Earth be dammed

Journalist Jacques Leslie argues that a century of recklessly building dams has put the planet in peril.

Published September 23, 2005 4:23PM (EDT)

On a list of possible emblems for the 20th century, journalist Jacques Leslie would put the Hoover Dam near the top. Since its dedication in 1935, as Leslie notes in the prologue to his new book, "Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment," the Hoover has served as the archetype for the more than 45,000 large dams constructed around the globe. "The world's dams," he writes, "have shifted so much weight that geophysicists believe they have slightly altered the speed of the earth's rotation, the tilt of its axis, and the shape of its gravitational field." Spread through 140 countries, these dams generate a fifth of the world's electricity supply and make possible a sixth of its agricultural production. They have also displaced millions of people, depleted thriving fisheries, and caused the degradation of entire riparian and wetland ecosystems. The modern dam, in short, has come to signify both the majesty and folly of our age's drive to conquer nature -- a duality that Leslie captures masterfully in "Deep Water."

A former war correspondent, Leslie first wrote about water five years ago in Harper's. In reporting for that piece -- an account of conflicts being triggered as the earth's growing population scrambles to secure fresh water -- Leslie became convinced that more needed to be said. The struggle for water, he believes, will play a central role in shaping the 21st century, and dams lie at the crux. So Leslie set out to fully investigate dams and the controversies that come with them -- "to see dams whole and in doing so to glimpse the fate of the earth."

No investigation of dams goes far without encountering the work of the World Bank. For Leslie, the bank -- the world's largest dam financier -- would unwittingly provide the structure for "Deep Water." In 1997, responding to mounting complaints from indigenous peoples and environmental advocates, the bank created the World Commission on Dams to assess the performance of large dams and create guidelines for future projects. At the time, few believed that the 12 members of the commission -- four each from categories designated "prodam," "mixed" and "antidam" -- would be able to reach a consensus. But in 2000 the commission released a final report bearing all 12 signatures. Large dams, the commission found, rarely perform to expectation and routinely cause unaccounted harm. A measure of the true profitability of dams, it concluded, remains elusive. The bank, in a stunning show of arrogance, refused to endorse the report and its set of 26 guidelines. In "Deep Water," Leslie travels to three continents to profile the life and work of one commissioner from each of the three categories. The result, as promised, is a startling peek at the world our descendants will inherit.

Just before floodwaters began to breach the levees in New Orleans, Leslie spoke with Salon from his office in Mill Valley, Calif., about about dams, global development, and threats to the lasting health of the planet.

I'm curious about the World Commission on Dams. We came so close, it seems, to the system working for once. What remains of its legacy?

It's now five years since the commission released its report, and it is still referred to as a best-practice document. There are quite a few countries that are studying it and trying to follow its guidelines, but the unhesitating endorsements have been relatively few. So it's still out there. It hasn't disappeared the way many commissions have as soon as they produce their report. But it's not being followed either.

Why do you think the World Bank walked away? Were they just surprised that the commission came up with a report that had teeth?

Yeah, I think that the bank took a gamble and lost. They never really believed that the commission would produce a very tough report. As late as 18 months before it came out, the bank's senior advisor John Briscoe told me that he was very impressed with the commission's seriousness of purpose and that he was very much looking forward to the report and very confident that it would be valuable. And yet once it came out, the bank just walked away.

Before we go further, would you briefly describe the three main subjects of your book?

The first is Medha Paktar, who is generally considered the world's foremost anti-dam activist. She's a woman in India who has gone on hunger strikes and tried to drown herself in rising reservoir waters several times to protest a dam on the Narmada River in western India and twice came within inches of succeeding. Once the water had reached above her neck and the Indian police came and pulled her and her followers out because they didn't want to deal with the embarrassment of her death. The first third of "Deep Water" involves going to see her when she was preparing to make another attempt, which didn't happen because the monsoon failed. The following year she tried again and when the water got about high enough to drown her, her own followers pulled her out. Once that happened she realized she had to abandon that tactic. But I do think there's a part of her that really does want to die for the cause and may still find a way.

And Thayer Scudder?

Ted Scudder is an American anthropologist, now retired, who for many years was the only anthropologist at the California Institute of Technology and who became the world's leading authority on dam resettlement, which is a problem bigger than most people realize. The World Commission estimated that 40 to 80 million people have been resettled because of dams, and that number doesn't include the hundreds of millions who live downstream from dams and who, while they haven't been resettled, have lost something vital to their livelihood. Anyway, Ted began studying dams as a graduate student. He was asked to participate in a benchmark study on the Tonga people who lived on the Zambezi River in what, back in 1956, was Northern Rhodesia and is now Zambia. The Kariba Dam was being built and these people were going to be resettled within a couple years. So he spent almost a year there and then every couple of years after the resettlement, either he or his mentor would go back and visit them again. They have now traced their course over nearly half a century, and it's quite a dismaying story. Tonga culture has nearly disintegrated.

Ted went on to study dams all over the world and became a consultant for the World Bank on their social and environmental impacts. The bank didn't listen to him because of its overwhelming interest in building dams, so he became a kind of adornment. So he's often frustrated and still looking for a good dam that will justify his career.

And then there's Don Blackmore, who falls in the pro-dam category?

Right, although he would dispute that. He'd say he's neither pro nor anti. Until he retired a year and a half ago, Don was the chief executive of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, which oversees the management of the only major river system in Australia. His commission is charged with the day-to-day operation of the River Murray, which is severely depleted because of dams and water diversions to farmers. So Don's struggle over the 14 years that he ran the commission was to persuade the farmers and politicians that they needed to return some water to the river to give it some chance of survival.

If the commission were to put you in one of the three categories, where would you fall?

I suppose I would be somewhere in between Ted and Medha, certainly on the anti-dam side -- perhaps not as dogmatically as Medha -- but with a little more certainty than Ted.

You write that you chose to write about dams because you see them as being at the crux of water struggles and our environmental future. How so?

Dams, depending on how you figure, are the biggest structures built by humans. They're huge and their impacts are monstrous. Few people realize how big those impacts are. In studying them, I have witnessed one damaged or devastated ecosystem after another. When you consider that 60 percent of the world's major river systems are now dammed, we're talking about something very big. That means that in 60 percent of river systems sediment is not flowing down to reach the sea, which causes the depletion of nutrients all along the river and, in many cases, erosion of beaches around the mouths of rivers. That's true even in Southern California, where beaches have grown dramatically smaller over the last 20 to 30 years partially as a result of dams. All these things have huge impacts that become known only decades after they start. So it's really important to look at them.

It seems clear that you also see dams as a test case for the viability of development according to the World Bank model.

Right. The World Bank and institutions like it feel that if they're not loaning money, they're not doing their job. And the amounts of money are so vast that the projects tend to overwhelm whatever locale they're in. The bank can't do small projects, which I think are very often much more appropriate, because they don't have a staff that big. It's much easier to oversee one project that costs $100 million than 100 projects that cost a million each. Central governments love these projects because it strengthens their hand. No matter what happens, that money has gone through central government treasuries and enriched them. The biggest of these projects often have everything to do with the way in which political leaders are supported by them. That top-down manner of going about matters doesn't seem to me the best way to get things done. The bank says its mission is to eliminate poverty and yet, in the example of dams, the poorest people are those usually who are displaced, and the bank shows very little interest in their fate. Only very reluctantly has it become involved in trying to make sure that resettlement projects are carried out properly. Even with their interest, they almost never are. And so the poor usually end up being poorer, which makes me think that the bank's biggest interest is really something else.

It struck me that even your pro-dam subject, Don Blackmore, doesn't advocate for building more huge dams, but in your epilogue you mention that the World Bank is indicating that it wants to get back into funding them. What's the deal?

Well, they would say that whereas the United States and Europe have already built their dams, there are many places in developing countries that have not; these places suffer from a lack of water storage or insufficient electricity and, they say, the dams will meet that need. I would respond that they are addressing immediate needs but are overlooking long-term ones. What we're finding out in the United States and Europe -- decades after these dams have been built -- is the environmental destruction that they cause -- and will eventually cause in the developing world.

Have you come across a rule of thumb for knowing when a project has become too big to be done responsibly?

I certainly don't have any numbers or anything like that, but it's interesting that even Medha Paktar was happy that there were a couple of little check-dams that generated enough electricity to light up a few light bulbs in the village where I visited. Even she and the International Rivers Network approve of small dams. Going about these things at a human level makes a lot more sense. There is a project in the Indian state of Rajasthan involving rainwater harvesting and the creation of small ponds that seems to be very effective. I haven't been there but I'd love to go. I think there are ways of doing these things on a small scale that would certainly invigorate the countryside. How you produce energy for cities is a much different question. That involves looking at energy issues much more rigorously than we've done.

Sooner or later, it seems, we in the developed world are going to have to learn to consume less energy. Do you see any way around this?

No. But I think that there are ways of consuming less that are relatively painless. Not that we don't have to sacrifice, but there are all kinds of innovations out there that are not being tapped. Instead the latest energy bill subsidizes oil companies, which to me is just outrageous. We ought to be encouraging every sort of alternative effort, putting money into research and development.

I noticed a pattern in each of the three sections of your book where first we see the unimaginably slow and powerful course of natural history, then there is a period of pre-modern use that tends to be highly adaptive and have a fairly low impact, and finally modernity comes with large-scale interventions that very quickly wipes out a lot of what came before.


So what's next?

Well, it depends what we do from here on out. The change that occurred on the River Murray as a result of the dams and weirs made happen in 150 years what would have occurred in a natural state over roughly 100,000 years. Obviously that sort of change can't continue very long before it takes humans with it. We're headed on a path toward disaster. That's not to say that all humans will be wiped out, but unless we change, there will be far, far fewer of us. The alternative to that is to start taking natural processes seriously and to work with them rather than to pretend that they don't exist, or stand in the way of them. In the end, they'll outlast us. There's no question about that.

This seems to get at a fundamental shift away from the view of nature as ours to master and toward a more urgent sense of our dependency on the natural world. Do you see this change happening?

I'd say that awareness is starting to spread, but it's only beginning. If you grow up with the sort of modern conveniences that most people in this country take for granted, you really don't have an opportunity to think about that, or at least there's no reason particularly why you would. It's not until these things start to break down that you might begin to pay attention and to ask why. I think among scientists in particular there's an awareness of the fragility of these systems and of the ways in which they're being overwhelmed. But while that awareness is spreading, it's yet to change policies sufficiently.

You write that large dams will someday be relics, as will gas-powered cars. How soon do you think that will be upon us?

Well, the timing is the hardest thing to predict. In the book, I put it safely into the future, in 500 or 1,000 years. Whether they'll become relics more quickly depends on each dam. There's a dam in China that by the time it was commissioned and began operation, a third of its reservoir was already filled with sediment. That's perhaps the most dramatic case. But there are plenty of dams that will age and outlive their usefulness over 50 or 100 years. In fact there are quite a few small dams in the United States that simply get abandoned when they no longer serve their purpose. Many were built in the 19th century and now they're just obstacles to fish. In many cases, the owners aren't even known, so it falls to the government to dismantle them. This is one of the ways that we fail to assess the true costs of dams.

I noticed that in the book you mention seeing a Domino's Pizza while you were in India. A similar occurrence famously sent Thomas Friedman into reveries about the coming of the "flat world." You seem to have a very different response to the trappings of globalization. Why do you think that is?

I think, in part, it's a lack of environmental awareness that makes people so enthusiastic about globalization. One of the things missing from Friedman's work is any examination of the environmental consequences. China's economy, for instance, is growing at a rate of 9 or 10 percent a year. There's no way it can continue to do that without sending itself over the precipice. Just in water terms, China is in huge, huge trouble and knows it. The Yellow River no longer flows to the sea for part of the year because so many dams have been built along it. There's so much groundwater being pumped in China that the land subsidence has become a problem all over the place. The groundwater is being depleted and once it gets to a point where it's so low that it's too expensive to pump it -- or there just isn't any more water to pump -- China's agricultural successes will come to a grinding halt. The same is true in India where groundwater depletion is a huge problem. And yet again and again we don't seem to take into account the environmental impacts of what we're doing. We think that the resources we are depleting will be there in perpetuity. There's a constant supply of fresh water. It doesn't get any bigger. There's no substitute for it. Yet we don't take that into account.

Do you think that the markets can be made sophisticated enough to account for what is really at stake with dams and similar projects?

I'm certainly no economist, but there's no question that a pricing system that took into account the true cost of constructing a dam and of having to dismantle it years later, as well as the many environmental impacts, would have a good effect. There's a big battle going over water privatization between multinationals and people who say that water is such a vital aspect of our being that it should never be privatized. The same people often say that therefore it shouldn't be priced. That creates a quandary because I think the only way people are going to value water the way they should is to have to pay a substantial amount for it. We would need to subsidize the poor so that they're not paying the full price for water, but there's no question in my mind that farmers have got to start paying fairly for irrigation. These suitable pricing systems could be introduced gradually, but we've got to start charging what things cost.

This issue of charging what things cost comes up often in the context of displaced people. There seems to be this idea that where there's no cash economy, there's no value, so displaced people from subsistence economies wind up getting nothing because, in the eyes of the World Bank, they had nothing.

Yeah, that came up in Lesotho, where there was an attempt to price out the loss of things like herbs that the downstream people used and would no longer have access to once the dams cut off the flow of the river. The market cost of these herbs would be almost nothing and yet they were very important to these people's livelihood. Somehow you have to have a way of taking these things into account. You also need to take into account the aesthetic value of a flowing river. I don't know of any pricing mechanism that does that. That comes into play in the current movement to take down the O'Shaughnessy Dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley, which supplies San Francisco with water.

I meant to ask you about that. I remember on visits to the Hoover Dam and the Glen Canyon Dam along the Colorado feeling seduced by their majesty and ingenuity, no matter what I happened to know about their destructiveness. Is there any pleasure for you in the sight of a large dam?

[Laughs] Well, there is a kind of awe that I feel when I see them. They're amazing structures and they're magnificent ones. Certainly the Hoover Dam was built with some aesthetic values in play -- polished terrazzo granite floors and art deco fittings. It's quite beautiful to go through, but the same is not true for the more utilitarian dams that have typically been built since then.

So is there any such thing as a good dam?

In rare instances there may be. The needs that call a dam into being may be so big as to be hard to ignore. It's hard to say that people of developing nations should be deprived of water, particularly when one in five people on the planet lack enough for their basic needs. But I think if we applied the standards of the World Commission on Dams -- if we examined every cheaper alternative and priced dams according to their true value -- we would build far fewer of them. And I'm willing to live with that standard. Building dams willy-nilly on every river is insanity.

By Ira Boudway

Ira Boudway is a freelance writer in Brooklyn and frequent contributor to Salon.

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