Now that the Laos’ vast dam-building programme is coming close to Thailand’s border, the government in Bangkok has suddenly broken its diplomatic silence over a two billion dollar project at Sanakham - claiming it has been sent false data over the environmental impact of the barrage.
Laos is a landlocked country, with comparatively little to export to its richer neighbours - but earns hundreds of millions from selling renewable electricity, cross-border. Its ambition is to be the “battery of South East Asia” - building 100 hydro-electric dams across the mighty Mekong River (shown left) by 2030.
Thailand would do well to be worried - especially after the collapse of another massive edifice called the Saddle Dam D - which caused widespread destruction and killed scores of people, a couple of years ago.
(photo : Free Malaysia Today)
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You can't fail to notice the scale of dam building and other construction in Laos. Villages have been cleared and flooded. Chinese expertise is evident right across the country.
I’ve written before about the over-exploitation of the Mekong and its tributaries. And about the impact of development on the environment and culture of Laos.
But, in Vientiane, sitting alongside some NGO officials in the business of protecting ancient monuments, other thoughts occur…
They were working out how to quantify the relative importance of various Buddhist temples and other special sites : those of which lie along the pathway of new building zones or in the catchment areas of proposed reservoirs.
(Photos : Carsten & Julia Runge)
The experts came up with a simple model… Devise a scale, 1-5, describing how significant a monument is. Then multiply that by the footfall of visitors to the local area generally. You end up with a figure which suggests which temples should be fought for, and which could, maybe, be flooded.
Rough and ready, eh?
But in the absolute absence of other data, and under pressure of time, it’s the best they could come up with. And tells us how imperfect the attempt to be scientific can be.
Back in 1995, the International Obesity Task Force decided to change its advice as to what an optimum Body Mass Index should be. They lowered the upper limit of the ideal range, shifting millions of people into the obese category. Did that cause folks to worry about their weight and get healthier? Or discourage them altogether?
And last week I heard an anecdote from Shailesh Gavankar, who heads the Artificial Intelligence group at Morgan Stanley.
He described a team of AI-using data miners reporting to him that, in their studies, there was a huge correlation between impressive job titles and big profitable companies. He had to gently point out to them it did not mean that impressive job titles give rise to big profits - just that big successful firms have lots of positions to fill, many of them happen to have impressive job titles!
In an era when Big Data is promising to reveal so many secrets which will lead to breakthroughs in research, development, scholarship, production and profit, it would be worthwhile bearing in mind that a lot will still depend on human interpretation at the end point, and on what data you chose - right at the beginning.