Hydropower and deforestation: An unexpected linkage or an obvious one?

A dead tree in a hydropower reservoir in Quang Nam province, Vietnam, that forms part of a protected forest area. Credit: Hoang Hao Tra My

A dead tree in a hydropower reservoir in Quang Nam province, Vietnam, that forms part of a protected forest area. Credit: Hoang Hao Tra My

Mekong Basin areas have seen a dramatic increase in the number of hydropower dams in operation or under construction (Middleton, 2012), which has caused many problems not only within certain countries but also to their neighbor countries.

As a result of hydropower dams, large areas of forest have been flooded with water. It is clear that these dams are part of development, but I think that these projects have not given enough thought to social and environmental impacts.

Many hydropower projects grab sections of land that are used to grow rice, as forest areas, and as residential areas. From a social perspective, scientists claim that this causes local people to lose their livelihoods and forces them to change their traditional practices and culture. In an economic respect, because of losing traditional livelihoods, local people have to earn wages and follow market-driver crops. The last point I would like to examine here is the impact of hydropower on environmental factors.

Environmental factors, in this case, refers to forests and ecosystems; normally hydropower projects in Southeast Asia are constructed in mountainous areas, where many ethnic minority groups have been living for long time. They live around forests and their livelihoods rely heavily on forest resources, including the collection of non-timber forest products and traditional shifting cultivation practices for both cultural and economic purposes.

In such areas, local people’s food, medicine, and water come from the forest. A loss of forests means a loss of their livelihoods. If they lose forest areas, they have to go deeper into forests to cut down trees and to collect non-timber forest products (NTFPs) for their livelihoods. Local people have to increase wildlife trading, woodcutting and NTFP collection. Many people also clear forests to move their rice paddies to higher non-flooded ground (Baird et al., 2002).

All in all, it can be said that economic factors seems to receive priority over environmental protection.  Governance has proven to be a serious challenge, resulting in significant risks for affected communities and ecosystems. There is no doubt that deforestation is a clear consequence of hydropower projects. So, is it an unexpected linkage, or an obvious one?

My Hoang Hao Tra is a student of Chiang Mai University, Thailand.

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