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Re-evaluating The Environmental Impacts Of Hydroelectric Dams In Southeast Asia: Indirect Impacts Through Livelihood Alternations

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Kristofer Chan (London, UK)

Kris Chan

PhD Student, Department of Geography

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 4: Infrastructure development,

Over the past three decades, the Greater Mekong Subregion has experienced substantial economic growth. Set to continue, this growth has requires significant expansion of the respective countries' energy sectors. With rising fossil fuel costs, the¬ region seeks to make the most of its available natural resources, resulting in hydropower projects becoming a primary option for powering the region. Though these projects are touted as being economically attractive and a 'green' energy alternative, hydroelectricity projects have been identified to possess a host of less perceivable social and environmental impacts in addition to their regular non-attainment of advertised benefits. At present, Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are conducted only on a limited number of projects in the region, and the particulars of whom they are conducted by and how has been heavily criticised. Because of this, no truly unbiased assessment of dam impacts has been conducted in the region. This conference paper reports the findings of a doctoral thesis investigating the environmental impacts of three historic dams in the Greater Mekong Subregion; the Pak Mun in Thailand, the Nam Theun 2 in Lao PDR, and the Lower Paunglaung in Burma. The study places a strong emphasis on examining the indirect environmental impacts of hydroelectric dams through ecosystem change and their impacts upon local peoples' livelihoods. As many of the rural communities of Southeast Asia are engaged in livelihoods dependent on the environment, many of their lifestyles have adapted to the river systems and seasonal fluctuations. Perturbation of the natural environmental conditions brought about by the dams however induce inevitably changes to livelihoods, forcing communities to seek new means of income and subsistence. Given the lack of environmental data, the research employed a combination of remote sensing of present-day and historic Landsat satellite imagery and interviews gathering the local ecological knowledge possessed by residents of the respective dam areas. In total 114 interviews were conducted using interpreters local to each site. All of the interviewees claimed to have a close relationship with the environment, with the vast majority being directly dependent on the environment for their primary occupation (the majority of participants being farmers or fishermen). In cases where occupants did not rely on the environment for their occupation, natural resource extraction was recorded as part of their wider lifestyle (e.g. natural resource collection for subsistence or fun). Unsurprising, ecological change and altered environmental regimes have led to livelihood changes, whether through persisting in the same occupation but adopting different techniques, abandoning now non-viable occupations in pursuit of alternatives, or starting new activities which were not options previously. Many interview participants have also observed or engaged in destructive environmental activities for short-term gains whether intentionally or not (e.g. overfishing, using destructive or illegal techniques, or unsustainable clearing of trees for land, charcoal or timber). In cases where villagers were resettled, livelihoods were often inadequately compensated promoting such destructive natural resource extractions. A number of interviewees furthermore believed themselves to have improved lifestyles but recognised the cost incurred to the environment as a result. Remote sensing data strongly illustrates changes in riverine or riparian habitat with generally increased habitat homogeneity and a loss of complexity both between seasons and at a given season. From interviews, this change was generally cited as making village life harder though in some cases did provided new occupational options. In all cases, remote sensing picked up an increase in the area of farmland and a loss of forest over time, though the extent to which this was a result of the dam or altered livelihoods is debatable. The study highlights the complex and varied mechanisms by which dams can impact upon the environment. The research found a variety of indirect environmental impacts associated with hydroelectric dams from changes to existing livelihoods or the pursuit for new vocations. The depth and breadth of primary interview data highlight the ability of consulting such communities to gain substantial environmental in such data-sparse settings. The many indirect mechanisms in which the three hydropower projects have impacted upon the environment through riverine communities seeking new livelihood opportunities in a changed environment further highlight the importance of consultation for the purposes of acquiring livelihood information, and also as a potential means of mitigating environmental loss through education of how pursuing short-term extractive activities common in the three studies can impact upon long-term and multi-generational well-being.

2011 IWRA - International Water Resources Association - - Admin