Author Archives: Jerome Whitington

I'm an anthropologist of science, technology and environment at New York University. My book, Anthropogenic Rivers: The Production of Uncertainty in Lao Hydropower, is due out in December 2018 on Cornell University Press.

Is Uncertainty a Useful Concept? Tracking Environmental Damage in the Lao Hydropower Industry

The collapse last week of a major hydropower dam in southern Laos, the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy, as a tropical storm dumped an unknown, but massive, volume of water into its reservoir, seems to have prompted at least a little soul-searching for a country that considers itself ‘the Battery of Southeast Asia.’ It’s not very often that large dams collapse, but it’s the second time it’s happened this year in Laos (the prior one was much smaller), and some readers may have been affected by the near-collapse of the Oroville Dam—the tallest dam in the United States—in central California in 2017, prompting the evacuation of 180,000 people. Laos has far lower population density—about 10,000 people have been affected by the still under-construction dam—and as of the time of writing there are perhaps a dozen dead and several hundred missing. But a dam doesn’t have to collapse for it to be a disaster. Even when dams work well, in the best case scenarios they produce a tremendous degree of uncertainty for the people they affect about what might happen and what comes next.  (read more...)