Saturday, May 02, 2015

How do you say "dam(n) it" in Chinese ... and in Nepali too?

In case you forgot this post from just about a month ago, I quoted at length from an op-ed in which the author expressed serious concerns over China's dam building frenzy.  The author's solution was an easy and simple one:
The solution to these complex problems is simple: Since these enormous projects are state-run and state-financed, China’s leaders can cancel them at will.
That was a month back.

And then something big happened a week ago. So big it measured a 7.9 on the Richter Scale. Yes, the earthquake in Nepal.

In addition to the thousands dead, thousands missing, and the destruction to property, the quake rocked the dam world too.
Two workers at the Rasuwagadhi Hydropower station were killed and several injured in the quake, according to a statement released by the plant’s operator China Three Gorges Co.
And:
Rasuwagadhi, about 67.5 km from the quake epicentre, is one of three dams in Nepal under construction by Three Gorges Corp, according to the company’s website.
The New Yorker has a lot more analysis to offer.
Other deadly earthquakes will almost certainly strike the region, and the damage at Rasuwagadhi raises the question of whether a future quake in the Himalayas might precipitate a dam collapse that could send thousands of tons of water and rubble crashing downstream, piling horror upon catastrophe. The likelihood of such an event is growing because, simply put, more and more dams are being built in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones. More than four hundred dams are planned or are under construction in steep Himalayan valleys in China, India, Pakistan, and Bhutan, in one of the biggest waves of dam construction the world has ever seen.
More than four hundred dams?  In an earthquake area?  Where access even during the good days is not easy?  
Nepal, which has an abundance of as-yet-undammed rivers, a chronic shortage of energy (nineteen-hour blackouts are routine across the country), no spare cash, and little engineering expertise, is an obvious target for these regional investors. But then, there are the earthquakes. The Himalayas are the world’s highest and youngest mountains, the product of a slow-motion collision, fifty million years ago, between India—then an island—and the Eurasian landmass that forced what became the spectacular mountains upwards. India still pushes several inches northward a year, and stresses on the mountain region’s multiple fault lines regularly result in severe earthquakes that send avalanches crashing into steep river valleys, carrying away precarious roads, bridges, and other infrastructure.
What could possibly go wrong, right?  Oh wait, in addition to all these natural hazards, we humans add more to the stress.  The geologic stress, that is:
Geologists argue that the risks of building dams in earthquake zones go well beyond an earthquake-induced collapse. Earthquakes trigger landslides that can block rivers or change their course, which would also impact the operation of a hydrodam. But the most fiercely debated risk, since the 7.9-magnitude Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which killed seventy thousand people and left nearly twenty thousand missing, is that of “reservoir-induced seismicity”—the theory that the weight of water behind a dam, coupled with the seeping of water into fissures in rocks below, can produce shearing stress strong enough to worsen, or trigger, an earthquake. The Zipingpu dam, a five-hundred-and-eleven-foot-high structure on the Min River and the largest dam in Sichuan Province, was implicated in the 2008 earthquake.
What's the bottom-line then?
Saturday’s quake demonstrated how vulnerable infrastructure projects remain in the unsettled Himalayas.
If only we thought about economic development that is not completely at the expense of nature, and if only invested in sustainable development.  But, there are bombs to build, missiles to launch, ...

As for Nepal and the rest of the world:
This earthquake will remain in the global conscience only until it disappears from the broader news agenda. Sooner rather than later, donor efforts will turn to the next disaster. Once interest fades, Nepal will return to the grim realities of everyday life, facing unsafe and underinvested infrastructure, political stalemate, inefficient and dysfunctional institutions, corruption, and ineffective policy. Ideally, this time would be different.
Nope, I am sure by now the world has turned to the latest news: another product of a royal fuck!

4 comments:

Anne in Salem said...

The May issue of National Geographic has a lengthy article on damming the Mekong. Haven't read it yet, but I'm looking forward to learning a lot.

Sriram Khé said...

Will watch out for an update then

Ramesh said...

We share many a view when it comes to tradeoffs between various forms of generating energy and choosing the least bad of the alternatives. I rank hydro power way above coal, while you do not. How do you evaluate the possibility of a rare catastrophic effect (hydro) against the sure everyday effect (coal). Not easy, but I am with you on the need to rationally debate all this and force all of us to make the trade offs.

Sriram Khé said...

Those tradeoffs are for people in those countries to decide. My job is to only critique their decisions ;)
Kidding aside, yes, the people in every country need to engage in serious and constructive discussions on the electricity and energy needs within their countries and the impacts on the rest of the world. But, apparently that is a tough thing to do :(

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