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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.

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.