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The Consequences of Damming Rivers in the Developing World

A review of author Jacques Leslie's new book, which lays bare the high environmental and social price that people in the developing world often pay for damming their rivers.
 
 
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We forget now that the American environmental movement was born not in reaction to smog or to dirty water, but to dams. That John Muir, the great conservationist of the first half of the twentieth century, founded the Sierra Club to fight the dam at Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy, and that David Brower, Muir's successor, built the club into the prototype of modern activism in the struggles over dams at Dinosaur National Monument, Glen Canyon, and the Grand Canyon. We forget because our big-dam days are over -- almost everything that could be plugged with concrete long since has been. But the rest of the world is still deep in these fights. In fact, in many places they still define both environmentalism and development, as journalist Jacques Leslie's superb account, Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), makes clear.

Leslie has written a volume that is heir, both in organization and in power, to Encounters With the Archdruid , John McPhee's classic profile of Brower and his fight against dam-nation, much of which was written from deep within the canyons of the Colorado. Leslie chronicles three people whose lives have been shaped by the fight over dams. One is a full-out opponent, one an ambivalent expert, and one a bureaucrat trying to deal with the legacy left to him by a century of dams.

The first -- and most beautifully wrought -- portrait is of Medha Patkar, an Indian woman who has been battling the Narmada Dam for decades. Narmada has become the prototype of the big third-world dam: expensive, environmentally ruinous, and essentially impossible to stop. Patkar and her activist group, Narmada Bachao Andolan, came incredibly close -- they forced the World Bank for the first time to back down from funding a dam.

But India was too committed to the plan to be deterred. By a 2-to-1 vote of the Indian supreme court the project went ahead in 2000, and as Leslie's account opens, Patkar has been reduced to trying to keep the dam from going higher. Her favorite tactic: to chain herself to a piece of ground and wait for the waters to rise, daring the authorities to let her drown. This approach (used in California, too, in the fight over the Stanislaus River a quarter of a century ago) draws its inspiration from Gandhi, but Leslie's brilliant and unsparing portrait makes it clear that Patkar is not the happy warrior that we remember the Mahatma to be. Leslie searches for the source of her incredible courage and commitment, talking to her family and the friends of her younger life, and traces much of her relentless drive to the unhappiness of her early marriage, where her obvious talents were suffocated. When she finally left, says one friend, "she was at her lowest level, very depressed.... She couldn't see what she could do."

For Leslie, that description clicked. "Medha's suffering preceded her [Narmada] career. She did not suffer because anti-dam activism required suffering. She suffered first, then found a meaningful expression for it in the valley. Suffering became her fuel and her power and her validation, the proof of her commitment to the cause and the source of her magnetism."

This is convincing, and it describes a fair number of talented activists I've known over the years. It's also the stuff of a great novel, especially as it is deftly interwoven with the suffering of the people whose lives are being wrecked by the rising waters. Its operatic quality sets a bar that the rest of the book never quite meets; Leslie's other characters are less troubled, less charismatic. They retire, they don't try to kill themselves.

Still, their stories are remarkable. Thayer Scudder, "the world's leading dam resettlement expert," has spent an entire career studying dam resettlement as an anthropologist and working as a consultant for international agencies like the World Bank to evaluate new projects -- always hoping for what Leslie calls "one good dam." His first project, as a young anthropologist in the 1950s, was the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River along what is now the Zambia-Zimbabwe border. It was the first big dam the World Bank ever financed, and it turned into a horror story of everything that could possibly go wrong, especially the resettlement project that Scudder chronicled. At first the Tonga tribespeople refused to believe their villages would be inundated -- how could a wall on the river accomplish that? When they were finally forced away (only after many of their spear-clutching men were massacred by police) it was to barren, unfamiliar, and droughty land. Leslie visits there 45 years later and finds the villagers are still hoping that the dam will be taken down and that they can return to their homes, or at least that Scudder will come back and explain how it all happened. (He can't bear to, perhaps because of the many children in the community named for him or his wife, Molly.) One old man summed up the mood: "There is nothing to do," he said. "Just sit and wait. Maybe die."

Though it's done the Tonga no good, their suffering, at least for a time, helped turn the tide of dam-building in Africa. Chastened by his experience, Scudder became more militant in demanding better resettlement plans before dams could be approved. In fact, he played a major role in blocking a dam slated for the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and he and Leslie revisit the scene of that semi-triumph. They also spend time in Lesotho, the mountainous country surrounded by South Africa, where at the end of his career Scudder is still trying to improve resettlement plans for people who will soon be displaced by a massive dam, even as the water rises. If Patkar is a picture of unflinching courage, Scudder is the emblem of good-hearted ambivalence. He believes, theoretically, in "development," even as he concedes that almost all the dams he's earned good money helping build are, in the end, disasters. "I haven't been associated with many success stories," he said, "and the few successes have been more about stopping something than creating something." That is a chastened epitaph.

The first two-thirds of Leslie's book are mostly about how dams affect the people around them. The third section, set on Australia's Murray River, is more ecological. It tells the tale of how a century's worth of dams have degraded this splendid land even as they helped enrich its people by allowing industrial farming in a dry country. Leslie follows a bureaucrat, Don Blackmore, as he attempts to restore a (quite possibly oxymoronic) "healthy, working river." In particular, Blackmore's task is to persuade the basin's many users to allow "environmental flows" down the main stream of the Murray -- that is, to surrender some of the water now used to irrigate crops so that the ever-saltier, ever-less-living river might have a fighting chance to make a comeback.

Though Blackmore has some success -- and his story in all its particulars will be familiar to those who have followed battles over California water rights in recent decades -- it's not at all clear that the fight began in time. Leslie writes stunning descriptions of vast tracts of dying trees, of dead lagoons where aboriginals lived for tens of thousands of years on the relative fat of the land.

In the end, this book implicitly asks a question that we've mostly ignored for the last hundred years: How hard can we make the planet work for us? A dam is a way to store up the power of the natural world -- to make it water our crops and power our lives at all times instead of periodically. But it comes at a much higher price than the dam pioneers would have guessed; not just the human cost of resettlement, but the ecological costs of stilling the earth's veins and arteries.

And now, though Leslie barely mentions it (one of the very few flaws in his account), we face yet another conundrum. Hydro power is in vogue again because it produces few greenhouse gases. This is not universally true -- build a shallow reservoir in a tropical climate and the rotting vegetation will give off vast quantities of methane, a gas 20 times better at trapping heat than CO2 -- but it is one more reason to dam, to overlook the enormous costs. In the end, there's never a way to get around the question of demand. It is possible -- it is likely -- that we are asking more of the world than the world can provide. In some places that is farce (Hoover Dam gave us Las Vegas) and in other places it is tragedy. How do you decide between the need of a Chinese peasant for electricity that doesn't come from coal, and the need of the Yangtze to flow to the sea?

In a bitter and incantatory epilogue, Leslie points out that the hulking dams of our lifetime won't last forever. Sediment is already piling up behind them, and some day either earthquake or neglect will rupture them, leaving just ruins behind. "They'll be relics of the twentieth century," he writes, "like Stalinism and gasoline-powered cars, symbols of the allure of technology and its transience, of the top-down, growth-at-all-costs era of development and international banks, of the delusion that humans are exempt from nature's dominion, of greed and indifference to suffering.... They'll be reminders of an ancient time when humans believed they could vanquish nature, and found themselves vanquished instead.Tra

Bill McKibben is the author of "The End of Nature" and "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age."