Damming Up Justice

People around the world are escalating the fight to remove large dams and reclaim watersheds, fisheries, and their traditional way of life. Once thought to provide environmentally clean power, in reality dams are extremely damaging to both the environment and the lives of many people who make their homes in the watershed. The number of dams being planned has been drastically reduced over the past two decades due to mass protests and economic problems with power generation. However, the World Bank continues to fund dam projects in countries with repressive regimes that allow little popular opposition.

Dams affect every corner of the earth. There are more than 40,000 large dams in the world, almost half of which are in China. Dams have significantly altered more than three quarters of the rivers in the northern hemisphere; in China, between 40 and 60 million people have been displaced by dams. Dam construction occurred most furiously between 1950 and 1980, but by now has slowed nearly to a halt.

Why were dams built so feverishly, and why is the World Bank still funding these unjustifiable projects? Dams are built for a number of reasons. To generate power that is supposedly cleaner than burning fossil fuels. Dam proponents also say that irrigation, flood control and improved navigation are all benefits of dams and the reservoir has increased \’recreational\’ value.

Some municipalities draw water from dammed reservoirs, although this accounts for less than a fifth of reservoirs world-wide. If drinking water were a major purpose for dams, the dams would be much smaller than those built primarily for power generation. Most people world-wide rely on groundwater for drinking water.

Perhaps more powerfully than other human constructions, dams signify control of nature. Water behind a dam becomes a tool of commerce and leisure. Dams hold tremendous political appeal, at least before construction begins and things begin to sour; big projects that control nature and harness power are easily related to national pride and the power of the state. But large dams do not benefit people practicing traditional agriculture and ways of life. Nor are dams beneficial to the earth itself.

Rivers Die

Closely related to the social catastrophe of large dams is the environmental devastation caused by these behemoths. Rivers are extremely important dynamic systems: the water that forms rivers has literally shaped the face of the earth. Dams render rivers static, with dire consequences. Rivers and their valleys are among the most diverse environments on earth. Because each river is unique, each riverine environment is ecologically distinct. The changes caused by dams both upstream and downstream have lead to population declines in 51% of the world\’s freshwater species, according to a 1999 report by the World Wildlife Fund. Diverse habitats are flooded, migratory routes are cut off by reservoirs, and logging in remote areas is facilitated by the roads used in dam construction, as well as by displaced farmers clearing more farmland. Dams trap sediment, with consequences that reach the ocean floor. The river downstream of the dam is deprived of sediment and over time becomes a straight, rock-lined channel that supports fewer species and allows less natural flood control. At the mouth of the river, extremely diverse delta environments die without sediment inflow. The balance of sand deposit and erosion along beaches is disturbed, causing coastlines to erode, sea cliffs to collapse and beaches to disappear.

Dams also drastically alter river chemistry and nutrient flow. The water let out of dams is cold and pure. Nutrients that should be replenishing downstream flood plain farmland are trapped behind the concrete, giving rise to blossoming algae populations that, in severe cases, leave water unfit for drinking or agriculture. High algae populations consume the oxygen in the water, leaving the water more acidic and thus more able to dissolve heavy metals from rocks, leading to further contamination.

Rotting vegetation in newer reservoirs actually emits the same greenhouse gases that fossil fuel consumption releases, sometimes at comparable levels! In a particularly notorious case, workers at the Brokopondo Dam in Surinam (South America) had to wear masks for two years after the reservoir began to fill, to protect themselves from severe levels of hydrogen sulfide.

Social Catastrophe

Dams have forced roughly 60 million people worldwide to abandon their homes and land. Millions more people lose their land to roads and irrigation canals, and/or lose access to grazing, foraging, and farm land covered by the reservoir. Diseases carried by insects breeding in reservoirs become serious health problems. People living downstream from the dams are deprived of annual floods that fertilized soil and recharged their wells. The vast majority of people affected are politically powerless, often indigenous people or ethnic minorities.

People are rarely compensated for their losses. Reimbursements that do materialize can hardly rectify the loss of a highly specialized way of life. Resettling people living in a river valley to the plains, or even to a reservoir shore, is far more drastic than moving a family from one US suburb to another. An Indian indigenous person displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam described the inadequacy of the compensation process: \”Our firewood comes from the forest, our fodder from there, our herbs and medicines from there… our fish come from the river down here – which rehabilitation scheme of theirs will even look at all these as our earnings, as items to be compensated?\” Capitalist, investment-minded dam sponsors do not understand the importance of common resources and the intricacies of local economies based on direct interactions with specific ecosystems.

As people fight for more just resettlement policies, they drive up the total cost of dam construction. Particularly fierce struggles or high population densities can result in resettlement costs of more than a third of total construction. These spiraling costs are a major factor in private industry\’s unwillingness to fund new dam projects.

Economic failures

Subsidies are the ship that carried the parasitic dams over the face of the earth. Dams are economic failures which survive only by absorbing money from the state, either via government construction or hidden subsidies to private industry.

Dams are consistently more expensive and take longer to build than planned. They infrequently deliver all of the promised power, due to periods of low rainfall. This is called \’hydrological risk\’. This risk increases as global warming contributes to more erratic rainfall patterns.

Hydrological risk was rarely examined during the era of government funding. However, with the wave of privatization that hit in the 1990s, profit-blinded investors have arranged schemes to pass the costs of hydrological risks along to the power utility. In an opaque dam subsidy, power consumers absorb these costs so that dam investors get returns even when the dam is not generating power.

Why do dams, receive such generous subsidies? Dams are a grand monument to state power, control of nature, the advancement from √íprimitive√ď, natural, dynamic chaos to the ordered, engineered, reasoned state. Dams supposedly improve the value of rivers by harnessing water power. The World Bank, the major funder of dams in lesser-industrialized countries, observed in 1987, \”It is difficult to conceive of a scenario in which India can afford to let the waters of a major river such as the Narmada run wasted to the sea.\”

Dams are the epitome of pork barrel politics, a sure way to bring astronomical amounts of fast money to a district. A significant portion of the money flows via illicit channels. For example, Itaipu dam on the Paraguay-Brazil border is \”perhaps the largest fraud in the history of capitalism,\” according to Brazilian journalist Paulo Schilling and Paraguayan ex-legislator Ricardo Canese. Bribes to Brazilian and Paraguayan military rulers rocketed total construction costs from the estimated $3.4 billion to $20 billion.

A relatively small number of construction and equipment companies feed on the $20 billion spent annually on dams. Well-known dam builders include Bechtel Corp, located in San Francisco, Toshiba and Mitsubishi.

Other industries benefit from dams and hence support them. In the United States, electricity-intensive industries, agribusiness, water supply utilities, barge owners, and cities that want \”flood control\” are major advocates. The aluminum industry, whose smelters rely on a strong electric current, is in bed with dam-builders worldwide.

Dams have been a major sink for aid money. During the Cold War, dams were a powerful symbol of domination by capitalist, industrialized countries and the \”improvements\” in life offered by these advancements. More recently, as the dam industry has withered in the northern hemisphere, aid for dams in the southern hemisphere is primarily a life jacket for the dam-building industry.

The World Bank is the star player in the dam-money-as-aid racket. Dams conveniently allow large sums of money to move into southern countries, and large northern construction companies to continue working, much to the pleasure of both northern and southern Bank board members. Because World Bank loans are secured by taxpayers in industrial countries, and repaid by taxpayers in lesser-industrialized countries, there is little incentive to make sure Bank-funded dams are economically viable.

Scrutiny and Mutiny

Wealthy, powerful people are con artists, wrecking the earth and the lives of poor and indigenous people with the dam scam. But, through a strange, inspiring combination of factors, the scam is almost up. As dam privatization continues, close economic scrutiny by potential investors reveals what a bad deal dams are. Capitalists are partially responsible for the death of their own fat baby.

Also largely responsible for the dramatic drop in dam construction are massive protests by people fucked over by dams around the world. In Thailand this past spring, villagers took over two major dams. More than 1,000 people occupied the crest of the Pak Mun dam and began removing rocks forming part of the dam, a structure that traps water over a salt dome, leaving the water too salty for drinking and agricultural use. At Rasa Salai dam, people set up makeshift huts and vowed not to leave as reservoir waters rose around them.

Protests around the world are making dam construction more expensive, discouraging private investors. The World Bank has greatly decreased funding for dam projects in countries with vocal opposition, preferring the calmer waters of repressive regimes like China.

Despite the bleak reality, dam builders, like addicts, continue to salivate over the ultimate high. Pipe dreams include the Atlantropa Project, which involves damming Straits of Gibraltar, thus turning the Mediterranean sea into freshwater body fed by water from Zaire River. Fanatics would also like to dike off James Bay in Canada to make it a freshwater body comparable to Lake Superior. Water would be sent to Great Lakes, Canadian Prairies, US Midwest and even to the ever-hungry US Southwest.

The Russian government considered reversing flow of major Siberian rivers to empty into Central Asia and Aral Sea, shrinking to death by water diversion to the Russian breadbasket region. Some dream of a huge reservoir in Canadian Rocks to hold irrigation water for CA, TX, AR and Mexico.

The absurdity of each of these plans reveals the obscene lust for wealth and control of nature that fuels all large dam construction. Fortunately, people are fighting these absurd projects.

For additional info contact: International Rivers Network, 1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703. Phone: (510) 848-1155.