Southeast Asia’s Dam Disasters

In July, 39 people were killed and 6,600 left homeless after a big hydropower dam collapsed in Laos.

Like a herd of wild bulls, raging floodwaters stampeded across a highland plateau in July and tore a hole in the mammoth Xi-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower complex dam in south central Laos. The boiling torrent crashed downstream from the nearly completed $1 billion dam, drowning 39 people identified so far, leaving over 100 more missing, and forcing more than 6,600 people out of their homes and into temporary government housing.

Little more than a month later, on August 29, floodwaters caused an irrigation dam to burst at Swar creek in central Myanmar, flooding 85 villages.Two people are missing.

The two catastrophes, both connected to the increasing ferocity of drenching storms in Southeast Asia, are an epochal moment of reckoning for the financiers, builders and managers of big dams, especially the mammoth hydropower dams that n nations are so intent on building despite the vivid and mounting risks. Mega dam developers are being challenged by fierce ecological havoc, as well as climbing costs, civic resistance, and engineering lapses. The result is that dams around the world are failing at a rate never seen before.In Southeast Asia alone three big dams have failed in the last year. A second hydropower dam failed in northern Laos in September 2017.

“There have always been big projects that failed,” said Bent Flyvbjerg, professor of major program management at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and a widely cited global authority on mega projects. “What is different now is that we have many more mega projects, they are much bigger, and there are spectacular failures that are more visible.”

The deadly collapse in Laos is a case in point. Until the Xi-Pian Xe-Namnoy disaster, Laotian leaders viewed mega hydro dam construction as a safe path to strengthening their treasury. The tiny landlocked nation of 7.1 million people set out to encourage domestic and international financiers and contractors to build over 100 big hydropower projects to sell electricity to its fast-growing Southeast Asia neighbors and to serve its own rising power demands. According to the Laotian government, two thirds of the country’s hydropower is exported, which accounts for almost a third of its export revenue.

In late August, an irrigation dam collapsed in Myanmar and flooded 85 villages.

More than 50 dams are in various stages of planning and construction, according to government reports. As a whole, Laos is undertaking one of the world’s largest hydropower development programs. Continue reading “Southeast Asia’s Dam Disasters”

30 Years Later — James Hansen Was Right

Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the U.S., is steadily drying as long-term drought settles on the American Southwest. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY — This was the week 30 years ago, third week of June 1988, that global warming rose to the top of the list of national priorities. I was a young correspondent for the New York Times that summer, dispatched to Montana and the northern Great Plains to report on an unfolding drought so deep that elderly farmers told me it reminded them of Dust Bowl conditions a half century before.

On June 23 that week, the day after I returned to my desk in Washington, James Hansen, one of NASA’s top scientists, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that Earth was warming. Hansen said he was “99 percent certain” it was the result of human activity. Hansen’s testimony received powerful validation from broad print and TV news coverage in the U.S. and in Europe.

Later that summer a mammoth wildfire raced across Yellowstone. It’s gotten steadily more dangerous since.

I was in the car two weeks ago listening to Rush Limbaugh aggressively make a religious case that, and I’m paraphrasing, mankind could not possibly be powerful enough to produce forces capable of altering the global atmosphere. Only God was capable of that. And, said Limbaugh, if there actually was any evidence of the meteorological disruption described by liberals, scientists, and the ridiculous mainstream media, God was responsible.

Limbaugh’s frustrating assessment reflects a popular theological doctrine that justifies a political construct. Half the country rejects irrefutable evidence of climate change. The back story, of course, is how impediments to climate action support the fossil fuel industry and its user group allies — utilities, railroads, airlines, vehicle manufacturers, elected officials. They are flat out scared breathless by the prospect that $20 trillion in black fuel reserves still in the ground will get stranded.

Climate change is battering Malaysia. A titanic storm last year brought down this retaining wall on Penang island, destroying residences about to open. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

If God is to be thanked, we all should express our gratitude to her/him that the U.S., despite the Trump administration’s market-buffeting interference, has maintained a good bit of its Obama-era momentum to shift the electric-generating sector from coal and gas to renewables. Other nations in Europe and Asia are going there too, and much faster than anybody anticipated. Continue reading “30 Years Later — James Hansen Was Right”

A Philippine Struggle Over Coal-Fired Power

Members of Limay Concerned Citizens in the Philippines. Photo/Keith Schneider

MANILA — Valentino de Guzman, the energy campaigner for the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, guided me to Mariveles to interview leaders of Limay Concerned Citizens. Guzman, a well-educated activist, once taught college level math before joining the Philippine climate justice movement. The citizens group on the Bataan Peninsula, across Manila Bay from the capital region, has been protesting the air pollution and disruption to their groundwater reserves caused by SMC Consolidated Power Corporation. The company’s 600-megawatt coal-fired power station is under construction along the Manila Bay shoreline in the community’s backyard.

On the way to Limay — a village of packed dirt, shade trees, and clustered homes — Guzman briefed me on the situation that the Philippines and much of the rest of southeast Asia faces. Government campaigns to build coal-fired power plants, and import most of the fuel from Indonesia, are running straight into the global energy revolution. Solar powered electrical generation is cheaper, easier to build, and prompting far less social resistance than coal-fired electricity. India is shifting to renewables. So are China, the United States (despite the Trump administration), and Europe.

For the time being, though, coal has the upper hand in the Philippines, and in Indonesia and Vietnam. Guzman said 26 coal-fired plants are operating in the Philippines and produce almost half of the country’s electricity. Thirteen more are under construction and 36 coal-fired plants are in the pipeline.

Literally in the backyard of Lamao village residents, SMC’s 600-megawatt coal-fired power station. Photo/Keith Schneider

In some communities, Guzman said, public resistance is so keen that the plants are not likely to be finished. In other instances, companies and the government are reappraising the cost of building coal-fired plants relative to solar, which currently accounts for scant generating capacity in the Philippines.

Environmental resistance is dangerous. More Philippine environmental activists have been murdered over the last decade than in almost any other country, according to Global Witness, a London group that compiles an annual report.

The situation in Limay is emblematic of most of the frontline struggles. The ten men and women waiting for me around a big communal table in the shade of a pitched roof described their frustration with the new power plant. Fly ash from preliminary operations contaminated the soil, and their gardens were no longer were productive. People were coming down with strange skin ailments. Some neighbors had respiratory illnesses.

One of the leaders of the anti-coal movement on the Bataan Peninsula was Gloria Capitan, president of United Citizens of Lucanin Association, a community that has been peacefully opposing the operation and expansion of coal plants and open coal and ash storage facilities in the Mariveles region. Auntie Gloria, as she was known, had focused her work on a big ash storage pile on a coal loading dock along the shoreline in her community. Ash from the pile was causing respiratory difficulties and dirtying the homes of nearby residents.

Capitan was gunned down on July 1, 2016 by two men on a motorcycle. The murder occurred at Capitan’s roadside store and bar near Mariveles. Capitan’s eight-year-old grandson was grazed by a bullet. Like so many other killings of activists around the world, the police have no suspects.

The Philippine and local governments had paid some heed to the resistance. The coal ash pile that Gloria Capitan opposed was enclosed in an immense metal building soon after her murder. Not far away, due to activism from Limay Concerned Citizens, their village’s water supply was switched from groundwater to municipal water. In December 2016 and January 2017, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, then led by activist Gina Lopez, served SMC with notices of violation for haphazard fly ash management and for air pollution. SMC said it would send doctors to Limay and would stop dumping ash. The doctors never showed up, said the citizens group, but the ash dumping did stop.

Manila Bay, despite its pollution, supports a strong fishery. Here, maintaining a fishing boat near Mariveles on thee Bataan Peninsula. Photo/Keith Schneider Continue reading “A Philippine Struggle Over Coal-Fired Power”

Trump Exit From Paris Climate Agreement Is Infuriating and Dangerous

A husband, father of three sons, and grandfather, Harikrishna is the prosperous head of a family farming operation entirely in ecological and economic balance with its region. He opposed construction of a 4,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Tamil Nadu, India. Photo/KeithSchneider

BENZONIA — June 1, yesterday, was miserable and infuriating. President Trump announced that the U.S. is withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. It was a decision as foolish and dangerous as the one George W. Bush made on August 6, 2001, when he tossed aside the intelligence briefing — “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US” — that warned of an imminent and monstrous Al-Qaeda attack.

My thoughts on why:

First, I’m heart sick that the president abdicated America’s responsibility to set a high standard and help lead the work of solving a planetary crisis. But I’m not surprised. I travel the world. I spend a lot of time reporting overseas. It was plain to me several years ago that the disorder in Washington and the doctrinaire policymaking in most states were fracturing the authority and unity and opportunity that the world admired about the United States. China and India are more than capable of leading the council of nations in reducing carbon emissions. The American century is over. Rejecting the Paris Climate Agreement, approved by over 190 countries, is more proof of that.

China’s consumption of coal is falling and its economy is growing. Here, construction in Shenzhen. Photo/Keith Schneider

Second, I find the president’s case against the Paris Agreement outrageous. Almost every point he made yesterday is wrong. To cite the agreement as a threat to the American economy because it tilts economic advantages to India and China flat out ignores real world conditions. To assert that the agreement provides space for China and India to increase coal consumption brushes aside what is actually happening in the world.

A core element of China’s strategy to clear its dirty air, solve serious water scarcity, and add to economic strength has been to cancel 300 coal-fired power plants and build the world’s largest clean energy manufacturing sector. China’s coal consumption is declining. It’s economy is growing.

India also is idling coal-fired power plants. India’s coal imports are falling. India’s new national energy plan sets a target of generating nearly 60 percent of the country’s electricity, around 275 gigawatts, from wind, solar, biomass, and small hydropower plants by 2027. That’s 225 more gigawatts than India currently generates from renewable energy sources. It is the most ambitious clean energy development plan in the world outside China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged early in his administration to “achieve energy security for India based on clean fuels.”
Continue reading “Trump Exit From Paris Climate Agreement Is Infuriating and Dangerous”

A Storied Battle Over North Dakota Oil Pipeline

Protestors in Houston call for arrest of Energy Transfer Partners chief executive.
Protestors in Houston call for arrest of Energy Transfer Partners chief executive.

Heavy snow and winter cold settled this month on thousands of Native Americans and their supporters encamped on Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands south of Bismarck, North Dakota. Nearby, the Missouri River slipped past. The river’s clean waters serve as the wellspring in what has steadily become one of the storied confrontations over energy development, justice, finance, and human rights in the American West.

Viewed in one dimension, the standoff over construction of a 1,172-mile, $US 3.8 billion oil pipeline pits thousands of First Nation protestors massed on the prairie to safeguard their sole source of drinking water from the fossil fuel industry and its allies in government and finance. But so many other dimensions of history, law, human rights, justice, finance, and climate change motivate the campaign to halt the Dakota Access pipeline. What has emerged on the wintry plains of North Dakota is a distinctive, if not unique event in the history of American environmentalism, and a seminal struggle over civil rights.

Risky proposals for big dams and mines, and actual environmental disasters like oil spills and chemical plant explosions have long stirred public protests. Such campaigns form the lifeblood of environmental advocacy.

Rarely, though, has such a big and expensive American industrial project, in the midst of construction, encountered opposition significant enough to threaten its opening. Perhaps the only comparable campaigns, according to environmental historians, are the direct actions to protect the endangered spotted owl that halted timber cutting in California and Oregon in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If the Sioux succeed in halting the Dakota Access pipeline, it would be seen by First Nation leaders as comparable to the legal battle that re-established Native American fishing rights in the Northwest in 1979.

“The fight in North Dakota has attracted a lot of national and international attention,” said Sarah Krakoff, a law professor at the University of Colorado and a noted authority on tribal treaties and law. “But you have to remember tribes have been on that land a long time. Tribes are amazingly resilient.”

The campaign to halt the pipeline gained even greater gravity after the election of Donald Trump, who owns shares in Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s developer. Trump vowed during the campaign to void U.S. commitments made in Paris last year to curb climate-changing carbon emissions, and to tear down regulatory barriers that he viewed as impeding development of coal, oil, and natural gas.

Campaign With Momentous Implications
In sum, what started last August with a call to action to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to prevent a mega fossil energy project from threatening a primary source of fresh water has grown into a public interest campaign with powerful implications for energy development, the environment, and the rule of law. Next week 2,000 veterans are scheduled to arrive in North Dakota to establish what they call a “human shield” to protect the thousands of “water protectors” that have already joined the campaign.

“It’s so obviously driven by civil rights issues on top of environmental concerns,” said Bill Kovarik, a professor of journalism and an environmental historian at Radford University in Virginia. “That’s a dimension that’s been hidden for so long.”

Two 21st century tactical innovations are empowering the protest and putting government authorities and Energy Transfer Partners on the defensive. The first is social media, especially Twitter and streaming video, that provide immediacy to the hour-by-hour shifts in strategy on both sides, and drawn thousands of tribal members and supporters to frontline demonstrations that have gotten ugly. Continue reading “A Storied Battle Over North Dakota Oil Pipeline”