Dams help in socio-economic development

lower-paung-laung-dam A general view of Lower Paung Laung dam in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Photo: Hein Htet/EPA

20 Feb 19 - Source: Mizzima - As civilizations developed, there was a greater need for water supply, irrigation, flood control, navigation, water quality, sediment control and energy. A serious challenge to climatic adaptation is represented by struggling with irregular and unreliable freshwater supplies. Precipitation, snowmelt, soil moisture and runoff can fluctuate from zero to huge extents, over the scope of time scales and in ways not well forecasted by climate models. The most evident signs are extraordinary floods and droughts; however hydrologic inconstancy can likewise have constant impacts. Water safety includes controlling these hazards with the goal that they don't put an unbearable strain on the community and the economy. Dams play a significant role to cope out with these hazards and also in the socio-economic development of any region of the world by providing hydropower, irrigation, water supply, and employment etc. Dams have been a key component to adjust the spatial and the transient varieties in the water accessibility, appropriately taking advantage of which could bring human-being energy that is clean, efficient, dependable and renewable. Although dams, similar to some other real infrastructure, have some natural and social expenses, the genuine inquiry is not whether dams ought to be built or not, yet rather in what manner should the dams be arranged and overseen with the goal that the economic, social and ecological advantages to the general public, all in all, can be expanded and the expenses can be limited.

For example, in the United States, dams have been a basic part of economic and societal improvement. It is likely that the financial and societal outlook of the United States would be unrecognizable without the ~85,000 dams that together store roughly one year's mean annual runoff, the comparable around 2287 m3 of capacity for every individual according to Knoema. These dams deliver hydropower and facilitate the creation of high value irrigated produce. Around 20% of dams are principally utilized for flood control, lessening the dangers of death toll and property to millions with potential flood exposure. Evaluations show that over $5 billion of flood harm has been dodged to date by flood control dams and levees. In Europe, there are around 6100 large dams, which make a storage limit of approximately 410 km.3 Norway has owned around 6386m3 of capacity for every individual, Greece 1125 m3.

In China, overall the construction of dams has resulted in noticeable improvements in the socio-economic development, yet the water reservoir storage per capita in China is only 589 m3, which is much lower as compared to the countries like Australia, Brazil, Portugal, Mexico and South Africa, having water reservoir storage per capita around 3245 m3 and 3370 m3,1124 m3, 1229 m3 and 569 m3, respectively. In Southeastern Asia, countries like Laos and Thailand have water reservoir storage per capita is 1207 m3 and 1017 m3, which is almost double of the water reservoir storage per capita in China. However, the countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, India, Indonesia and Portland having water reservoir storage per capita of 310 m3, 304 m3, 189 m3, 89 m3 and 76 m3, respectively. As evident from these figures, it is very much clear that the conditions of water reservoir storage per capita in Southeastern Asia are very low as compared to the other regions of the world. Therefore, there is need of more development especially for the countries having more population, which have served to guarantee a satisfactory supply of water by storing water during surplus and discharging it in the midst of a shortage. This would likewise help to make extra irrigational prospective, the generation of hydropower, and in addition defeating territorial awkward nature.

Specifically, with the impact of tropical monsoon, the Mekong countries experience significant uneven distribution of rainfall in one year. Dams constantly assumed the significant part to cope out to these unreliable climate circumstances which can enhance the hazards such as floods and droughts. In addition, the developing populations and economies also require dependable and unsurprising water assets for occupations and sustenance and energy generation. Till now, Thailand and Laos have owned 1017 m3, 1207 m3 water reservoir storage per capita which is major for irrigation and electricity.

The dam has provided a great contribution to the development of human beings, and this contribution will not change in future. Just as the conclusion made by the book Divine Providence, "The nation (United State) has contributed roughly $14 billion toward the planning, construction, operation, and maintenance of the project (dams, levees, floodways). It has proven to be a wise investment that has prevented more than $478 billion in flood damages – a $34 return for every dollar invested", and only in 2011"the MR&T project prevented $110.6 billion in damages, not including potential losses from interrupted business activities and related impacts", "Can you imagine what this river would look like without engineering controls? It would resemble a Third World country – no power, no water intakes, no sewer, no navigation, no farms. The entire lower valley would be destroyed and useless."

At present, water shortage influences more than 40 per cent of individuals globally, and it is expected to increase. Water shortage as of now influences each continent and ruins the supportability of natural assets and in addition economic and social development. One of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) is to give fresh water to poor individuals' livelihoods, which are more specifically tied to natural assets, and as they regularly live in the most susceptible areas, they experience the ill effects of environmental degradation. Access, electricity, irrigation, safe water management and so on, remains ambiguous for some individuals, and it is regularly controlled by financial status, gender ethnicity or geography. Water shortage can be physical (absence of water of adequate quality), economic (absence of satisfactory infrastructure, because of cost-related, scientific or other limitations) or institutional (absence of organizations for a dependable, secure and fair supply of water).

To achieve MDG, it is our duty to dependably build an infrastructure which can develop our improvement and give more advantages to the general population encompassing alongside the expectation to come over and limit the impediments of that advancement. Laos, a small country shows the world that how to achieve MDG and enhance the socio-economic development by providing their citizens, fresh water supply, hydroelectricity, irrigation, roads and employment, as reported by Moe Tint Swe on Myanma Platform. Hydropower infrastructure and generations are one of the major reasons behind all these achievements because Laos has built 13 hydropower stations across the country and plans to continue construction of up to 70 new hydropower stations. By 2020, Laos will generate 12,500 MW of hydroelectric power, nearly four times more than Myanmar's current national electricity generation. Last year, the per capita GDP of Lao PDR was 3,100 U.S. dollars, while the per capita GDP of Myanmar was only 1,711 U.S. dollars, almost a two-fold difference. In 1995, when Laos generated only 200 MW of electricity, it has now reached 5,074 MW, up 30% from the same period last year, although it is a small country generating more electricity than Myanmar. Foreign investment in agriculture in Myanmar only 1%, compared with foreign capital in Laos, investment in agriculture accounted for more than 36%.

Dams are the response for all these problems as it generally played and will assume a role to accomplish the MDG by providing power without or less expending water, irrigation, water supply and employment to the people living in the destitution and enhances the financial advancement of the urban and rural regions. Dams likewise represent the symbol, which strengthens the collaboration between neighbouring nations by discharging the water of the appropriate amount and quality when needed.

The contribution of the dam in the Lancang-Mekong River

The Lancang-Mekong River Basin is the major transboundary river in mainland Southeast Asia, flowing through or forming the border of six countries: southern China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The upstream of the river in China is traditionally named Lancang, and the downstream of the river out of China is named the Mekong. China with 21 per cent of the total catchment area contributes about 13.5 per cent of total Lancang-Mekong flows. In order to improve the capability of irrigation, hydropower and water supply, many substantial dams have been built on the mainstream and tributaries of the Lancang-Mekong River along the entire extent of the River. According to the statistics of MRC, the total storage of the reservoir in the tributaries of Mekong is around 41.5 billion m3. In addition, two hydropower stations, Xayaburi and Don Sahong, are under construction in the mainstream, another one, named Pak Beng, has finished Prior Consultation and Agreement organized by MRC.

Seasonal variations and climatic irregularities in flow impede the efficient use of river runoff, with flooding and drought causing problems of catastrophic proportions. For almost 5 000 years dams have served to ensure an adequate supply of water by storing water in times of surplus and releasing it in times of scarcity, thus also preventing or mitigating floods.

A recent example of such contribution has been seen when the extreme El Nino drought in the first half of 2016, the emergency water supplement from China to the Mekong yielded significant results, with an accumulated discharge volume of 12.65 billion m3 from Jinghong Reservoir by May 31st. Since late 2015, the Lancang-Mekong River has been hit by serious drought because of the effect of solid El Nino occasion. The circumstance has been most genuine in the downstream Mekong, undermining lives and livelihoods. A joint rapid assessment undertaken in March 2016 by the Government of Vietnam, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations reported that the drought that had hit the southern and central regions of Vietnam created water shortages for about two million people. In light of the requirements of the nations in the lower spans of the Mekong River and notwithstanding its own troubles relating to household and agriculture water supply and maintaining stable power grid, the Government of China offered its help and discharged emergency water streams to help lighten downstream drought. According to the initial results of a joint assessment carried out by MRC and China, the emergency water supplement increased the inflow to Mekong River from March to May 2016 by about 1000 m3/s more than historical flows in the same period and raised the water level by 0.21m to 1.44m along the Mekong River mainstream. China's emergency water supplement played an active role in safeguarding domestic water supply in the drought-hit regions and by limiting the extent of seawater intrusion, shortening it by 8km in song ổChiên, 10km in sôngCửaĐại, and 6-7 km in sôngHau. It is clear that the Lancang reservoirs can reduce the impacts of drought in the Mekong Basin.

At present, China has 6 fully commissioned dams for hydropower generation, with the capacity to store about 22.1 billion m3 extra water in flood season. However, as the outbound water volume from China is only a very small part of the total flow at the Mekong estuary, it is insufficient to rely on China's reservoir regulation to cope with extreme basin-wide drought. Therefore, to cope out with these natural and unreliable hazards in future, more advancements and infrastructures need to be established by comprehensive planning for economic development and with public involvement in the downstream regions of the Lancang-Mekong River, which can able to store surplus water during the wet seasons and release water during the dry seasons.

China's effort on collaboration with transboundary river riparian countries

China has uniquely complex transboundary river challenges, with transboundary rivers shared with 13 neighbouring countries and 3 riparian countries. China's Ministry of Water Resources responds positively to all cooperation initiatives by other countries and has set up various mechanisms to promote cooperation. Every year China holds more than 100 negotiations at different levels with neighbouring countries. Significant achievements have been made in many fields, including flood season data provision, expert exchanges, joint research, and emergency management.

China has held annual dialogue meetings with the MRC since 1996, and the Ministry of Water Resources of China (MWR) has been providing flood season hydrological data to the MRC Secretariat since 2002. In 2010, to help downstream countries cope with the extreme drought, MWR provided emergency hydrological data to the MRC. In cases of extreme weather conditions, such as typhoons, China has voluntarily offered information on upstream reservoir operations. The MRC Secretariat and the MRC member countries have acknowledged the significant value of hydrological information supplied by China for flood control and disaster mitigation in the Mekong basin. When Thailand suffered severe floods in 2011 and Myanmar in 2015, the Chinese government responded to requests for help by sending expert teams, whose dedicated work and reports have been praised.

From January to June 2016, dozens of delegations from Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the MRC Secretariat have been invited to China. Hundreds of officials and experts in the water sector and young journalists of basin countries have been invited to visit the reservoirs on the Lancang River, the Three Gorges Project, the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, and some major cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing, to share China's experiences of water management. China also sent staff and delegations to the Mekong Countries and MRC Secretariat for technical exchanges and to reach a better understanding of the concerns of downstream countries. In mid-July 2016, a working level discussion of how to form the Joint Working Group on Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation will be held to facilitate practical water resources cooperation.

The facts show that China has engaged with the Mekong River Commission since it was formed and that this engagement has grown steadily over time, as circumstances have allowed and required. The scale of cooperation has recently expanded considerably. The potential for basin countries to cope with water-related challenges is being improved through cooperation and will grow with increased cooperation.

Sino-India cooperation is another example, which shows China's effort on collaboration with the transboundary river. In the meeting held in Beijing on 14 January 2008, H.E. Mr. Wen Jiabao, Premier of the State Council of the People's Republic of China and H.E. Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of the Republic of India agreed 'A Shared Vision for the 21st Century of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of India' which included the following: "The two sides also welcome their efforts to set an example on trans-border rivers by commencing cooperation since 2002. The Indian side highly appreciates the assistance extended by China on the provision of flood season hydrological data which has assisted India in ensuring the safety and security of its population in the regions along these rivers. The two sides agree that this has contributed positively to building mutual understanding and trust."

China had established hydrological stations in remote, hard-to-reach mountainous areas with harsh climate specifically to provide flood season hydrological data to India. China expended considerable resources and overcome great difficulties to handle emergency issues such as a barrier lake on the branch of Langqinzangbu River in Tibet in 2004 and a landslide on the mainstream blocking the Yaluzangbu River. These actions were recognized by the leaders for making positive contributions to disaster mitigation and prevention downstream. Cooperation is limited, but it has begun and will grow.

Another example is the Sino-Kazakhstan Cooperation. In 2010, China and Kazakhstan signed the agreement to jointly establish the Horgos River Friendship Joint Water Diversion Project to share the water resources of transboundary rivers. The project began in 2012. In 2014, when China itself was also suffering from drought conditions, China provided emergency water supply to downstream Ili River upon the request of Kazakhstan and received appreciative communications from the Kazakhstan Government and people.


In the 21st century, one of the severe challenges is to face the unpredictable and variable freshwater resources due to the large fluctuations in the climate change which can bring about several perceptible changes in precipitation, snowmelt, soil moisture, and runoff. Water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. Around 1.6 billion people, or almost one-quarter of the world's population, face economic water shortage, where countries lack the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers. Multipurpose dams can meet a greater need for water supply, flood control, droughts management, irrigation, sediment control, electricity and navigation etc. The cascade dams in Lancang River have played important roles in natural disasters mitigation amid extreme El Nino drought of 2016 and extreme floods downstream. Sino-India cooperation in 2008 and Sino-Kazakhstan Cooperation in 2010 with India and Kazakhstan have also shown the collaborating nature of China on other transboundary rivers.

Dr Fuqiang Tian is Professor at Center for International Transboundary Water and Eco-Security, Tsinghua University, Beijing and the Chair of the Working Group on Water for Bio-fuel and Food, International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage.

Dr Mohd Yawar Ali Khan is a Research Scientist at Center for International Transboundary Water and Eco-Security, Tsinghua University, Beijing

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