The Grand Inga dam; what ecological price will we pay for sustainable energy?

Recently the government of the DR Congo and World Bank announced that a dam of monumental scale is proposed for construction on the Congo River [1,2].  Proposals claim the Grand Inga Dam will dwarf the current record-holding Three Gorges Dam of the Yangtze in China and provide a secure and sustainable energy source to greater Africa.  This announcement reminded me of the debates regarding damming, and particularly those regarding the Three Gorges, which now seem to have disappeared from the public dissemination of information regarding the Inga project.  So, I embarked on a little adventure to see what people are saying about the Three Gorges now the hoo-ha regarding its construction has abated.  Not surprisingly, the story is not a happy one and here I give you some of the key problems with mega-dams as a little reminder about why we still have to be critical of ecological intervention even if its sustainable outcomes seem admirable.

Similarities between the Three Gorges and Grand Inga projects

Whilst on different sides of the planet, these two damming projects have some remarkable similarities.  In terms of construction, both promise monumental structures, which are presented as admirable in their world-record breaking scales and powerful productivity [1,2].  The promotion of both dams hinges on these ‘successes’ with a key emphasis being placed on powering developing nations through sustainable means [1,2].  Both involve huge alterations in flow and route of their respective nations most charismatic rivers (the Yangtze in China, the Congo in DR Congo), both of which rank as some of the worlds largest (the Congo is the worlds deepest river (220m in places) and 9th longest whilst the Yangtze is the 3rd longest, but with one of the highest discharge rates)(Figure 1.).

Figure1

Lessons learned from the Three Gorges Dam

Whilst the Three Gorges is now considered one of the highest output hydroelectric projects in the world, since its construction a number of Chinese and international sources have communicated what they believe are the costs associated with its construction.

Social Costs

At the APT6 at GOMA (2009) in Brisbane a number of Chinese artists works focused on the relocation of peoples whose homes are now under the Yangtze’s waters (Figure 2.).  Each focussed on the social costs paid in relocating the millions of people whose histories and homes lay on the banks of the river.  Many highlight feelings of listlessness and loss, which are not necessarily easily quelled by financial remuneration.  Jia Zhangke’s ‘Still Life’ is a beautiful film portrayal of the destruction and steady dislocation of people in Fenjie, a town now completely under the waters of the Yangtze [3].  I particularly have very strong memories of a piece with similar sentiments, Chen Quilin’s ‘Xincheng Town’ which saw a small street in the now flooded town of Xincheng translocated from China to the GOMA [4] – a bleak reminder of the all-too-human beauty and connection to place that, at that moment, was being erased.  Whilst these are by no means an exhaustive list of artists or citizens communicating their feelings about the social losses caused by the damming of the Yangtze, they represent to me some of the real humanist costs paid that should be considered before we are seduced by promises of ‘record-breaking’ scale and ‘sustainable’ futures.

Figure2

Ecological Costs

The ecological costs of damming are broad – affecting both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems within the river catchment, through too down-river populations and ecosystems at the mouth of the river [6].  The damming of the Yangtze was proposed to isolate and fragment a large number of natural reserves and populations which could have marked effects on local biodiversity and population viability [7].  The Yantze is home to a broad diversity of endemic organisms – many of which are threatened with extinction by the dam with little recourse for conservation in adjoining streams and tributaries [8,9](Figure 3).  Altered hydrology is leading to massive erosion along its banks, destroying riparian habitat and resulting in heavy sedimentation at the river mouth [10].  All of these unpredicted ecological impacts are being acknowledged, but being potentially understudied or gagged in order to keep the engineering achievements associated with the dams construction as the key international focus [11].

Figure3

I have seen it argued that the Three Gorges and similar mega-dams are ecologically justified because they represent a sustainable option replacing what would have been an extensive expansion of fossil or nuclear energy.  In my mind, ‘sustainable’ energy is not necessarily anything non-fossil or nuclear.  Environmentalists depose these types of power production due to the heavy consequences paid by the environment at the extraction, conversion and waste stages.  Heavily constricting and obtrusive hydro projects cause equal levels of ecological damage, and whilst catch phrases such as ‘way of the water’ (suggesting that hydroelectric schemes do not disrupt natural flow paths or patterns) may mask the serious ecological damage that occurs in these projects, there are many who are now acknowledging that hydroelectricity at this scale is equally unsustainable.  For example, see this [12] speech by David Suzuki on a similar project proposed for Canada – whilst I am not a huge fan of some of Suzuki’s simplifications of ecological theory (e.g. Balance of Nature arguments in ‘The Sacred Balance’) he explains here how his once fervent belief in hydroelectricity as a sustainable option has been retracted.  Dams like the Grand Inga are seeing an insurgence of popularity, particularly amongst developing nations [13], and in each scenario the real costs of establishing hydroelectricity need to be considered alongside their ‘sustainable’ benefits before we really consider them a viable alternative.

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References

1.  The Herald Sun and The Australian featured in article on the Grand Inga Dam in May this year, accessible here: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/travel/world/dr-congo-giant-hydro-dam-work-starts-2015/story-fni0biiz-1226646360336 and here: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/travel/news/dr-congo-giant-hydro-dam-work-starts-2015/story-e6frg8ro-1226646360336

2.  Emma Clarke wrote for the Daily Mail in the UK in July last year regarding the opening of the Three Gorges Dam, see here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2178951/Three-Gorges-Worlds-powerful-dam-opens-China-gushing-water-generates-power-15-nuclear-reactors.html

3.  You can watch Jia Zhangke’s ‘Still Life’ on Youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CE-Q4bqCB-o&list=PL26204AF277588D44

4.  A ‘Flicker’ gallery of images documenting the construction of Chen Quilin’s ‘Xincheng Town’ in the GOMA for APT6 in 2009 is accessible here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/queenslandartgallery/sets/72157623404832760/

5.  Statistics from the International Rivers Group, a global wild-river conservation association, who have many articles regarding the Three Gorges and Grand Inga dams accessible through their website: http://www.internationalrivers.org/campaigns/three-gorges-dam

6.  Baxter R.M. 1977 ‘Environmental effects of dams and impoundments’ Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 8 p255-283

7.  Wu J., Huang J., Han X., Gao X., He F., Jiang M., Jiang Z., Primack R.B. and Shen Z. 2004 ‘The Three Gorges Dam: An Ecological Perspective’, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2(5) p241-248

8.  Ian Sample of the Guardian wrote on the potential extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin or Baiji ()(Lipotes vexillifer) due to the Three Gorges Dam in August 2007 with a beautiful accompanying photo gallery of the dolphins and research about their populations, accessible here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/aug/08/endangeredspecies.conservation

9.  Park Y.S., Chang J., Lek S., Cao W. and Brosse S. 2003 ‘Conservation strategies for endemic fish species threatened by the Three Gorges Dam’, Conservation Biology 17(6) p1748-1758

10.  Reuters International reported on a Chinese publication claiming the Three Gorges is causing significant erosion in the downstream reaches of the Yangtze, accessible here: http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/05/21/environment-china-environment-dam-dc-idUST31738620070521

11.  Richard Stone published some short notes in Science’s magazine implying that Chinese scientists have been urged to report findings to government commissions before making them public; see the original arguments ‘Three Gorges Dam: Into the unknown’ 2008 accessible here http://www.sciencemag.org.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/content/321/5889/628.full, and the subsequent remarks in ‘The legacy of the Three Gorges Dam’ 2011 accessible here http://www.sciencemag.org.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/content/333/6044/817.full

12.  David Suzuki re: the Site C Dam in Canada accessible here: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/travel/world/dr-congo-giant-hydro-dam-work-starts-2015/story-fni0biiz-1226646360336

13.  Nature published an article late last year regarding similar large scale developments in Northern India, with similar consequences and debates raging, accessible at: http://www.nature.com/news/flood-of-protest-hits-indian-dams-1.11932#dams

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