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Laos Environment

Sept 5, 2007
Environmentalists block development
My professional career as water resources/irrigation engineer spanned 44 years and covered 50 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In my early years environment and sustainable development had not yet entered the engineer’s lexicon. Books like Small is Beautiful and Limits of Growth created environmental awareness and pointed out for the first time that infinite progress is not feasible with the earth’s finite resources.

 In India, organisations like the Centre for Science and Environment, founded by the late Anil Agarwal, and journals like Down to Earth were responsible for creating environmental awareness. Such UN-sponsored international conferences as the Conference on Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972), Conference on Water (Mar del Plata, 1977), Conference on Environment and Development or “Earth Summit” (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995) and World Summit on Sustainable Development (Rio de Janeiro, 2002) served as milestones in defining and delineating the role of environment in development.
By the time sustainability became the main yardstick of development, Western Europe, North America and Australia had already reached the status of “developed world” or the “First World” and Eastern Europe, the erstwhile Soviet Block, which lagged slightly behind, became the
“Second World”. The rest of the world was labelled the “Third World” or “developing world”.
Although the yoke of colonialism disappeared from a large part of the Third World by the middle of the 20th century, their development remained static mainly due to lack of financial and human resources. The other factor that delayed development is the political instability prevailing in many countries, especially in Africa and Latin America. However, decisions on economic development in some of the poorest countries in the Third World are now being dictated by environmental considerations alone and development projects designed to meet the basic needs of the people, and lift them out of the straitjacket of poverty, are now being sacrificed at the altar of environment. Planners, engineers, economists and financiers have now become passive partners in development and environmentalists have usurped all decision-making powers, enjoying power without responsibility.

Hijacking of projects

In the last three decades of my professional career, I watched supinely important water resources and agricultural development projects being hijacked by my environmentalist colleagues. In Laos, one of the least developed countries of the world according to the UN’s Human Development Index, the development of small and medium size hydropower schemes is under threat because some of them would displace ~ believe it or not ~ 28 households or about 140 people. As many as a dozen international NGOs descended on Laos to defend the rights of 28 families! What they forget is that Laos is a sparsely populated country which is trying to rehabilitate and rebuild itself after being ravaged by internal conflicts and the Vietnam war during the 1960s and 70s. The north-eastern corner of Laos is still a no-go area because thousands of bombs dropped by the US air force still remain unexploded.
On another project in Vietnam, as soon as an environmentalist joined the project team in one of the poorest and most vulnerable areas of the country, his first question was: “Where are the bird sanctuaries and protected forests?” He had to be reminded to get his priorities right because he was in a poor, drought-stricken area of Vietnam where people are without food for three to four months each year.
In southern Philippines, the project environmentalist was determined to kill the project because enough water was not available for the fish downstream of the proposed dam. Rather than asking the project team to alter the design and provide adequate water downstream, he tried to kill the project.
Thanks to the relentless efforts by the World Bank, cooperation between the Nile Basin countries and Egypt has increased recently in sharing the Nile waters and countries like Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan are planning small and medium hydropower and irrigation schemes using the White and Blue Nile waters. The Statesman reports

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