Podcast #21: Dangerous Dams

Join our podcast host and former NYT editor David Corcoran as he talks with Lois Parshley about her Undark Case Study on the environmental costs of “clean” hydropower around the globe. Also: commentator Seth Mnookin on the rise of predatory journals, and Randy Scott Carroll on what it means to be alive.

A full transcript of the podcast follows.

David Corcoran: This is Undark. We’re a magazine devoted to exploring the intersection of science and society, and we’re this podcast. Hello again; welcome to Episode 21. I’m David Corcoran. For our cover story, we travel to what may be Europe’s last wild river. It’s in Albania, that corner of the Balkans tucked in between Greece and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Reporter Lois Parshley spent time kayaking the river and talking to people on all sides of a passionate debate about its future. The issue is hydropower — the idea of building dams and reservoirs to generate much-needed electricity — and as Lois found out, there is a lot to argue about. She joins us now. Lois, welcome to the podcast.

Lois Parshley: Thank you for having me.

David Corcoran: Maybe we could begin with a little geography lesson. Tell us about this river, (and I’m going to let you say the name) and why it’s considered to be such an environmental treasure.

Lois Parshley: The Vjosa River runs 170 miles from northern Greece into the Adriatic, and what makes it unusual in Europe is that so far it remains undammed. Most major rivers in Europe at this point do have hydropower projects on them, and this means that building hydropower projects on the Vjosa is a controversial subject.

David Corcoran: How did this come to your attention in the first place?

Lois Parshley: I was in the region working on a separate project for National Geographic hiking the world’s newest long-distance trail from Slovenia to Albania. Around the Balkans it has been a spate of new hydropower projects in the works. Currently there are more hydropower projects planned in the Balkans than exist currently in the United States and in the Western world. In the United States and in Europe there has recently been a conversation about removing dams. Aging reservoirs have become inefficient. We know more now about environmental impacts of hydropower. In the Western world, the idea of building new dams is somewhat controversial, and in the Balkans the conversation is still catching up.

The Vjosa has been a central point for environmental activists’ concerns about the impact of hydropower because it currently has no dams on the river, which makes it unique, and puts its environmental issues in the headlines. The pro-hydropower argument is that as climate change puts increasing pressure on reducing emissions, governments have started to pay more attention to how their electricity is produced, and the demand for cheap power in the developing world is growing. The goal is to create electricity without using fossil fuels, and with an eye to greenhouse gas emissions, which makes hydropower seem like a beneficial thing.

The counter-argument is that hydropower has tremendous environmental impacts, much more than scientists previously realized, and additionally actually might produce more greenhouse gases than people previously realized also.

David Corcoran: Really? Why would it produce more greenhouse gases, when we think of coal and oil as being tremendous generators of carbon emissions?

Lois Parshley: Well, the short answer is that submerged vegetation in reservoirs decays, and as that happens methane bubbles are released. Depending on where the dams are, [that] changes how much methane is released. It’s something that people are still figuring out how to measure because methane bubbles tend to occur sporadically. They can be more difficult to study. But in 2016 researchers at Washington State University conducted a big comprehensive meta-analysis. They were looking at over 100 different studies that had previously occurred from 250 different reservoirs, and they found that each square meter of reservoir surface emitted 25 percent more methane than previously recognized.

David Corcoran: Also, your article on Undark is illustrated by some really stunning photography. I haven’t been to that part of the world. I was really struck by how beautiful and unspoiled it all looks. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of kayaking along the river with people who know it really well?

Lois Parshley: Rok Rozman is a biologist who previously had an Olympic rowing career, and he was one of many people who organized something they call the Balkan River Tour to protest dams along the Vjosa, and also generally speaking in the Balkans. As someone who has spent a lot of time on the water, he’s very aware of the different water qualities that you see. As a kayaker, he has had firsthand experience of both healthy rivers and rivers that have direct sewage draining, and the difference is very obvious once you’ve spent time on the water. He’s a big proponent of looking at how a hydropower might damage this environment. One of his main points is that when you build a dam you stop one of the most important things of a river, which is the flow, and it is still unclear how long it might take if ever to recover those things.

David Corcoran: Let’s broaden this discussion beyond this one river in this rather small country. As you mentioned, throughout the developing world countries and power companies are looking to hydroelectric power to either supplement or really form the basis of their electrical grids. Can you talk about some of the other places in the world where hydropower is becoming an issue?

Lois Parshley: The thing with hydropower is that there is a question of whether this size of dams changes the dams’ impact on the river. Some people say one of the river projects, which are projects that divert the river’s flow through a turbine, are thought to have less impact on the environment than big mega-dams like you might’ve heard of in Brazil and in India. But one of the problems is that often these studies don’t look at how many dams might be proposed in a region, and if you’re actually looking at the scaled impacts of all of these smaller dams they can have a far greater impact per megawatt than, say, a very large dam on the Yangtze river, which is to say nothing, of course, of the damage that a single dam in the wrong place can do.

David Corcoran: There have been proposals, haven’t there, to try to make use of the power that exists in a flowing river without actually building dams?

Lois Parshley: Yes. These projects are often called “run of the river,” which suggests that the river is allowed, to some extent, [to] continue to flow. The name can be misleading — these projects often still divert water, which changes what species can live in the river, it changes both the oxygen content and the temperature of the water, and can be very harmful for sensitive river species.

David Corcoran: You report that projects like this have a lot of momentum behind them, not just because of the hunger for more electrical power, but because there are special interests that stand to benefit from these projects. Can you talk about that a little?

Lois Parshley: Sure. The financing of these projects is always a huge concern. Often very large entities like the World Bank are financing smaller hydropower via commercial banks in the region. The reason that’s of concern is because that can frequently minimize accountability. These local banks are supposed to do their due diligence on the projects, but often the larger banks aren’t required [to tell] who their local partners are, so no one — sometimes not even the parent bank checks in to see how well it’s being done, and developing countries often get trapped in these very complex financial arrangements.

Governments are essentially taking on an enormous risk when they work with international banks like the World Bank to borrow money to build dams. Construction is frequently delayed, which comes with really big cost overruns, and it’s also a form of power, which is very weather-dependent. If the rains don’t come, and countries have gone into debt to build hydropower projects, they’re still beholden to their loan structures even if they’re not actually producing or selling energy. The majority of large dams actually never recouped the cost of their construction.

David Corcoran: With all that construction money floating around like water over dams, there’s a lot of potential for people to grab onto some of that money.

Lois Parshley: There is, and there are certainly experts who believe that is often one of the primary arguments for these sort of massive infrastructure projects like hydropower. Sarah Chayes, who works for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in particular — I spoke to her for this piece, and her opinion is that often in these countries the political economy is captured by what she calls a network of kleptocracy. These high-end construction and infrastructure projects like hydropower often have corruption baked in that goes right up to the top.

David Corcoran: In spite of all these arguments, it seems like the ball has rolled pretty far down the hill, and at least with respect to the Vjosa River in Albania, what is the outlook? Do you see any chance that projects like this will be either stopped or modified in some responsible way?

Lois Parshley: Well, it’s difficult to say. I think there are a number of projects currently proposed on the Vjosa. Villagers and environmental activists were able to file a lawsuit against one proposed dam this spring in the Albanian courts, and it’s actually the country’s first environmental lawsuit, so expectations were pretty low. But in May, judges announced that construction at this one dam would need to be halted while they performed further environmental impact assessment. There is some sense that the squeaky wheel might help stop some of these projects. I think the larger way forward will be to look at the funding structure for hydropower; if major international banks like the World Bank stop supporting them, that’s probably going to be the best way to prevent this kind of environmental impact.

Now, that said, we all use energy, and energy has to come from somewhere. There are plenty of environmental activists who are more concerned about climate change, and finding ways to produce energy that produce less greenhouse gas emissions than on one specific river’s environmental impacts. I think that the main takeaway for me after this reporting was that we have been drawn to the idea that there’s a way to generate energy without negative impacts through renewable energy projects like wind, solar, and hydropower. But perhaps the more honest answer is that for every way we find to produce energy there will be an impact, and we just need to be honest about what that is.

David Corcoran: Well, Lois Parshley, I want to thank you so much going all the way to Albania to report this story for us, and for coming onto the podcast to talk to us about it.

Lois Parshley: Thank you for having me.

David Corcoran: Lois Parshley is a journalist and photographer. She’s currently a Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan. She writes for a variety of publications, including Business Week, National Geographic, Popular Science, and The Atlantic, and now Undark, where her article “Dirty Little Dams” can be found on our website. Just scroll down to Case Studies.

Joining us now is Seth Mnookin, our commentator on science in the media. Hello, Seth.

Seth Mnookin: Hello, David. How are you?

David Corcoran: I’m good, thank you. I’ve been wanting to ask you about a recent story by Gina Kolata in The New York Times about a problem that keeps coming up in science media. It’s about something called predatory journals. Can you explain?

Seth Mnookin: Yeah, so predatory journals are something that exist within the academic publishing world, and they’re essentially fake journals. They’re sort of the equivalent of bot journals. They’re journals that oftentimes have names that very closely resemble more legitimate journals, but there is a very, very low barrier to publication, there is sometimes no peer review whatsoever: They will solicit academics to be on their editorial boards or even their editor in chief, without asking them to actually do any work or make any commitment, and they also oftentimes charge to publish in those journals.

For people who are not involved in academia and in the sciences, this I’m sure sounds insane. The reason why these exist is because within academia there is such an incredible premium placed on a publication record on the number of research publications that academics get. What these journals are doing is essentially taking advantage of that, and taking advantage of that anxiety among academics, and that pressure from institutions, and essentially giving people a way to rack up fake publication history to pad their résumés. There is a fascinating article in The Times about this, and about how it’s an issue, and I think it brought to light a number of really different interesting themes.

One is that there is even in institutions that really don’t have the funding, or allow their faculty the time to do in-depth research. Institutions that are requiring faculty to teach two or sometimes three times as many courses as a faculty in a research-oriented institution might require are still asking their professors to maintain this type of publication record, which is unrealistic and silly, and results in what we’re seeing now. The other thing that I thought was interesting was that the article did not address the extent in which in fact I think all of scientific publishing can be deemed as predatory in some way. Anyone who’s involved in journalism knows about the kind of dire financial situation that publishers find themselves in.

That is not true of academic publishers, because overall they have fairly low overhead, they do not pay reviewers, the people who they ask, the scientists they ask, to vet their articles. They also don’t pay the authors of these studies, and sometimes require payment to appear in a journal. Even legitimate academic publishers are oftentimes enormous moneymaking machines, and that was something that was not addressed in this piece that I think is interesting. I think academic publishing is an area that is really in need of a lot of reform, and not just because of this predatory journal issue.

David Corcoran: What I hear you saying is that it’s not just the predatory journals that are predatory.

Seth Mnookin: Exactly. Yes. Another area of frustration in something — and this was not addressed in this article at all, but something that has come up increasingly, and with increasing sort of ferocity over the last five or 10 years — is the issue of open access to data. The majority of legitimate academic journals charge incredibly high prices to access those studies. You have situations where there is research that is funded by taxpayers, federally funded research that is then printed in a journal that might charge $17, $24, $30 to access one individual study. Again, these are journals that are not paying the authors of those studies, and are not paying reviewers. That’s one of the reasons why there’s been this sort of open access movement that has cropped up.

I think the way that you described it that it’s not just predatory journals that are predatory is kind of a somewhat incendiary way to phrase it, but I would say a not totally inaccurate way to phrase it.

David Corcoran: Seth Mnookin is our media and science commentator. He’s the author of a number of books about science and journalism, including “The Panic Virus,” and he’s director of the graduate program in science writing at MIT. Seth, as always, thanks.

Seth Mnookin: Thank you so much, David. It’s great to talk to you.

David Corcoran: What does it mean to be alive? There’s a scientific definition, but it doesn’t quite get at the whole picture. In Part 1 of this two-part feature, reporter Randy Scott Carroll takes us on a journey to explore a question humans have pondered for centuries.

Randy Scott Carroll: Remember when we were kids and it felt like everything was alive? These are my two friends’ daughters. One day after the oldest one said she felt like her toys were alive, he asked how.

Girl: Well, it’s hard to explain.

Randy Scott Carroll: Oh, yeah? You can try. I’ll listen.

Girl: I said it’s hard to explain!

Randy Scott Carroll: Now, as adults, you and I feel like we have a pretty good grasp on what’s alive and what isn’t. However, when I went looking for an actual definition, it seems to be a bit harder to pin down. But for the most part there does seem to be a general checklist, and it starts with being able to make copies of yourself.

Rick Potts: Obviously, you need to have some kind of self-replication, of being able to reproduce oneself.

Randy Scott Carroll: That’s Dr. Rick Potts, the director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institute. Beyond the ability to reproduce, he says, it’s also about the ability to change.

Rick Potts: Inherent in life is this agility, this nimbleness in how it interacts with the surroundings. So I would say that self-replication and inherent adaptability are two components that have got to be part of the equation of life.

Randy Scott Carroll: And for him, that’s pretty much it. Like most of us, he would look at something like the girls’ toys and say it doesn’t reproduce, and it can’t change over time. So it’s not alive. But he says there’s still some ambiguity.

Rick Potts: We have as human beings an extraordinary ability to rake things with a very long rake into our personal, emotional, cultural, social spheres, and through our ability to symbolize, to attribute a symbol to it in which we wrap up amazing emotions.

Randy Scott Carroll: In this way, he says, the inanimate becomes animate, and we start to attribute real measurable meaning to that. In fact, it’s one of our defining characteristics.

Rick Potts: Human beings are the only creature that attributes arbitrary symbols to things, and then forgets that they’re arbitrary.

Randy Scott Carroll: After speaking with Rick, I called up Adam Waytz, the social psychologist, out in Chicago. Hello, Adam?

Adam Waytz: Hi, how is it going?

Randy Scott Carroll: He says there’s a term for the arbitrary meaning humans place onto the nonliving called anthropomorphism, where the tendency to see nonhuman things as having minds. It’s like my friend’s daughter who believes her toys are alive. We often compare the world around us against ourselves.

Adam Waytz: The concept “human” is the most likely concept to come to mind when we’re reasoning about something else. So when there’s something unfamiliar to us, the most accessible concept for us is human.

Randy Scott Carroll: Now, he explained to me that studying whether something is alive or not to the work he does studying anthropomorphism, is very different. But he did say that they aren’t unrelated.

Adam Waytz: I think when we think whether something is alive, whether it’s a virus, or a fetus, or a ghost, a supernatural being, I think often judgments of whether it’s alive, and whether it’s humanlike, are very tied to one another. The perception of these things as human life, or as alive, are just as consequential.

Man: I think that’s that, when there’s no communication.

Randy Scott Carroll: At what point do you think that communication for Mark ended?

Man: When that compressor hit him in the head.

Randy Scott Carroll: Really?

Man: Yeah.

Randy Scott Carroll: This has been a Prismatic Radio Production. Tune in next month to hear Part 2 of “Alive.” For Undark, I’m Randy Scott Carroll.

David Corcoran: And that’s all for this episode of Undark, a project of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT. Our show is produced by Katie Hiler; special thanks to Tyler Scott. We’ll be back next month with more news and interviews from the intersection of science and society. Until then, I’m David Corcoran, for Undark.