Friday, December 23, 2016

Dammed If They Do:

...Dammed If They Don't

An interesting news item crossed my desk--OK, my computer screen--recently.  It was an article about a new dam in Ethiopia, Gibe III.  The article details impacts we have heard before about dams affecting agricultural lands and fisheries downstream.  It also brings out the conflict between modernization and maintaining old ways.  The opponents complain that the project threatens the way of life of the people downstream of the dam, and resent that way of life being characterized as primitive or backward.  The proponents point out that the dam will bring power to a power-impoverished population, and will give them a product to export to neighboring countries.  They complain that the opponents “don’t want to see developed Africa; they want us to remain undeveloped and backward to serve their tourists as a museum.”

At the risk of using a bad pun, this seems like a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.  While the rhetoric sounds like it's gotten rather heated in Ethiopia, and I don't know enough about the politics there to judge either side, I can guess that they would have been subject to criticism no matter what they did--had they decided not to build a dam, they could have been accused of holding their entire population back.  Having decided to build the dam, they are accused of ignoring the interests of the local communities affected.  

But as I thought about it, I felt that this kind tension between different interests had a very familiar ring.  I know these kinds of reactions most of all from the nuclear power side--local communities that worry about the local impacts versus the larger population that needs reliable, cost-effective electricity.  But I have also seen similar issues play out in the siting of gas pipelines, wind farms, and even of solar power arrays.  In the case of dams, the impacts on people's homes and livelihood may be more direct and more severe than in some other cases, but for the local populations, all of the impacts are important.

As in all things related to our infrastructure, there are no easy answers.  Decisionmakers have to balance many factors in making decisions--the need for a secure and adequate supply of electricity for the overall population, the interests of local communities affected, the environment, etc.  No decision is without some negative impacts.  The continuing challenge is to find ways to balance the benefits and the shortcomings.  The decisions will always be subject to criticism from some quarter, but failing to make a decision, or making a decision based on the loudest voice or on other faulty grounds will, in the long run, always prove to be a worse choice. 


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