Damn the dams: The human cost of satisfying the appetite for energy

Updated On: Nov 14, 2007

The soaring prices of crude oil in recent years are causing great anxiety among all the nations, developed and developing states alike.

As it stands, oil prices look set to hit the US$100 per barrel mark, threatening to slow global growth.

To allay the situation, this week and the next will witness two high-profile meetings involving ministers and top leaders of international organizations and energy companies on global energy consumption. On Sunday (11 November), the World Energy Congress (WEC) began in Rome to debate on the sustainable development and prospects of the energy industry. After the WEC ends on 15 November, it will be followed by Third Summit of heads of State of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Riyadh from November 17 to 18. Again, the themes of adequate petroleum output and sustainable development will be on the agenda.

Important as the debates of business and geo-political strategies are, people should not forget the suffering involved in energy shortages. As Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi warned in the opening address of the WEC, an estimated 2.5 billion people still lack basic utilities for even daily cooking. Additionally, developing countries had a just reason for their energy consumption –the development of infrastructure and industries to enable their people to work their way out of poverty. Be that as it may, the quest for alternative energy sources cannot be blind to its other human costs.

Over in Southeast Asia, the last free-flowing international river in the region –the Salween –stands threatened by yet another dam project. Over the years, a series of dams have been initiated by Thailand’s Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and Myanmar along the Salween to meet the growing demand for electricity.

The first dam scheduled is the 1,000-megawatt, 36-billion-baht Hut Gyi inside the Karen State of Myanmar. Construction was originally to begin in 2008 but after the killing of a Thai EGAT engineer in September 2007 and the evacuation of 40 EGAT workers back to Thailand, there is a temporary impasse due to “safety concerns”. However, it is likely that the damming project along the Salween will resume after it is approved by the new government resulting from the 23 December elections.

It is suspected that the Thai government is unconcerned about the environmental and human security ravages damming will bring. That was why the first dam was to be inside Myanmar and the Chulalongkorn University Environment Institute’s ecological assessment team was hired only after strong public opposition. Moreover, the whole Salween project is shrouded in secrecy. The ecological assessment is classified as confidential and privy only to EGAT. There are allegations that the assessment is also partial to the Thai authorities and do not measure the negative impact on the environment and villages.

Although the NGO South East Asia Rivers Network has petitioned EGAT to reconsider damming the Salween, EGAT remains trenchant on the matter, refusing to comment on the status of the project or explain the detriment to the eco-system or the inhabitants in the area. Considering that no mention of a dam project was made when the EGAT officers came some years ago to fix solar panels in the villages and offer the people basic supplies, the villagers’ fears that construction work on dams slated for their areas will begin without notice are not unfounded. It is likely that when this happens, compensation will be either unlikely or inadequate. One thing is for sure, if the Salween project is completed, it will displace hundreds of Karen villages, submerge huge areas of forests, and make extinct hundreds of fish species. In short, the Karen way of life will be utterly destroyed.

This is not the only act of “deceit” that the Thai government seeks to wreak upon its people in its race to secure energy. On October 30, the Cabinet approved the Bt1.8-billion budget as well as a plan to set up a nuclear energy office under the jurisdiction of the Energy Ministry. Witoon Perm-phongsacharoen of the Foundation for Ecological Recovery denounced this, saying “Why is this government rushing to push for nuclear power and approve a huge budget to promote nuclear, even though it's just an interim government?” Energy activist Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen of the Palangthai group added, “Looking back in history, all three previous major nuclear attempts also happened during undemocratic political circumstances.” While Energy Minister Piyasavasdi Amaranand said that only preliminary studies of suitability are to be carried out; Kopr Kritayakirana, chairman of the Nuclear Power Infrastructure Preparation Committee, admitted, “Our investment in studying nuclear options will automatically put Thailandat the point of no return except to go nuclear.”

On another note, the energy crunch is causing oil smuggling from Malaysia into the Southern border provinces of Thailand, as well as unease among the Myanmarese junta. Spikes in oil prices caused the September demonstrations; and with the costs increasing, it is likely that public protests may erupt again. Meanwhile, Malaysia will review its fuel subsidies to maintain economic growth. (12 November 2007)


World energy congress to debate on sustainable development of energy (Xinhua, 11 November 2007)

'Undemocratic' power (Nation, 11 November 2007) –Thailand

Ministry looking into cross-subsidy to keep fuel prices down (Star, 11 November 2007)

Oil smuggling from Malaysia on the rise (TNA, 11 November 2007)

$100 oil to put Myanmar junta over a barrel again (Reuters, 11 November 2007)

High Drama, if Not More Oil, Expected as OPEC Gathers (Wall Street Journal, 10 November 2007)

Salween on a Precipice (Bangkok Post, 10 November 2007)

Malaysia fuel subsidies need to be restructured –PM (Reuters, 9 November 2007)

Salween: Regional river in jeopardy (TNA, 3 November 2007)

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