Three stories I have read in the last few days from three different locations (albeit two in Inner Mongolia) each stoked an all-too familiar fear: how long before our reckless industrialization of the planet’s food production zones begins to provoke mass starvation of our burgeoning population? I was just struck by how each story held the same thread: our pathetic myopia toward industrial “progress”, especially the need to electrify everything, is paving over farmland, poisoning livestock and grasslands and threatening to literally inundate one of the few teeming fisheries we have left.
Stepping back from any industrial rationale, it seems simply suicidal.
The first was Simon Denyer’s account in the Washington Post of China turning riot police on protesters in Inner Mongolia who were decrying the chemical pollution that they say is poisoning their livestock and grasslands, killing fruit trees, rendering crops inedible and poisoning drinking water. Although China later said it was closing the chemical refinery, protesters said the government has done so before, but reopens it within a couple of weeks.
Next was a tale, also from Inner Mongolia, but from Baotou, its largest industrial city, where Tim Maughan penned a frightening report for BBC Future on the wages of our lust for technological wizardry. Apparently created by damming a river and flooding farmland in favor of mining rare earth minerals and manufacturing Digital Age gadgets, Baotou sits beside a giant toxic lake. Maughan writes: “Dozens of pipes line the shore, churning out a torrent of thick, black, chemical waste from the refineries that surround the lake. The smell of sulphur and the roar of the pipes invades my senses. It feels like hell on Earth.”
Indeed, watching the video, I kept looking for the orcs of Mordor.
Finally, was Melody Kemp’s piece in the UK magazine Geographical about Laos’ plans to build several dams across the main stream of the Mekong River and its major tributaries in the Si Phan Don (‘Four Thousand Islands’) region, one of the world’s richest freshwater fishing grounds. The area’s 2.6 million tons of fish annually is estimated to contribute as much as eight percent of Laos’ GDP and to be worth US$2 billion a year to all of the Mekong riparian nations.
One of those dams is the Don Sahong, a 300-megawatt, 75-foot-high hydropower dam across Hoo Sahong, the largest and deepest of two major waterways through which fish migrate upstream to spawn. Despite Laos’ supposedly rigorous and transparent environment and social impact assessment (ESIA) process, it has issued no documents for Don Sahong. Little wonder, given what Kemp found in the ESIA and a critical review.
Although the ESIA consultants propose enlarging surrounding waterways to facilitate fish migration, the ESIA’s reviewers observe that even if other channels are modified, the fish will follow their instincts to what they know to be the deepest channel, meaning that the dam’s turbines will kill large numbers as they follow primordial, hormonally driven behavior.
A fisheries expert who spoke to Kemp on condition of anonymity delivered a scathing assessment, saying that the waterway the dam will block is the only place where migratory fish can easily pass at the peak of the dry season, as well as being the main bi-directional migratory route for fish year round.
And if it isn’t enough to virtually shut off the source of 90% of the region’s protein, the ESIA actually admits that the dam will likely “finish off” any remaining Mekong River dolphins, as the power station will be situated adjacent to the pool where the last few individuals live.
Is it just me, or do we have a collective death wish?