How many dam bursts are too many?

In a warming climate, dams and downpours make for a dangerous mix

This week, a dam breach in central Myanmar forced an estimated 50,000 people from their homes and flooded the country’s main highway. The Swar Chaung dam in Bago region overflowed as the result of this year’s particularly generous monsoon, which has already flooded crops in south and central Myanmar and displaced 150,000 people.

Catastrophic weather events caused by monsoonal overpour are becoming everyday news in south and southeast Asia, with 2017 bringing devastating floods to India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, causing more than 1,000 deaths. Just last month, the collapse of the Xe-Pian Nam Noy hydroelectric dam in Laos killed 35 people and displaced thousands more, including communities in neighbouring Cambodia who were not told about the disaster.

At the time of writing, the death toll of monsoonal flooding in Kerala stands at 445. Emergency workers and the 225,000 displaced people sheltered in displacement camps are breathing a sigh of relief that the  Mullaperiyar and Idukki dams didn’t burst, which they would have had the rains continued. 35 of Kerala’s 54 dams were opened for the first time in history and the low lying coastal state remains on red alert.

Climate scientists are predicting that increased rainfall will be one of the most unpredictable and potentially catastrophic effects of a warming climate. The distribution of rainfall throughout the year is likely to alter, meaning longer dry spells and more intense monsoons. It follows that we will likely see more flooding and more dam breaches (and collapses) in the coming years. Yet hydroelectric dam policies are proceeding largely unabated in the developing world while their potential risks in a changing climate are poorly understood.

These policies are particularly disturbing considering mega-dams are a huge contributor to global carbon emissions through the methane produced by decomposing organic material at the bottom of reservoirs (which produces about a billion tonnes of methane per year) and through dam reservoirs flooding thousands of kilometres of tropical rainforests in some of the world’s most vital carbon sinks, like in Sarawak where we work. Not to mention the huge carbon footprint from their construction. Big Hydro is burning the climate candle at both ends.

Sarawak is no stranger to downpour, with the capital Kuching raining 279 days of the year and serious flooding occurring most years in recent history. Sarawak is also no stranger to giant hydroelectric dams, with the Baleh dam next in line for construction. While there is very little local opposition to the dam – as very few (if any) communities will be displaced – downstream villages are ill-prepared for the risks of living downstream from a large dam in an uncertain climate future.

Many nations are banking on hydropower for their growing energy consumption needs, despite the fact that flood records (and dams) are breaking year-on-year. It will be dam-adjacent and downstream communities who will continue to lose their land and lives as the result of short-sighted mega-hydro policies and record breaking rain. We need to support those on the ground who are fighting mega-hydro and safeguarding their rivers and waterways for generations to come. Development without destruction is not only the right thing to do, it has become part of our survival.

The Borneo Project fights against mega-hydro projects in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, calling out mega-dam policies as corrupt, environmentally destructive and socially devastating. You can support our work here and watch our mega-dam film series here.