efforts. By reducing dependency on cars and carbon-based energy sources, the region can bypass being a part of the carbon problem. China and the West used coal to fuel their urban expansion, but Southeast Asia has the opportunity to exclude GHG heavy industries and develop using environmentally sound technologies. As new attempts at international climate treaties are rolled out, it will be interesting to see where many Southeast Asian nations fall on the spectrum of mitigation requirements.

Historically, developing countries have been held to lower emission reduction standards than countries in the developed world, but countries like Malaysia and Thailand have potentially reached a threshold where they will be counted among the world’s more developed countries, and thus required to reduced their emissions further. In any case, climate mitigation is good for Southeast Asia if it means that the impacts of climate change on the region will be softer than current predictions.

Political stability is also a recurring obstacle for a number of Southeast Asian countries. Years of stability and growth have been punctuated by sudden regime changes that have reduced the level of confidence both Southeast Asian nationals and outsiders have in the region’s governance. Urban planning is an intensely political process, so the status of a country’s national government directly effects urban development. If establishing effective national governments proves to be too much of a challenge for parts of the region, how can we expect urban management to get the attention that it requires?  Metropolitan development authorities and NGOs could potentially help cities weather the storm if political institutions fail, but finding consistent, effective governance is critical for the future of Southeast Asia’s cities.

Future economic development in Southeast Asia will also continue to shape urban areas in the region. Low-cost manufacturing has played a significant role in growing many of the region’s largest cities, but that may change as smaller urban areas take up lower-technology manufacturing as well. Some suggest that economic outcomes are better in regions where the largest cities take on service industries and high-tech manufacturing and the smaller cities concentrate low-tech industries. However, this is impossible if the infrastructure needs of smaller cities remain unmet. Investment in Southeast Asia’s small- and mid- sized cities is an important step that the region can take to move towards greater economic output.

Urbanization in Southeast Asia has reached a clear bottom line: In order to reap the benefits of healthy, innovative urban areas, the region needs to raise its expectations for planning and governance. If current regional urbanization trends continue to play out, there is potential for Southeast Asia to be the home of several highly productive urban areas. Investing in small and mid-sized cities will create robust national economies and capitalizing on dense growth will keep the environmental impact of cities to a minimum. However, if planning and coordination are left on the wayside, the region will be set on a course for vulnerability to any sort of crisis that should arise.

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Filed under ASEAN, Cambodia, China, Current Events, Economic development, Environment and sustainability, Governance, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Philippines, Sustainability and Resource Management, Thailand, Vietnam

Thinking Outside the Dome

The meteoric popularity of Chai Jing’s “Under the Dome,” attests to the Chinese public’s readiness for stronger environmental policies to tackle air pollution. Despite its banning last Friday, the documentary’s apparent support from certain branches of the bureaucracy, and increasing pro-environment rhetoric coming into this year’s hosting of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (also referred to as the Lianghui) seem to suggest that change may be in the air when it comes to tackling China’s smog. What is less clear is what the hidden consequences of these efforts to combat urban air pollution will be.

A fresh shipment of coal from western China.

In September 2013, the State Council promulgated the Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control (APPC), which contained directives addressing China’s air crisis. These included a reduction in coal’s share in China’s energy profile to 65% by 2017, reduced capacity in high polluting industries like steel and cement production, and improved fuel quality standards.[i] The next year, Premier Li Keqiang famously declared “war on pollution,” spotlighting the issue as a top-tier policy concern.

Regionally, the government has banned new construction of highly-polluting industrial projects such as coal power plants and steel factories in key cities on the east coast. However, the push to curb air pollution in Beijing is driving the coal industry westward, where massive coal bases are being established to feed China’s need for energy. Environmental activists are concerned that because of the massive quantities of water needed for coal processing — up to 20% of China’s water resources are used to produce energy from coal[ii]— the additional strain of a larger western coal industry may wreak havoc on water tables and food resources in a region already plagued by desertification.

Distribution of coal reserves in China.

Air pollution activists also have good reasons to be concerned about this trend. Northern China not only suffers from air quality problems arising from pollutants, but also from periodic dust storms that roll in from China’s northwest.  Relocating coal plants, especially coal-to-chemical projects, and other water intensive polluters to these regions is an invitation for ecological disaster. Worse, Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections show a potential for increased desertification in China due to global warming. Increased coal capacity will continue to threaten the ecosystems of northwestern China and thus the health of China’s citizens elsewhere. The specter of intensified dust storms descending on Beijing each spring should give those concerned about air pollution reason to demand strict controls on heavy industry and coal processing in northwestern China, not just in Beijing and its direct environs.

The upshot of the energy development story in China’s northwest is that many of the same areas endowed with rich coal reserves are also blessed with massive wind resources. In the last decade, the central government has actively pushed for the development of wind power, resulting in a 73-fold increase in wind capacity since 2006.[iii] Moreover, the same electricity corridors built to accommodate China’s new coal bases will also serve large wind farms. Much, however, is still up in the air. Will wind power be given priority in power transmission eastward? Will wind power have the funding and support it needs? And what will be the consequences of China’s massive coal development in the west? These are questions that a concerned Chinese citizenry will need to address in order to breathe free.

Charles Vest is a freelance translator and environmental activist based in Beijing. He researches climate change and environmental policy in China

[i] Cornot-Gandolphe, Sylvie, “China’s Coal Market: Can Beijing Tame ‘King Coal’?” Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, http://www.oxfordenergy.org/2014/12/chinas-coal-market-can-beijing-tame-king-coal-2/

[ii] China’s Water-Energy-Food Roadmap, accessible from http://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/global-choke-point-report-chinas-water-energy-food-roadmap

[iii] Li Xin, “Decarbonizing China’s Power System with Wind Power — The Past and the Future,” Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, http://www.oxfordenergy.org/2015/01/decarbonizing-chinas-power-system-wind-power-past-future/

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Filed under China, Current Events, Energy, Environment and sustainability, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Technology, water

China’s Upscaling of Potato Production Sprouts Controversy

 

Farmers in China's Gansu province show off increases in potato yields

Farmers in China’s Gansu province show off increases in potato yields

The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture started the year with an awkwardly named but nevertheless resonating event: at the “Potato Staple-ization Strategy Research Symposium” Vice-minister of Agriculture Yu Xinrong proclaimed that potatoess shall become China’s fourth staple food.  That netizens tweeted more than half a million responses on Sina Weibo about this denotes more than sheer curiosity. While many of the conversations focused on a perceived Chinese consumers’ tardiness in getting on the Columbian Exchange bandwagon, the announcement could have an impact throughout the country and affect the ethnic minority regions and the Southwest in particular.

Historically speaking, potatoes, an American contribution to the world’s food basket, quickly became a mainstay on the tables through most of the Old World, despite initial trepidation among the Europeans.  Research suggests they might have contributed extra nutrition and thus the population boom that brought about the Industrial Revolution. The Irish Famine ensued, and the rest of history is laced with potato jokes.

Spud Stigma

In China, however, spuds have largely remained within the category of dishes (菜) rather than the staple source of carbohydrates and thus energy of the meal (主食). Unlike the other new comer, corn, which has successfully shed its foreign flair, the name Western taro (洋芋) has stuck with taters and is further strengthened by deep-fried potatoes served up by fast food industry that positions it as a Westernized modern food choice. The association of potatoes with foreignness has also been brought to the New World by immigrants, and in a subaltern twist the term potato queen is used to describe Asian gay men that prefer non-Asian partners.

Besides foreigners, the other factor that gives spuds a bad name is poverty. An unnamed researcher has been widely cited saying that potatoes are the staple food for 75% of China’s officially poor counties, where potatoes are consumed “instead of cereals” up to half of the year. What’s more– a lot of that poverty is concentrated in ethnic minority areas: the backward denizens of supposedly sad places like Yunnan, Guizhou, and Gansu rely on spuds to scrape out a living.

The reverse side of the perceived unfortunate overlap between ethnicity, poverty, and potatoes is something that a southern Yunnanese acquaintance imparted over lunch the other day: spuds are grown for oneself. Adapted for a wide variety of ecological conditions and productive even in poor soils and under other unfavorable circumstances, potatoes provide easy and reliable sustenance. More importantly, in the words of anthropologist James Scott, potatoes can be “appropriation-free”: bulky, low in commercial value, and harvested intermittently, potatoes like other tubers are a good way of keeping the tax-collectors and their ilk at bay. It is no coincidence that potatoes are so prevalent in refuge zones as different as Guyuan in southern Ningxia and the balmy mountain slopes of Yunnan and Guangxi.

Cumbersome taters

While direct requisition of crops is not much of a concern for farmers today, especially since the abolishing of farming taxes in 2006, potatoes are nevertheless strongly affected by farming policies and national food security strategies. For justifiable historic reasons the Chinese government, which is linked to some of history’s worst natural and man-made famines and related unrest, at all levels is extremely concerned with ensuring availability of food. With national grain self-sufficiency as the core principle, the central government has consistently demanded and incentivized production of staple crops through a mix of administrative mandate to grow certain crops, direct subsidies to house-holders and larger producers, and intervention pricing. While intervention purchases and stockpiling has been extended to the somewhat-ridiculed strategic swine reserve, it still mostly focuses on grains and shuns spuds because of the difficulty of appropriation.

Unlike bacon, you can’t just put some taters on ice for a few years, or depending on the situation either cellar the spuds for a good while or alternatively sell at a commodities exchange in Chicago if the price is right. Potatoes don’t keep well and the bulk makes them a lousy commodity for shipping. Despite globally being the fourth most significant staple (hence the frequent misstatement in the press that somehow the UN has declared potatoes as one of the global four staples), the governmental preference for a government-focused national-level food security rather than rural household level food-sufficiency has led to spuds falling behind in output growth. However, food security (what the Chinese government calls 粮食安全, not to be confused with food safety – 食品安全) is primarily concerned with the provision of food at the national level through market mechanisms rather than household self-provision. In other words, there is no tater scarcity at the household level, where those who choose to grow them can have their fill, but that does not result in peaceful minds behind the planners’ desks.

It is not to say that potatoes are some sort of primeval anarchist food taking on the capitalist-with-Chinese-peculiarities hegemony. For one, local governments have been as quick as ever to get their paws in the potato pot and are pushing potatoes as one of the options for farming development. According to the National Statistics Bureau, between 2006 and 2012, total potato output increased by about 40%. That’s a solid increase of over more than 5% a year, albeit rather low when compared with the expansion of many other indicators over the same time period. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, China is the world’s largest producer of potatoes. Mind you, the FAO estimate for 2006 exceeds the Chinese central government’s estimates 5-fold, so go figure on who’s right.

It would also be a mistake to say that there is much pride in the importance in the potato in the regions where potatoes are important to the diet. During a recent month-long research stay with various rural households in Ningxia, I heard several apologies for offering too many potatoes and not enough rice to the guest. My insistence that, having grown up on a Latvian potato farm, I gladly take spuds over rice any time was accepted with a polite smile and puzzlement over the impossibility of such a statement. The shame of living off potatoes even by those who grow them is an obvious obstacle in increasing the demand for fresh potatoes and possibly even derived dry goods.

Technical solutions

The drive to (let’s borrow a word from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ repertoire) hype spuds encounters the simplest of economic realities: if there was demand for potatoes the farmers would meet it despite regulations slanted against it. After all, regulations have not stopped urbanization and the emergence of a secondary market for theoretically untradeable farmland. And if indeed the potatoes were so good for you as some have suggested, the market would have overcome the consumer acceptance obstacles described earlier and we would be eating spuds left and right.

The Ministry of Agriculture’s decision to “staple-fy” spuds should be interpreted as increased pressure to expand potato production – the stated goal is to almost double the current reported plantations of 80 million mu to 150 million mu. That’s increase of almost half a million hectares. New investment in growing technologies and varieties will be made available, which has predictably caused knee-jerk concerns about potential weakly regulated experiments with genetic modification. It also means a push towards more industrially processed and thus durable potato products, particularly using potato starch that, unsurprisingly, transforms the crop into long shelf-life products favored by retail supply chain managers and government food provision planners alike. To celebrate the new national potato staple-ization strategy, Shanxi potato entrepreneur Feng Xiaoyan, who goes by @sisterpotato on Sina Weibo, has launched a product line of potato mooncakes.

And while you praise the crackdown on superfluous gifts and thus a reduced (albeit not eliminated) chance of getting your next year’s Mid-Autumn bonus in the form of candied fork floss covered potato starch mooncakes, the good folks in China’s agricultural research and development industry are getting ready to partake in the expected windfall in research funding and new experiments. Local government officials and their cousins who own the farming companies are looking forward to filling their coffers with infrastructure programs and potential subsidies.

A curious and unfortunate potential side-effect of expanded cultivation is the replacement of existing technologies and varieties with improved yields with the accompanying other side of the coin– disappearance of existing livelihoods and genetic as well as cultural diversity. While the farmers of hilly dry parts of Yunnan will not be marching down the streets of Kunming against Monsanto (in fact, poor Monsanto is unlikely to be able to stick its finger in this pie), the fact remains that intensifying farming can leave the growers and the rest of us with fewer resources for when the bad times of crop failure, pests, or climate change hit.

Interestingly, this year’s Central Government Document Number 1, the annual proclamation of rural and development priorities, did not address potatoes and did not call for any expansion of the staple policies to include new crops. The State Council might not be as excited about spuds as Ministry of Agriculture is. Just like many issues, this one will be decided in the well-ventilated halls of newly built governmental districts with limited direct public input. Regardless though of whether one roots for the spud or takes a more tater-phobic stance, the potato staple-ization controversy has stirred minds and brought to dinner table conversation some of the fundamental issues at play in Chinese agriculture, particularly in the economically marginal regions.

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Meet the Salween

salween

I heard the name “Salween” before. I didn’t know exactly where it is. I knew it was somewhere close.

Somehow its name portrays a feeling of fearless turbulence. Perhaps, it’s the sound of “S” and the rhyme between “ween” and a Thai word “wian” from the word “wonwian” meaning lingering and wandering which makes me think of the word “namwon” meaning whirlpool.

There is a legend about the two great sister rivers of Southeast Asia: the Salween and the Mekong.

And this is how the story goes:

One day, the two rivers decided to go to sea. They agreed to travel through the mountains together and stopped whenever they wanted to. The Mekong slowly spanned its waterline through the landscape while the Salween hurried its way to claim the frontline.

After rushing ahead, the Salween decided to stop for a quick nap to wait for the Mekong. Days passed and the Mekong was still absent. The Salween thought the Mekong took a chance when it was sleeping to get ahead—to be the first to see the ocean. Angry and feeling betrayed, the Salween rushed through the channels and aimed to destroy any rock that stood in its way. Its wild speed was felt by those living nearby. The Mekong, on the other end, finally arrived at where the Salween was napping. Not seeing its younger sibling did not push it to move any faster. The Mekong continued to crawl and collect waters along the way; it even went off-route to carry fish and water into Tonle Sap before it finally reached the sea.

It is said that many communities believe in this story, though I have only heard it from two people. The anecdote may vary. Though it does resemble the turtle and the hare tale, but stories and legends are much better tools to narrate and describe the difference between the two.

Perhaps, it is the Salween’s anger that makes it the last free flowing river in China and Southeast Asia until 2015.

The Salween is originated from the marshland in the Himalayan Plateau—the same glacial area where the Mekong and the Brahmaputra start their mightiness. It travels over 2,200 kilometres through southwest China, Thailand, and Myanmar. Most of the areas it nourishes are occupied by ethnic indigenous communities. In Yunnan alone, the Nu River  (as the Chinese called the upper Salween) feeds at least 22 ethnic groups. The same reality applies to downstream communities at the border between Thailand and Myanmar and major ethnic states in Myanmar (where Burmese names it “Thanlwin”). I remember someone told me that the Salween’s turbulence is reflected by perpetual ethnic tension in the most recent open country of ASEAN.

The plan to dam the free flowing Salween is not new. 13 cascade dams for the Nu River were proposed in 2003 as part of China’s 10th Five Year Plan. Chinese environmentalists immediately called the government to halt the project. Their voices were listened, but the hiatus is now over and the proposed 13 hydropower projects are back on the table.

Thailand’s eyes on damming Myanmar’s Thanlwin/Salween is also not new. Nearly ten years ago, Thai environmentalists became aware of 7,110 MW Ta Sang Hydropower Project, a Thai national dam at the cost of Burmese environment. The news of Ta Sang Dam has been silent but a recent loosely done EIA report and signed MOA for the 1,360 MW Hat Gyi Dam prove that the intention isn’t going away.

7 is the number of proposed dams on the Thanlwin/Salween. Over 20,700 MW will be generated to Thailand and China. The newly built transmission lines that would come with the new dams would gracefully pass over the electricity and wealth to Myanmar’s neighboring countries. Its people would have to look up to the electricity they are not entitled to use while watching their houses and livelihoods inundated by the reservoir.

But the real battle has only started. In June, 2014 Myanmar government switched on the green light for Chinese Hanergy Holding Group Company to tackle its hydropower project in Shan State. Kunlong Dam will stand tall to hold back the Salween while producing 1,400 MW of electricity to be sent back to China.

Large-scale hydropower projects—along with many other environmentally and socially detrimental projects—never prove beneficial to local communities. “The few should sacrifice for the many” is the excuse project proponents always use to dignify their grand prize. However, in this case, “the few” we’re talking here isn’t small in number but their political voice and power to decide how and who would control the river they rely on.

“We call the Thanlwin, ‘the River of Peace’” said Ko Ye, an activist from Dawei who has been fighting against Thailand-proposed mega development project in his hometown. “Because if this river is dammed or falls under one group’s control, the ethnic war in Myanmar will never stop.

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Letter to the Mekong River Commission on the Don Sahong Dam

The following is a letter written by Mekong river expert and conservationist Alan Potkin submitted today to the Mekong River Commission’s online stakeholder consultation concerning the Don Sahong dam.  The construction of the Don Sahong dam on the Mekong’s Hou Sahong channel in Siphandon, Laos is a project sparking extreme controversy in the Mekong region.  Despite Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s condemnation of the dam along with a massively successful petition campaign gaining more than 250,000 signatures and increasing local and international coverage of the controversial project, construction for the dam is likely to begin by the end of the year.

Indeed “now is the time to separate fact from fiction”…

Notwithstanding his Googleable scientific publications being exclusively in quantitative algology, rather than in any aspect of ichthyology (not  least fish taxonomy, physiology, and reproductive or migratory behaviors), I had consistently argued that we should accept that Dr Peter Hawkins, Don Sahong’s Environmental Manager, was speaking and acting in good faith until proven otherwise…

Until this latest announcement by him that the altered dry season hydrology above and below Siphandone, following the new release regime
from the Lançang Jiang cascade of hydropower dams in Yunnan PRC, will now make it “easier for fish to migrate” through alternate channels other than Hou Sahong during the dry season.

Well, maybe yes and maybe no.

According to years of fieldwork conducted there by Dr Tyson Roberts and Profs. Ian Baird and Water Rainboth, amongst others,
no less than 150 species of fish transit through, or are resident, in Siphandone. Other than their basic taxonomy, almost nothing is known in
sufficient empirical detail about any ofthem to understand exactly what ecological and behavioral cues initiate bi-directional migration and successful reproduction: Water temperature? Current velocity and/or stream stage? Phases of the moon? Subtle chemical alterations? Angle of the sun in the sky/polarization of insolation?

How much change in elevation per unit of lineal distance could be encompassed within a particular species’ genetically-determined
metabolic parameters and swimming musculature to still be a manageable pathway?

All essentially unknown!

The planet’s best understood migratory fishes are the salmonidae of the northern hemisphere, which in any given inland waterway probably never exceed four or five different species having themselves much in common. Yet even now ichthyologists are far from certain over exactly how salmonids are capable of navigating to, and infallibly identifying, precisely that reach of river/tributary wherein they were originally spawned, perhaps even a decade earlier, with most of those intervening years as adults spent offshore in the oceans.

And if any or all of that that were known in exact and correct detail about one or two or three of the most economically and nutritionally
important Mekong species, there would yet be another 140 species, at least, which might be responding to completely different sets of stimulae and environmental cues.

I would be delighted to have these assertions proven false by aquatic ecologists holding credible expertise far greater than my own.

Once again, I would note that available to whomever might successfully navigate far upstream into several of our interactive eBooks, notably
“Mekong-Orwell” —mostly about the Pak Mun debate Xayaboury and Don Sahong— there are linked online videos showing the
rather underdeveloped state-of-the-art of “fish friendly” turbines, and showing the general impassibility of even a 70cm artificial obstruction erected across the migratory pathways of one of the most robust and powerful N. American fish species, but one which lacks any evolutionary history of jumping.

Thanks as always, for all due consideration.

Access the interactive media links below to learn more about Alan Potkin’s work on Mekong issues.
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_actual_outcomes1.final_cfp.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/nam_phit/digital_mekong_planning.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_orwell_eBook/pak_mun_homepages.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_fish_atlas_4.1/welcome.pdf
http://sethathirath.com/EFDNW_UNESCO_1.4.1/nongchanh%20interactive/EFDNW_poster/nongchanh_poster_homepage.pdf
http://vimeo.com/86935784

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Seismicity & Sediment Flow in the Mekong River Basin

Understanding the geologic history of the upper Mekong basin is increasingly important for examining the effects of dam construction, both in terms of seismicity and sediment trapping.  The sediment regime of the river has been altered by the construction of dams, which have captured large quantities of sediment.  However, the degree to which it has changed the river is uncertain due to the small number of studies done so far.  Additionally, agriculture and development have their own effects on the sediment load of the Mekong, which further complicates sediment analysis.  More alarmingly, a large magnitude earthquake could cause dam damage or failure, which in turn could cause catastrophic damage downstream.  While such an event is unlikely, it is important to properly regulate dam construction as well as encourage the construction of earthquake resistant infrastructure, especially in Yunnan, Northern Thailand, and Laos.  The underlying geologic structure of the Mekong River Basin is highly complicated and should be studied in greater detail so that dams are constructed as safely as possible, both to protect downstream communities and to ensure that the sediment load is not being disturbed at the expense of aquatic ecosystems and downstream agricultural communities.

 

Tectonic setting

The origin of the Mekong River lies 5,000 meters above sea level, high on the Tibetan plateau.  From there the river runs through China’s Qinghai and Yunnan provinces, where it is called the Lancang River.  Its name changes to the Mekong as it flows through the five mainland Southeast Asian nations: Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia, and finally Vietnam.  The River runs a total of 4,350 km before it spreads out over the Mekong delta and into the South China Sea.  The Mekong drains an area of 795,000 square kilometers, with an annual discharge of 475 cubic kilometers, making it the longest and largest river by volume in Southeast Asia, and the 12th longest and 8th largest by volume in the world.  At 16,000 cubic meters per second, the Mekong has an average discharge comparable to the Mississippi river, despite the Mekong being over 1,000 miles shorter. (Fig 1)  Its importance in the region as a source of livelihood and culture cannot be understated; it is the connecting tie between the nations of mainland Southeast Asia.  While river ‘capture’, or the seismically induced alteration of river pathways, makes pinpointing the origin of the Mekong River difficult, there is some indication of its modern derivation.  According to one study, which took sediment cores from the South China Sea, “The oldest sediments, which are linked to the modern delta body, accumulated in the early mid-Holocene, at about 8000 calibrated years before present preceding the mid-Holocene sea-level highstand in the South China Sea.” (See figure 1, core MD01-2393)  Primarily because of sea level rise the Mekong River has changed since then into the basin recognizable today.

The Mekong River Basin is situated off the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, which as an active converging plate boundary has a strong influence on the tectonics of the Mekong basin.  The collision of the Eurasian plate and the Indian Plate are the source of the uplift of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, and the Mekong River basin lies between this convergent plate boundary and the Sumatran Subduction Trench further south along the southern coast of Sumatra.  This intraplate zone is a ‘basin and range’ province, much like the Nevada-Utah basin and range of the United States, and is scattered with faults with different slip-rates, especially in the area in and around northern Thailand.  Considering this somewhat unique geologic position which has created different fault zones pulling and pushing in different directions, the basin’s geology is both heterogeneous and, particularly in the northern part, seismically active.  To the north of the Mekong River Basin, the Longmenshan fault zone is highly active; responsible for the devastating earthquake in Chengdu in 2008, which claimed the lives of over 68,000 people.   The upper Mekong basin is not range of the Longmenshan fault zone, but its basin and range typology is strongly influenced by this fault zone.  The most notable fault systems that influence the basin are the “right-lateral, strike-slip Red River and the left-lateral strike-slip Xianshuihe-Xiaojiang fault systems.”  These fault systems as a portion of the typical ‘basin and range’ geological province create series of exactly that: similarly trending valleys and mountains that are a direct result of fault blocks falling and rising with respect to each other.  This allows different geologic layers to be exposed within relative short distances, meaning that as the Mekong River flows downstream, it quickly gathers different types of sediments.

 

Sediment regime

The sediment regime in the Mekong is a result of its drainage pattern and the variety of rock types in the river basin.  The Mekong River basin itself is atypical of continent draining rivers in its drainage pattern is not dendritic.  Rather, the river has a parallel drainage pattern which is much more linear with more direct tributary angles.  This pattern is a combined result of the underlying geologic structure and the slope of the topography.  The upper basin is particularly narrow which indicates strong, or steep, slope control.  Often, underlying structures such as joint systems control the geometry of tributary angles, which are generally narrow.  In these steep and narrow gorges, the rapid flowing water of the Mekong quickly erodes the hillsides, making the river a muddy-silt brown.  Considering the heterogeneity of the underlying structure, the swift moving water gathers many different minerals, creating a rich sediment regime with lots of chemical elements needed for agriculture and aquatic ecosystems.  The upper part of the basin, especially in China, is the primary source for this sediment.  Researchers have suggested that “the existing estimate of the mean annual suspended sediment load of the Mekong reported in the literature is ~160 Mt y^-1, and (Roberts) has estimated that about 50% of this load is contributed by the upper part of the basin in China.”

The northern part of the basin “accounts for about 24% of the total area of the basin and about 18% of its total discharge, and sediment yields in these mountainous headwaters, which have steep, unstable slopes, are clearly substantially higher than those from the remainder of the basin.”  As it flows the Lancang River quickly becomes a muddy-silt brown, reducing the River’s ability to erode the rock further downstream.  Dams allow sediment to settle out, in fact “Kummu and Varis cited estimates that suggest that the Manwan Dam could trap as much as ~50-60 Mt of sediment per year, and this would clearly cause a major reduction in the sediment load of the Lancang River.”  What the overall effect this entrapment will be is not yet known.  What is known is the exiting water, devoid of sediment, will erode rock more quickly than it did before, possibly replacing the sediment lost but at the cost of downstream slope stability.  The increased erosion of stream beds could pose ‘major threats’ to places such as Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Nongkhai.

Figure 2: Mekong Sediment load, values from 1961 compared with recent years (between 1997 and 2002).

Figure 3: Mekong river discharge, values form 1961 compared with recent years (between 1997 and 2003).

Unfortunately, there have not been a lot of studies done in Southeast Asia on this subject, and research needs to be continued in order to examine how the sediment regime has been and is being altered.  So far, research done has shown that variations in sediment discharge are more closely linked with the total water discharge of the Mekong, rather than the construction of new dams. Figures two and three illustrate this problem as there are hardly enough data points, due to a lack of continuous research, to come to a conclusion about the sediment regime and the way dams have affected it. In this way, it is important that these parameters be monitored annually so that a meaningful conclusion can be drawn as to whether or not dams have a negative impact on sediment transport.

 

Seismicity: Predicting earthquakes in the northern Mekong Basin

Accurately predicting the timing of an earthquake, as seismologists know, is close to impossible. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying, because properly understanding seismic activity can be effective in protecting human lives.  While exceedingly challenging, seismologists use a variety of techniques to predict the likelihood of earthquakes occurring, and what the magnitude of the earthquake might be.  These techniques generally involve measuring average slip rates and estimating the likelihood within a given period of time of the fault ‘slipping’ which causes earthquakes.  In the Mekong River basin, this is extremely important with regard to the dams that have been built along the river as well as for dams in the planning phases.

Figure 4. Dams along the Mekong River and its tributaries. Courtesy of the WWF

Seismic activity in the Mekong River basin is primarily limited to areas in Yunnan, northern Thailand, and Laos.  Some areas in northern Thailand in recent history have been described as seismically inactive, as despite there being several fault zones there are few historical records of destructive earthquakes.  There is some mention in different literature that northern Thailand is seismically ‘highly stable’, which happens to be true for recent history, but that does not suggest earthquakes cannot or will not happen.  As Fenton says in his 2003 study, “Due to a lack of large, damaging earth-quakes during historical time, Thailand has not been considered to be a seismically active country.  Although there are a number of accounts of historical earthquake damage (Nutalaya et al. 1985), the locations and sizes of most of these events are not well constrained.”  While earthquakes are generally below 6.5 in magnitude, there are notable exceptions.  For example, “[The Red River] fault has produced several earthquakes >M 6.0 including the 4 January 1970, M 7.5 earthquake in Tonghai which killed over 10,000 people.”  While this was further north, there are concerns that earthquakes could cause substantial damage to developing infrastructure.  One USGS study of a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in the Golden Triangle region of Myanmar in March of 2011 highlights that “Overall, the population in this region resides in structures that are highly vulnerable to earthquake shaking, though some resistant structures exist. The predominant building types are wood and unreinforced brick masonry construction.” This suggests that if a larger magnitude earthquake of were to strike, the damage would be enhanced by the collapse of structures which are not equipped to handle such shaking.  These faults are considered capable of generating maximum earthquakes of up to 7.5 in magnitude, which while unlikely on an annual basis, (see figure 6) increase in likelihood over time.

Figure 6. Faults in Northern Thailand.  Note the proximity of faults 3, 11, and 18 to the Mekong and proposed dam site. Note annual probability of fault movement in Fig. 7   Courtesy of the USGS

 

Figure 7. Annual probability of fault movement among studied active faults in northern Thailand. See fig 6. and key for location of faults. Data courtesy of the USGS

The Xayaburi dam in Laos is controversial for several reasons, but fears of damage from earthquakes are rising.  One Thai geologist, Dr Punya of Chulalongkorn University, has estimated there is a “30 per cent chance of a medium-sized earthquake hitting the dam site in the next 30 years, and a 10 per cent chance of a powerful earthquake of up to magnitude 7.” He was reported as saying: “If the fault at the dam site becomes active … there is no chance for seismic engineering to take care of that.”  Dr Punya also stated that construction on the dam should “never have started” at such a site without further research into its seismic risk.   Dr. Punya’s concerns do not seem unwarranted, as there have been substantial earthquakes in recent years.  In 2011, two earthquakes occurred 48 kilometers from the site of the Xayaburi dam, one 5.4 and one 4.6 magnitude.  One month later a magnitude 3.9 earthquake occurred 60 kilometers from the dam site.  In 2007, a 6.3-magnitude quake hit the Xayaburi area.  Further away, in northern Myanmar, a 6.9 magnitude quake on March 24, 2011 killed 151 people.

Apparently, the earthquakes near Xayaburi occurred on what were thought to have been inactive faults, “an unusual development and one that causes additional concern.”  It is possible this may be related to dam-induced seismicity, another substantial concern many geologists bring up with regard to dam construction and seismicity.  This phenomenon has been documented as far back as 1932, and the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 has been suggested as being a result of this effect.  Tectonic movement isn’t a process that changes within the lifetimes of humans, and a trend of increasing seismicity is only likely to continue.  In fact, “some studies suggest that due to the high slip rate on this fault, future large earthquakes arehighly possible.”  While total dam failure is extremely unlikely, earthquakes will nonetheless be able to cause a lot of damage to dams, costing the dam companies millions.  Moving forward, it is imperative that more geologic and seismic studies are done of the northern Mekong basin.  This is especially true for dam construction companies as they construct dams; to do so in as safe and secure a way as possible.

 

Conclusion

Unfortunately, most of the scientific literature on the subjects of seismicity and sediment transport in the Mekong River point to the lack of research done thus far as a limiting factor for their own research.   While there has been a fair amount of research done, it is not sufficient to completely assess whether dams are safe to construct or not.  Based on preliminary findings, it seems that most earth scientists that have studied this region agree that they feel uneasy about the construction of dams and that more research needs to be done.  The construction of dams might ultimately be important for the development of Southeast Asian nations, but proper research needs to be done to ensure they are not irreparably damaging the river.  A worst-case scenario would consist of catastrophic dam failure due to an earthquake, which would in turn likely cause downstream dams to fail, and destroying any communities along the river.  The economic loss, not to mention the loss of life, would be disastrous.  Because of this risk, however small, research and engineering techniques should be paid for ahead of time by dam construction companies rather than afterwards with human lives and livelihoods.

 

References:

Ai, M., and M. Hong. 2011. Earthquake Shaking: 2011.

Clark, M. K., L. M. Schoenbohm, L. H. Royden, K. X. Whipple, B. C. Burchfiel, X. Zhang, W. Tang, E. Wang, and L. Chen. 2004. Surface uplift , tectonics , and erosion of eastern Tibet from large-scale drainage patterns. Tectonics 23:1–21.

Fawthrop, T. 2014, November 19. Experts renew quake fears over Xayaburi dam Mekong River in Laos. South China Morning Post. Xayaburi.

Fenton, C. H., P. Charusiri, and S. H. Wood. 2003. Recent paleoseismic investigations in Northern and Western Thailand 46(October).

Turner, B., J. Jenkins, R. Turner, A. L. Parker, A. Sinclair, S. Davies, G. P. Hayes, A. Villaseñor, R. L. Dart, A. C. Tarr, K. P. Furlong, and H. M. Benz. 2014. Seismicity of the Earth 1900 – 2010 Himalaya and Vicinity PA IN HA NA FA ST ARC 80225(303):80225.

Walling, D. E. 2008. The Changing Sediment Load of the Mekong River. A Journal of the Human Environment 37(3):150–157.

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Bottlenecks to Development: Challenges in the Mekong Delta

Last week, ExSE took a hard look at the environmental challenges facing the Mekong Delta region and found that the prospects are not good. Due to unenviable geography and global warming, rising sea levels, higher average temperatures and irregular precipitation patterns will all converge in the next 50 years to change the face of the Mekong Delta (MKD). That’s to say nothing of salinity intrusion, flooding and tropical storms. However, the MKD’s problems are not only environmental in nature; the region’s economy also faces a host of challenges, many of them tied to the Delta’s environmental changes.

Issues in the Mekong Delta are of course significant for its residents, but they also carry great importance for those outside the region because of the MKD’s role in national and regional food security. The statistics on the Delta are incredible. In an area taking up just 36,000 square kilometers (12 % of Vietnam’s total area), the Delta’s 22 million inhabitants plant 2.6 rice crops per year totaling 25 million tons of rice. The MKD’s rice production accounts for over half of Vietnam’s total and the seven million tons rice that the Delta exports has helped Vietnam become the world’s second largest rice exporter after Thailand. In addition, the Delta accounts for 70% of Vietnam’s fruit production and three-quarters of its fish catch.

The Delta’s massive agricultural output is no accident. The region is perfectly situated to receive large amounts of water and sediment from the three main stems of the Mekong Delta and the many thousands of canals that intersect them and a tropical temperature allows for farming year-round. What’s more, concerted efforts in the past 30 years to improve the region’s water infrastructure have doubled arable land in the MKD. Combined with advances in genetically modified rice strains, yields in the Delta have increased by 30% and total production has doubled, all within the past 20 years.

Incomes have also increased. According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO), the average income of Delta residents has gone from 50 cents USD/day in 1999 to $2/day in 2010 and the region reached it Millennium Development Goals in 2006. However, despite impressive improvements in agricultural output and per capita income, the Delta has lost ground to other regions of Vietnam and now lags behind in important measurements of human and economic development.

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam.

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam.

In the late 1990’s, the Delta was actually 20% above the national average in per capita income. However more than 10 years later, the number stands at a little more than 80%. In the first decade of the new millennium, Vietnam underwent a period of intense economic growth through industrialization and people all over the country got richer as a result. The benefits of economic growth were not felt equally by everyone, however. Due to development bottlenecks, some regions, including the Mekong Delta, did not industrialize like others

One of these bottlenecks is a lack of infrastructure. The proportion of waterways, intra-provincial roads and inter-provincial roads per thousand people are all behind the national average. Of these three measures, the proportion of inter-provincial roads stands out. For one, there are only 0.34km of them per 1000 people in the Delta, standing at only half of the national average. This is especially important because of the nature of the Delta’s economy. The MKD, because its economy is so heavily concentrated in agriculture, lacks many necessary products and thus has a long history of importing and exporting nearly everything. While this may be good for enterprising middlemen, it is not good for the region’s economic development. With so few avenues for importing and exporting goods, the logisitical cost rises and because the MKD lacks so many raw materials, industrial development becomes disadvantageous. In fact, unless an investor is interested in agricultural processing, building a factory closer to Ho Chi Minh City is probably a better business plan in many cases.

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam

Measure of waterway, inter-provincial roads and intra-provincial roads in the Delta. Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam

A second bottleneck, and another reason a potential investor might not consider the Delta, is a lack of skilled labor. Like the region’s road density, the MKD’s percentage of trained labor lags behind the national average; according to data collected by GSO (General Statistics Office of Vietnam) the Delta’s percentage of trained labor stood at just over half of the national average. In addition, the proportion of Delta residents with some sort of higher education stood at less than 1%, or in other words, just a fifth of the national average. With a workforce that is so poorly trained and educated, the Delta becomes an even less attractive region for investment, especially when compared to the populations near the Red River Delta (Hanoi and its environs) or Ho Chi Minh City.

What’s more, those Delta residents that have some technical training and/or higher education do not stay in the Delta for long. As the region’s economy falls farther behind the rest of Vietnam, more and more Delta residents are moving to urban centers to look for work. One of the main destinations for these people is Ho Chi Minh City, where over half of the city’s migrant workers come from the Mekong Delta. What trained labor the MKD might have ends up leaving the region for greener pastures, thus widening the gap between the Delta and places like Ho Chi Minh City.

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam

Source: Dr. Ho Long Phi, processed from data of General Statistics Office of Vietnam

One reason that the MKD has such a low percentages of trained labor and educated inhabitants is that in the past there was no need for supplementary education of any form. In an environment where the annual rice yields are stable and prices are good enough, investing time and money for a new career is an unnecessary risk and one that Delta residents have not taken. Paddy rice cultivation requires little technical skill yet provides a modest, usually stable income. However, the income provided from rice is rarely enough to invest in the expansion of other industries and in the Delta’s case, the lack of infrastructure makes such an investment an even more expensive proposition.Unfortunately for the farmers of the Mekong Delta, rice cultivation is becoming a less and less stable enterprise. For one, the price of rice has dropped in the past decade. As more and more rice is produced worldwide, the seven tons of rice the Delta exports annually decreases in value and farmers lose out.

However, shifts in the world rice market are nothing compared to problems farmers face due to global warming. As detailed here, rising temperatures, sea level rise, an erratic precipitation and flood schedule and more frequent tropical storms all threaten to radically alter the Mekong Delta in the next century. The region already has enough impediments to development with its lack of infrastructure and trained labor; its environmental issues only add to the severity of the situation. The Delta, now more than ever, is in acute need of solutions. However, who’s coming up with these solutions, if there are any to begin with, is another question unto itself and one that needs to be answered before any future for the Mekong Delta can be imagined.

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Filed under Agriculture, Economic development, Environment and sustainability, Mekong River, SLIDER, Sustainability and Resource Management, Vietnam