Energy and Environment: an uncommon connection

Heena Samant, M.A/M. Phil (International Relations) 2012-2016 from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The word energy has become a fundamental part of our lives. It influences almost every aspect of human life like access to water, health, education, job creation and many more. Daniel Yergin, in his article, ‘The Globalization of Energy Demand’ expresses that the harnessing of energy is what makes the world as we know it. He further mentions that the bounty can be measured in terms of virtually everything we do in the course of a day. Energy production is seen by many as essential to most industrial and commercial wealth generation.

The terms energy and environment are closely linked. Energy production and consumption, which is essential for livelihood, puts substantial amount of pressure on the environment that further leads to climate change, damaging natural ecosystems, and leading to unfavourable human health conditions. There is a wave for the thirst of energy production that is taking place regardless of the negative after-effects that follows it.

This article’s approach is to show that there is an uncommon connection between energy and environment. In order to support this argument a brief illustration of China’s Three Gorges dam is given which led to adverse environmental and social damages.

The 21st century saw increase in the demand for energy from electricity to transport fuels. The driving factors for this boost for energy are mainly the population growth and economic development. It is in the wake of this escalation in the demand for energy that the developing countries moved towards a much cleaner non-polluting source of energy called the renewable energy. The renewable energy sources are seen as an alternative to fossil fuels which produce large amount of carbon dioxide, thus harming the environment. The demand for electricity is said to increase many folds in the future. Although fossil fuels still dominate the production of electricity worldwide, most of the nations especially the economically developing nations are slowly shifting from using fossil fuels to hydropower dams for electricity generation. One of the most important reasons for this diversion is that hydropower does not emit green house gases and contributes in the development of state and society.

Despite the fact that the hydropower dams are a much cleaner source to produce electricity, they have adverse impacts on the environment and society. China’s Three Gorges Dam is a perfect example of how the construction of large hydropower dams has negative environmental and social consequences. China as we know is the world’s most populous country with a fast growing economy. In the past few years, China’s demand for energy has increased drastically. There is a demand to increase the production of electricity and in the upcoming years this demand is going to reach its peak. It is because of this reason that China has started to exploit its massive hydroelectric resources.

The Three Gorges dam is situated on the Yangtze River which runs through the Yangtze Valley in China. Jim Yardley, in his article ‘Chinese Dam Projects Criticized for Their Human Costs’ has described the Three Gorges as the world’s biggest dam and the biggest man-made producer of electricity from renewable energy. According to the International Rivers, a U.S. based non-profit, non-governmental, environment and human rights organization, the Three Gorges dam was considered to be a symbol of China’s economic and technological progress. The proponents of the dam has pointed out that this massive power project has substituted the burning of more than 30 million tons of coal every year and has also been able to control and has also been able to control the devastating floods in the Yangtze valley and has led to the improvement of the quality of life of the resettled population. According to Yardley, China’s booming economy was used to the coal power plants that polluted the air and emitted green house gases that further contributed to global warming. Dams are much cleaner producers of electricity but they have displaced millions of people in China and also affected the environment.

The Three Gorges is a highly controversial dam. This massive man-made infrastructure built to benefit the people has led to severe negative environmental and social aftermaths. This hydropower dam led to the displacement of 1.13 million people and also environmental problems like landslides, water pollution, altering the entire ecosystem, and endangering the lives of millions of indigenous people. International Rivers claims that the dam has submerged 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages. When the project was launched the authorities had promised to provide the affected people with replacement land to farmers and job security to the urban population. However, these promises were never fulfilled. It is said that an estimated 20,000 people lost their jobs and many people complained that the compensation that they got from the authorities was not sufficient for them to buy a new house. Forced displacement, also known as involuntary displacement is one of the most severe damages that are caused by the construction of large infrastructure projects. According to Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour or reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

Also Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to a standard living adequate for health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or the lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not legally binding, it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly for the purpose of defining the meaning of the words “fundamental freedoms” and “Human Rights”. Summarily, rights of the people such as the right to life, the right to highest attainable standards of health, and the right to food as mentioned above has been violated by the authorities.

As far as the domestic laws on resettlement and compensation are concerned, China has many laws to cover the resettlement such as the Constitution requires compensation when the state confiscates private property and also the Land Administrative Law determines resettlement and compensation. It has established other laws as well like the Regulations for Land Acquisition and Resettlement 1991, Regulations on the Resettlement on the Three Gorges, 2001, and Civil Litigation Law and General Rules. These established laws have however not been able to be implemented in a proper way.

The Three Gorges Dam has also affected the ecosystem of the Yangtze River. It has led to the extinction of the famous Chinese dolphin and also the population of various fish species has been declined. The valley has also experienced landslides and earthquakes. According to International Rivers China has adopted strong environmental protection Laws; however they have seldom enforced them. According to the Mekong Legal Advocacy Institute, most of China’s environmental protection laws states that the migratory fish must be protected from dams including Water Law of 1988 and its 2002 revision, the Law on Wildlife Protection 1988, and the Fishery Law of 2007. These Laws and regulations however have failed to protect China’s endangered aquatic species especially the above mentioned Yangtze dolphin.

The above mentioned case of the Three Gorges dam in China is one of the many cases where the construction of large infrastructures have led to human rights violations as well as the failure of proper implementation of various laws and regulations. Although the hydropower dams do not contribute directly to global warming, it does harm the environment by altering the natural ecosystems which in turn affect the livelihoods of the people who are dependent on them for food and income. According to the authorities of these states, it is the local people who will benefit from the construction of the massive infrastructure projects. In reality, however it is the local population and the environment surrounding them that is affected the most. It is true that everyone is entitled to have a good lifestyle and need development, but that should not be done at the cost of loosing our nature. While sustainable development seems to be an answer for this problem, not all seems to have followed on its footsteps. China’s Three Gorges dam is a good example to show that both energy and environment are interconnected concepts where the production and consumption of one leads to the destruction of the other.

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