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A New Economy Will Help Save Rivers and Fisheries

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderGlobalization and cheater economics have been destroying the world’s great rivers and their fisheries. Most people know about the devastation of rivers from water pollution, but not as many are aware of the significant impacts of big dams, river engineering, and real estate development in and on top of rivers. These activities can seriously damage fisheries and impair the natural functions of riverine ecosystems. A true-cost, steady state economy would, for the most part, avoid the continuing tragic dismantlement of rivers and fisheries.

The following three activities are causing major harm to rivers and fisheries, but would not occur in a true-cost, steady state economy.

Coal Ash Cesspools

The mining and burning of coal have come under enormous scrutiny because of the air pollution, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions they cause. There is another major but relatively unknown water pollution threat from coal burning, in addition to the smoke plume at the power plant–coal fly ash pits. After coal is burned at a power plant to generate electricity, the ash residue (which can contain serious toxins such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc.) is dumped into unlined ponds or pits near the power plant. These toxic cesspools, as they should be called, cause contamination of surface water, well water, and adjacent lands.

In February of 2014, one of Duke Energy’s dozens of coal ash cesspools malfunctioned, sending toxic sludge 70 miles down the Dan River in North Carolina and into Virginia. Six years earlier (December, 2008) a coal ash cesspool operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority broke, sending even greater quantities of toxic water and sludge into a tributary of the Tennessee River.

Independent testing of coal ash cesspools reveals a Pandora’s Box of toxins, findings that generally contradict assertions by utilities that things are okay. This growing issue amounts to a deadly in-your-face utility circus, flouting the law and flaunting the political power of utilities over state legislatures.

Utilities are doing what would never be allowed in a true-cost economy: they are externalizing the costs of dealing with fly ash from burning coal. Were they to include the health and pollution damages, the costs of coal would skyrocket and its use would be rapidly phased out.

Giant Dams

The economic evidence over the last 70 years against large dams has been assembled by economists at Oxford University (UK). They found, on average, large dam projects in developing countries exceed their construction cost budget by 90%, and often take over 10 years to complete.

Tonle Sap Lake Fish - Shankar S

Fish from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, one of the most fertile inland fisheries in the world, are facing threats from dams in the nearby Mekong River. Photo Credit: Shankar S

In addition, most mega-hydrodams omit genuine cost-accounting for their sometimes enormous adverse environmental and social impacts. For example, the public tends to think of hydroelectric power as a clean source of energy, not realizing that dams may be responsible for over 20% of the human-caused methane emissions. (Methane is a 20-30 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.) In Asia, the Mekong River contains the world’s largest inland fishery and provides livelihood for an estimated 60 million people. Large dams are planned across the mainstem of the river that would destroy the fish migrations of more than 200 species. One proponent of these dams said, “don’t worry, the people can just buy their fish from a fish farm once the river fish disappear.”

Again, a true-cost economy does not condone the blatant failure to include all the costs. See my February 2015 blog “Crossroads on Global Infrastructure” for more details on large infrastructure projects.

River Engineering and Response to Weather Disasters

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, New York and New Jersey received about $60 billion in relief and assistance. Instead of avoiding more development in top hazard zones, a burst of building permit applications has been made for more activities in and on top of the Hudson River, all in a number one hazard zone. A lot of this real estate development on piers would harm crucial habitat for over 100 fish, plant, and animal species. The proposals include such reckless propositions as an amphitheater and trees on an artificial “island” in the river. This is not free-enterprise development, but subsidized activity that eventually will necessitate a taxpayer “emergency relief bill” following the next hurricane or superstorm. We will never reach a sustainable economy if we have to keep spending hundreds of billions of dollars globally, bailing out new real estate development where it never should have been.

Real estate developments in and on top of rivers, armor-plating shorelines to enable more construction right on the coast, proliferating coal ash cesspools, and building mega-dams all have something in common. They can damage fishery habitats, disrupt fish migrations, and impair the healthy functioning of rivers in the US and worldwide. A true-cost economy recognizes that healthy rivers and flourishing fisheries are vital economic assets for cities and towns, and has principles that prevent their evisceration. The current globalized economy does not.

Insanity Reigns at the World Bank

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderThe finance ministers of the world convened in Washington for the annual meeting of the World Bank. Their goal: high risk/high reward mega-infrastructure projects (big dams, power plants, pipelines, grids, etc.). The two big questions: aren’t there better approaches to infrastructure today? And won’t the ministers’ plans put a sustainable economy further out of reach? The happy answer to the first question is “yes,” but “yes” is also the sad answer to the second question.

The World Bank’s plan to build such gigantic projects contradicts its stated objective to end poverty. This plan resurrects nightmarish approaches that have increased poverty, disempowered women, devastated life-sustaining ecosystems, and created massive debt burdens.

That is why International Rivers, Amazon Watch, and many other groups gathered outside the World Bank on October 12th to protest the plan for high risk/high reward projects and promote “Power 4 People.” In a true-cost economy the objective for infrastructure would be low risk/high reward projects. Such an economy would avoid casino-style investments and embrace infrastructure that leapfrogs the costly, destructive, and outdated approaches favored by the World Bank.

Despite serious mining and health issues, construction of cell phone infrastructure has been more environmentally sound than the old standard of installing high-cost telephone lines in remote areas. Today over 400 million people have cell phones but lack access to electricity. Taking a cue from the cell phone revolution, there’s an opportunity to construct a low risk/high reward energy infrastructure consisting of dispersed solar and wind projects. These renewable technologies can reduce the need for long and expensive transmission lines, and they don’t require water to generate electricity. Furthermore, with the cost of rooftop panels having rapidly dropped, solar energy has clear cost advantages for supplying electricity to rural communities.

In Africa about 600 million people lack access to electricity, and most are unlikely to be served by the dams and coal power plants proposed by the world powers because the transmission lines from central power stations would cost too much. That’s why the International Energy Agency reports that 70% of the world’s un-electrified areas are best served through mini-grids or off-grid solutions.

The advantages of a dispersed energy infrastructure include ability to reach the poor, reduced cost, less risk, and fewer socially and environmentally harmful impacts. Bangladesh, where something like 35,000 rooftop solar systems are being installed each month, is demonstrating these advantages.

The release of Bruce Rich’s book, Foreclosing the Future, comes at a critical moment, for it provides an insightful, well-written history of the World Bank’s inability Bank to learn from its past failures. Rich exposes the shocking first year of Jim Yong Kim’s term as Bank President, even though Kim came to the job with knowledge of the harmful impacts of past Bank projects.

Solar array at a Gambian hospital

This solar array at a Gambian hospital demonstrates a better way to generate electricity (photo credit: Daltoris).

In September of 2012 Kim extolled the work of the Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) in South Africa where only three weeks earlier, the worst massacre since the apartheid era occurred as 34 workers on strike were shot to death at the IFC-supported Marikana platinum mine.  On his Africa trip Kim lauded the Bank’s $3 billion loan to South Africa for the dirty Medupi coal project, the fourth largest new coal plant in the world with annual greenhouse gas emissions greater than 100 of the world’s countries.

Kim also promoted the gigantic Inga III dam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), even though the Inga I and II dams have been operating for decades with poor results for the citizens of the DRC. 85% of the electricity from these two previous World Bank projects has flowed to the mining industry. At the same time, less than 10% of the population has access to electricity.

The good news is that promising, low risk solutions are available to construct a sustainable energy infrastructure, achieve humanitarian goals, and move the world toward a true-cost economy. But the clear message is to forget about the G-20, the World Bank, the Chinese, the U.S. export-import banks, and the finance ministers to support these solutions.

Power politics drives the decisions of these power players. Big construction companies scheme with governmental ministries to develop larger and larger projects where lots of money can be skimmed. Under such corrupting conditions, the risk that mega projects could have disastrous consequences for life-support systems on earth doesn’t seem to matter to the people in charge.

The ecological concerns of proposed infrastructure projects are substantial. Sediments from the Congo River have created a 300,000 square-kilometer fan on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The high sediment load and oxygen content produce huge amounts of phytoplankton — phytoplankton that sequesters carbon and is a key factor in enabling the Atlantic Ocean to act as a carbon sink. The Inga III dam would damage the sediment fan. Do we want finance ministers ignorantly proposing plans to interrupt the crucial climate-regulating dynamics of the lower Congo River with a mega-dam project?

Hopefully the finance ministers heard our answer of “no” on October 12th, but now is not the time for self-satisfied silence. In fact, it’s a good time to continue protesting the insane ideas emanating from the World Bank and promoting alternatives from organizations that value people and places above profits.

Water Wars on the Way in Absence of a Steady State

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderThe past century’s foolish management of water would not have happened in a steady state economy. But today’s globalized, growth-obsessed economy allows, and even subsidizes, construction firms and power companies to profit by destroying significant water resources that are critical for people’s survival.

Water wars are on the horizon, as massive river engineering schemes, especially in China and Brazil, seek to control the world’s big river basins. International Rivers, a nonprofit organization, has examined the viral spread of dams and water diversions and the harm they cause.

Nation after nation has externalized the costs associated with reckless use of water (a form of cheater economics), and this recklessness increases the likelihood of shortages and ensuing conflicts. Worry about water wars is not exaggerated! In June the front page of the Washington Post carried this headline: “Egypt frets, fumes over Ethiopia’s Nile plan.” The cause of the problem: a giant dam Ethiopia is building (with foreign aid) on the Blue Nile that will remove water historically flowing through Egypt and into the Mediterranean Sea. The article describes the potential for turmoil: “Egyptian military commanders may decide that ‘it is better to die in battle than to die of thirst’.”

Turkey has built massive dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, with the result that water flowing from 2003-2009 to Iraq was cut by 80% and to Syria by 40%. Strong evidence supports the contention that Syria’s ongoing civil war sprang from the massive drought that hit in 2006. As tens of thousands of farmers fled to cities to survive, chronic unrest and grievances intensified to the breaking point. Now over 80,000 people have died, billions of dollars have been spent on the war, and still there is no end in sight.

In contrast to a global economy with its head in the sand, a true cost, steady state economy would approach water issues in an entirely different manner. Guiding principles for this economy include:

  • Making decisions for the long term, not based on quarterly financial returns, and recognizing that healthy river ecosystems are essential for long-term well-being;
  • Examining the potential consequences of proposed actions on ecosystem health to determine true costs and benefits;
  • Paying attention to scientific findings about river flows and aquatic life, including new discoveries, such as the disruption of historical hydrological cycles as a result of global warming;
  • Avoiding actions that will increase tensions surrounding water supplies, especially where the tensions could escalate into armed conflict;
  • Avoiding overpumping and contamination of ground water to preserve water resource for future generations; and
  • Preventing greenhouse gas emissions. (Note: dams emit an estimated one fourth of the world’s human-created methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.)

One might mistakenly think that international institutions like the World Bank would promote such sound principles and discourage nations and other institutions from investing in conflict-instigating projects that destroy local food and water resources. However, so outrageous is the World Bank’s new big dam policy that a group of 80 organization leaders and water experts sent a letter of protest to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.

Dry landscape in Syria

Parched landscapes like this one in Syria can cause increasing tension. Photo by Charles Roffey.

The World Bank’s recent action in support of the proposed $40 billion gigantic Inga 3 Dam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) violates most of the above principles. In a nation like the DRC where less than 10% of the population has electricity, the International Energy Agency has pointed out that the unelectrified areas are best served by mini-grids and off-grid solutions. So much for the goal of poverty reduction where your prime beneficiaries are transnational mining operations!

Will water wars erupt in Asia’s Mekong River Basin, which is shared by ten nations? Major dams planned for the Mekong could destroy the world’s largest inland fishery (relied on by 60 million people), as well as degrade Vietnam’s large rice-growing habitat in the Mekong delta. The great fish legacy is about to be sacrificed to the god of hydropower as new dam building on the mainstem of the river will block out the migratory spawning runs of some 200 species of fish.

River-destroying actions like these are welcome in today’s global economy, but they would never be tolerated in a true cost, sustainable economy. Such an economy would instead select waterless energy solutions in light of growing water shortages and expanding population. Besides being water-free, sources of energy like wind and rooftop solar are better suited to serve poorer communities where there is little hope of stringing enough power lines from big centralized dams or coal plants to reach anything but a fraction of villages.

Now is the time for an energy transition from big dams and other unsustainable projects to decentralized projects that can meet local needs while conserving natural resources. But this transition will only happen if we get to work on a parallel transition: from the globalized, growth-obsessed cheater economy to a sustainable and fair steady state economy.

Finding Real Economic Leadership in the Wake of Rio+20

by Brent Blackwelder

Twenty years after the seminal “Earth Summit” on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil once again has hosted a “fate-of-the-earth” meeting (Rio+20) focused on the themes of a green economy and institutional change.  In the aftermath of the 1992 meeting, too many nations, including the United States in particular, failed to reverse the downward trend in planetary ecosystem health. Today, with a global population of 7 billion consuming resources beyond the ability of the earth to replenish itself, we’d better hope there’s a better attempt at the transition to a sustainable economy after this meeting.

Change must begin with the structure of the economy because a nation’s economic policy is also its social and environmental policy. National economies all over the world are failing — failing to provide economic stability, failing to secure resources for future generations, failing to protect ecosystems and non-human species, and failing to achieve social justice.

In anticipation of the Rio+20 summit, Foundation Earth published a report called “The Economic Rethink: Who Does It Well?.” It challenges leaders to adopt big changes and gives them examples to follow from a variety of nations.  In preparing the report, Randy Hayes, founder of the Rainforest Action Network, and I reviewed over a dozen scorecards that grade nations on their performance — some focus on corruption, others on empowerment of women, still others on environmental protection.

In our 16-category analysis, Brazil, the host of the Rio+20 meeting, receives a failing grade, missing the boat in 13 categories of action toward a sustainable economy. Brazil’s political leadership is intending to make the nation a global powerhouse in agricultural exports, an intention that would mean sacrificing the world’s greatest tropical rainforest, the Amazon, to accommodate industrial plantations for food and biofuel exports.

But the report goes beyond the question of accountability for Brazil. It highlights significant positive steps that some nations are taking to shift to a new economy. In most of the 16 categories, at least a few nations are taking leadership roles. The twin goals of an environmentally restored earth and a socially just civilization are not part of a utopian fantasy: people have adopted inspiring policies and taken forward-looking actions in real places around the globe. The challenge is to make sure that the following examples become the rule rather than the exception:

  • Bhutan is leading the way in development of new indicators of progress. The “gross national happiness” measures deeper values that cannot be captured by GDP.
  • The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with deforested Haiti, is demonstrating leadership forest restoration. Since 2003, forest cover in the Dominican Republic has increased from 32% to almost 40%.
  • In the energy sector, several leaders are stepping forward. Sweden, Costa Rica, and British Columbia (Canada) have instituted carbon taxes to include the ecological cost of energy use in its price. And Germany has blazed a clean energy trail with outstanding results in solar and wind power.
  • Cuba is an innovator in organic community agriculture. Havana grows 50% of its fresh produce within the city limits.
  • In a world awash with financial scandals and offshore tax havens, New Zealand has become the “least corrupt nation” because of its effective legal framework, fiscal transparency, and accountability.
  • Bolivia and Ecuador have put a rights-of-nature provision in their legal codes as have several cities and towns in the United States.
  • Iceland, number one on the Global Gender Gap rankings, is a nation of empowered women. Women in the Land of Fire and Ice hold the majority of jobs in university education and have nearly equal representation in parliament.
  • In contrast to Brazil’s determination to fill the Amazon with massive dams, the United States has led the world in one category: restoration and protection of rivers. Over 1,000 dams have now been removed in the U.S. to restore fisheries and water quality. Furthermore, more than 250 rivers have been safeguarded in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
  • In the Netherlands, “repair cafes” are beginning to address the problem of over-consumption. Such cafes encourage reuse of broken and weathered possessions, providing free repair services.

These examples of leadership are well worth celebrating, but many challenges remain along the path to a sustainable economy. The biggest challenge is that no nation adequately addresses carrying capacity, planetary limits to growth, or sustainable economic scale. All nations must overcome this challenge to ensure a healthy planet and flourishing civilization for future generations.

It remains to be seen what progress will flow out of the Rio+20 meeting, but examples of real leadership in “The Economic Rethink” offer hope that we can dispose of the “disposable economy.”   There’s no longer room for an economy that treats the earth like it’s the site of a liquidation sale.

The Errant Economics of Detrimental Dams and Ruined Rivers

By Brent Blackwelder

Quick Note on Another Matter: On September 3, BP officials threatened not to pay for damage claims and clean up work on its huge spill in the Gulf of Mexico if it is not granted new offshore drilling permits. If you are offended by this blatant blackmail attempt, see Dr. Blackwelder’s call for banning BP from doing further business in the United States.

Lessons from the massive flooding that has beset Pakistan, uprooting 14 million people, underscore the need for a new economic paradigm. River engineering (a mainstay of the old economic paradigm) in the Indus Basin reduced small and medium floods, but set up the conditions for millions to be harmed when larger floods occurred.


Flooding in Pakistan. Image credit: Matloob Ali/Oxfam


Sustainable infrastructure forms the foundation of a steady state economy, but that foundation will have to be rebuilt from the ecologically ignorant infrastructure constructed throughout the 20th century. Big river engineering projects have actually heightened flood damages and destroyed vital renewable resources such as forests and fisheries.

Pakistan has always had monsoon seasons, and for generations people have adapted to them. However, the increases in extreme weather conditions, deforestation, population, and large infrastructure projects like mega-dams have created huge vulnerability. Both the Pakistani and the Indian governments resorted to massive water releases from their flood-swollen reservoirs in order to “save” their dams.

Friends of the Earth International reports that these water releases proved fatal to scores of people around these dams. For years, communities and civil society groups opposed these mega-dams, pointing out that they were catastrophes waiting to happen. They predicted that in the event of extreme weather, as we are seeing now, communities located along so-called “protected” rivers would suffer the most severe impacts. Sadly, in the last few weeks these predictions have been realized.

The engineering of the Mississippi River carries important lessons for Pakistan and the rest of the world. Big dams on the Mississippi’s longest tributary, the Missouri River, have blocked the flow of sediment downstream. The massive dikes and levees along the banks of the Mississippi itself prevented the river from spreading out and depositing silt during flood stages. The end result is the lack of silt for the delta at the mouth of the Mississippi in Louisiana – home of the nation’s greatest wetlands, which are eroding at the rate of two football fields each hour. The loss of these outstanding wetlands means less natural flood protection for New Orleans and other susceptible areas.

To move to a healthy steady state economy, civilization must not repeat the engineering mistakes of the 20th century. In Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth report, the author stresses the need for appropriate infrastructure and maintenance of ecosystems. The problem with the “big dam and levee approach” is that it ruins productive river ecosystems that contain abundant fisheries, bottomland forests, and fertile land. To make the transition to a sustainable economy, scarce financial resources must not be spent on counterproductive infrastructure that traps governments in a worsening spiral of flood relief, damage repair efforts, and environmental degradation.

Throughout most of the 20th century, politicians and the construction lobby disregarded the annual cycles and natural dynamics of rivers and did not care about impacts of giant dams on fisheries and forests. The big dam builders created an unsustainable and highly destructive infrastructure.

A little noticed phenomenon is the dam removal movement in the U.S. Since 1970, communities and governmental agencies have taken down over 500 dams. The cruel irony is that just as the U.S. began to protect rivers and to remove dams that were doing more harm than good, the rest of the world failed to learn from our experience.


Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, where native fish have been almost totally replaced by non-natives.


Captivated by stories of the gigantic Hoover and Grand Coulee hydropower dams, many nations chose to emulate the big dam and levee approach without critically assessing what was and wasn’t working. For example, of the 64 dams built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), an ex-post analysis showed that only 4 actually produced benefits in excess of costs (see The Myth of the TVA by William U. Chandler).

Massive flooding has also occurred this summer in China despite the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest, and the claims that it would control the 1,000-year flood. To “control” flooding, this dam permanently flooded out hundreds of towns and cities, forcing the relocation of over one million people.

If transnational construction companies and river engineers have their way, major rivers around the world will be loaded with dams. The implications for fisheries are devastating as migratory fish passage will be destroyed. For example, on Southeast Asia’s Mekong River, over 3 million fish per hour during migration season pass the spot where a gigantic dam is planned. In Cambodia the large lake Tonle Sap increases six-fold during flood stages on the Mekong. Dams on the river will wreck these centuries-old flood patterns and destroy the fisheries that one million people who live near the lake depend on.

We will never get to a sustainable and prosperous economy if scarce economic resources are spent on wrecking great river basins that provide enormous benefits when they are maintained in a more natural condition. Big dams are the equivalent of putting giant doses of cholesterol in the arteries of planet earth and have no place in the infrastructure for a prosperous steady state economy. So it is time to cease giving foreign aid to the transnational construction industry for more “dam” foolishness.