Action 59. Ask China, Thailand and Burma not to dam it, dammit.

Last weekend’s New York Times had an article about plans to dam the Salween River in Southeast Asia, one of the last major free-flowing rivers in this part of the world. If you haven’t read the article (the article is here), the jist of the story is that the governments of China, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand are planning somewhere between a half dozen to a dozen dams on the Chinese portion of the river (known as the Nu River in China) and another handful of dams in Burma, dams which will provide “clean” hydroelectricity to these countries, and have been touted as the green alternative to China’s over-reliance on dirty, GHG-rich coal.

The problem being, hydroelectricity is not clean, as I’ve talked about before. Nominally, hydroelectricity might produce fewer GHGs than coal –or maybe not, I’ll talk more about that in a moment. Clearly, it doesn’t have the smog- inducing problems associated with the burning of coal that has been plaguing Beijing and other Chinese cities for a very long time. However, dams have real and severe impacts, and in the case of the Nu/Salween, we are talking about the loss of livelihood for many, many thousands of people who rely on the waters of the Salween for their agriculture, fisheries, and drinking waters. Damming this river will irreparably destroy many of these resources and directly displace tens of thousands of people who live in the areas that would be flooded. And the Nu/Salween basin is also one of the world’s biologically most rich ecosystems on the planet. The upper Nu flows through the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site, an area hosting over 6,000 species of plants and 25% of the world’s and 50% of China’s animal species.


source: International Rivers

And, to get back to the GHG issue, dams are not free of their problems on this front: damming rivers floods fields and forests that were formerly important carbon sinks, turning them into net sources of gases as the vegetation contained in created reservoirs dies and decays. So the argument that hydroelectric power is “green” on the GHG front alone is an oversimplification and probably hyperbole in the face of how net carbon production really works out.

Can these countries find a way to reduce their reliance on coal without pursuing this frontal assault on the Salween and other southeast Asian Rivers? Many local and environmental groups think so, that by pursuing conservation and other alternative forms of energy, they can definitely avoid the outstandingly painful loss of this free-flowing river, and they are fighting very hard to make their governments hear them. Outside of those countries, we can join our voices in support of these communities, and let these governments know that we think the price of hydroelectric power on the Nu/Salween is far too high for the costs involved. International Rivers is working on a campaign to oppose these dams, and if you go here you can find a good template for writing a letter to your country’s ambassadors from China, Myanmar and Thailand to let them know you oppose these developments.

Here in the US, the relevant folks to write are as follows:

They’ve all got emails, of course, for generically contacting the embassy, but I chose to write an actual letter because I think its more likely to get read.

(and just a note on Myanmar:  the nomenclature of Burma vs. Myanmar is still an active debate, with democracy activists like Aung San Suu Kyi actively rejecting what they consider to be a renaming that occurred at the whim of the government rather than the choice of the people; that being said, I would recommend using Myanmar in writing the ambassador).


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