New Internationalist

One More River To Cross

Issue 273

One more river to cross
Catherine Stewart discovers eager dam-builders looking to
Third World export markets where privatization and
stifled dissent make for a healthier bottom line.

The first time the graveyards flooded was in the early 1950s. Cheslatta T’en elders can still remember the bones and bodies of their ancestors floating away into Cheslatta Lake. Alcan (the Aluminium Company of Canada) erected an aluminium plaque to mark the occurrence. The aluminium was produced using the power from the Alcan dam responsible for the flooding.

The Cheslatta Nation’s fight with the company lasted 45 years. But it bore at least some fruit when the provincial government of British Columbia stopped Alcan’s Kemano Completion Project – also planned for Cheslatta territory. BC’s decision is part of a growing trend in the northern hemisphere.

Quebec has shelved Great Whale. The vast series of dams that would reshape the James Bay coast and the lives of every living creature in the region is now on hold. Further west, the Lone Star fighters and their leader, Milton Born with a Tooth, may have put an end to Alberta’s Old Man Dam. In the US the Two Forks Dam project in Colorado and the Auburn Dam proposal on California’s American River have been abandoned. According to Daniel Beard Commissioner of the US Bureau of Reclamation, builders of the massive Hoover and Grand Coulee dams, the ‘dam-building era in the US is over’.

This is also true elsewhere. In a stunning victory for activists, the Australian High Court halted Tasmania’s Franklin River Dam project. By 1994 Australian scientists were proposing a plan to drain a huge dam reservoir created 20 years earlier when Tasmania’s Lake Pedder was flooded for power generation. In Japan farm communities have generated enough pressure to force the Hokkaido Government to alter the Chitose River diversion scheme.

As the effects of river engineering gain notoriety, funding agencies like the World Bank are being called to account for similar mega-projects in the Third World. Since 1948 the Bank has invested $50 billion in 500 large dams in 92 countries that have displaced some ten million people from their homes. But the Bank has now drawn the line at funding China’s Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze. Could this be the beginning of the end for mega-dams in the South as well?

At first glance it looks hopeful. In July of this year an Indian Government committee recommended halting construction work at ten dam sites. On 4 August the World Bank pulled the plug on funding for Nepal’s one-billion-dollar Arun III hydro project.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the business of dam-building in the South still goes on at a phenomenal rate. The difference is that dam-building, like so much else, is being privatized. Engineering firms in the US and Canada, Norway, Italy, France and Japan could flourish if dismantling major water works gets on the agenda. But we have learned to bend the land and the biggest of rivers to our will. It can cost millions, but also bring in millions in industry, jobs, profits and corruption. Such skills will not be left idle. If a bunch of eco-freaks are messing up the gears at home, then it’s time to think export.

By now it’s an old formula. Just as we send our bundled plastic wastes to be melted down in Asian sweatshops; as we search the world for toxic waste dumps; as Canada exports Candu nuclear reactors to Argentina and Korea, and as France tests atomic weapons in tropical lagoons, so we export our mega-dam technology to the South.

China’s Three Gorges dam will be the biggest in the world. Construction began in 1993 and by the time it is completed the dam will stretch a mile wide and have eight times the generating capacity of the huge Aswan Dam on the Nile. It will flood 350 miles of river canyon and create an inland sea some 392 miles long. It will also displace more than a million people and no-one knows if it will be able to withstand earthquakes. It is, as one observer put it ‘the final pharaonic craziness of a dying totalitarian regime’ and could only be accomplished by an autocratic state. But foreign companies don’t seem to mind. Caterpillar of the US and CAE Electronics Ltd have both signed contracts for work on Three Gorges and are actively pursuing more. Management information systems for Three Gorges will be supplied by Agra Industries of Calgary for $25 million. Merrill Lynch, the US investment giant, is involved in the financing. A consortium of 15 Brazilian corporations has formed the ‘Three Gorges Brazilian Joint Venture’. Bridon of Doncaster in England has also jumped on the bandwagon. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch Asia warns foreign firms to be on their guard against forced labour ‘employed’ by Chinese sub-contractors.

Such investments are part of a trend to privatize infrastructures – and not just in China. The US Overseas Private Investment Corporation recently reported that in four years the privatization of projects in the South, from airports to telecommunications, has increased 15-fold. A decline in government monopolies has opened the door to the transnationals. Another dramatic example of this new colonialism is unfolding on the once free-flowing rivers of Laos. Seventeen major hydroelectric projects are slated for the Se Kong river alone – the largest Laotian tributary of the Mekong. The goal is to export power to the burgeoning Thai industrial economy. There public protests following repeated dam failures and severe flooding have forced a halt to major dam construction. Now the rapidly industrializing Thais intend to use the jungle next door.

With three dams in operation, electricity has become Laos’s third-largest export earner. South Korea’s Daewoo Corporation, Electricité de France, Transfield of Australia and the Tasmanian Hydro Electric Commission’s Enterprise Corporation have all climbed on board. According to the Asian Development Bank, the bulk of the money for Laos’s dam development is coming from private sources. Thai, Cambodian and Vietnamese logging firms are currently clearcutting forests in anticipation of dam construction. Laos’s southern Attapeu province, site of the Tasmanian investment, holds part of Indochina’s largest tract of virgin tropical rainforest. The dam projects there will flood 190 square kilometres of ‘environmentally protected’ forest land. Fish populations, which provide up to 90 per cent of local protein source, may be virtually destroyed.

So, despite hopeful signs from the North and the growth of grassroots campaigns in the South, river-engineering goes on unabated. The dream of ‘modernizing’ the southern hemisphere lives on. Northern banks and engineering firms will use all the ingenuity at their disposal to make the nations of the South ‘just like us’ – living examples of energy waste and resource depletion. Yet it would be unconscionable to deny the reasonable power needs of the planet’s poor. We must demand that our governments do more than just reduce energy waste in the North. Let us also restrict the sale of our destructive technologies and encourage the export of the best of solar, wind and energy-efficient technologies. If we cannot do this, eventually the gigantic power grids, the reservoirs and the engineered rivers will run down the very last of the biodiversity that sustains all our lives.

Catherine Stewart works on fishing and water issues for Greenpeace in Vancouver.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995


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