How Many Dam Bursts Are Too Many?

Many nations are counting on hydropower to meet growing energy needs even as climate change is likely to increase risks

This week, a breach of the Swar Chaung dam in central Myanmar forced an estimated 50,000 people from their homes and flooded the country’s main highway. The dam, located 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.

 photo of dam in LaosPhoto by Asian Development BankClimate scientists are predicting that increased rainfall will be one of the most unpredictable and potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. It follows that flooding and dam breaches could become more common. (Pictured: Nakai Dam in Laos)

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. Thirty-five of Kerala’s fifty-four 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.

photo of woman displaced by damphoto by Fiona McAlpineA dam-displaced woman in Sarawak. New dams can displace entire communities, and flooding caused by dam breaches poses a serious danger to downstream communities.

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 tons 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 The Borneo Project works. 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 experiencing rain 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-after-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.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Donate
Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

The Latest

Are Black Vultures Being Scapegoated for Livestock Deaths?

New bill would make it easier for ranchers to kill the protected birds, despite insufficient data on vulture predation.

Ian Rose

To Save Native Plant Communities, Diversify the Field

So says ecologist working to save one of California’s most endangered ecosystems and promote LGBTQ+ visibility in science.

Anna Marija Helt

Biden Attacks Republican Climate Deniers as He Unveils Extreme-Heat Rules

President hails proposal to protect millions of Americans from the nation's top weather-related killer.

Dharna Noor The Guardian

Buying Baja

In Mexico's iconic peninsula, locals fight rich outsiders and rampant development that threaten to transform the coast and dry up aquifers.

Krista Langlois Photos and video by Kristina Blanchflower

Guardians of
the Forest

The rural community of Segunda y Cajas in northern Peru leads efforts to protect one of the most biodiverse areas and vital sources of water for the region.

Leslie Moreno Custodio

A Radical Way to Recover Forest

Deforestation has left scars in Ecuador’s San Andres Valley. But in one village, residents are giving nature a respite by protecting their micro forests.

Jonathan Palma Lavayen