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The Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People and the Environment

The battle over dams is at the core of worldwide conflicts involving water scarcity, environmental degradation, globalization, social justice, and the growing gap between rich and poor.
 
 
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[Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the prologue of Jacques Leslie's book, Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, recently published in paperback by Picador.]

Start with the primal dam, Hoover. The first dam of the modern era is America's Great Pyramid, whose face was designed without adornment to emphasize its power, to focus the eye on its smooth, arcing, awe-inspiring bulk. Yet the dam nods to beauty, with a grace that grows more precious year by year: its suave Art Deco railings, fluted brass fixtures, and a three-mile-long sidewalk's worth of polished terrazzo-granite floors are the sort of features missing from the purely utilitarian public works projects of more recent decades.

Hoover is a miraculous giant thumbnail that happens to have transformed the West. Take it away, and you take away water and power from 25 million people. Take it away, and you remove a slice of American history, including a piece of the recovery from the Depression, when news of each step in the dam's construction- the drilling of the diversion tunnels, the building of the earth-and-rock cofferdams, the digging to bedrock, the first pour of foundation, the accretion of five-feet-high cement terraces that eventually formed the face- heartened hungry and dejected people across the country. And take away the jobs the dam provided ten or fifteen thousand workers, whose desperation compelled them to accept risky, exhausting labor for four dollars a day- more than 200 workers died during Hoover's construction.

The dam and Las Vegas more or less vivified each other: if Hoover evokes glory, Las Vegas, only 30 miles away, is its malignant twin. Even now, Hoover provides 90 percent of Las Vegas' water, turning a desert outpost into the fastest-growing metropolis in the country- by all means, take away Las Vegas. Take away Hoover, and you might also have to take away the Allied victory in World War II, which partly depended on warplanes and ships built in Southern California with its hydroelectric current. And take away modern Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix : you reverse the 20th-century shift of American economic power from East Coast to West.

Take away Hoover and the dams it spawned on the Colorado- Glen Canyon, Davis, Parker, Headgate Rock, Palo Verde, all the way to Morelos across the Mexican border- and you restore much of the American Southwest's landscape, including a portion of its abundant agricultural land, to shrub and cactus desert.

Above all, take away Hoover, and you take away the American belief in technology, the extraordinary assumption that it above all will redeem our sins. At Hoover's September 30, 1935 dedication, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes exactly reflected the common understanding when he declared, "Pridefully, man acclaims his conquest of nature."

Hoover's image became one of the nation's most popular exports: after it, every country wanted dams, and every major country, regardless of ideology, built them. Between Hoover and the end of the century, more than 45,000 large dams -- dams at least five stories tall -- were built in 140 countries.

By now the planet has expended two trillion dollars on dams -- the equivalent of the entire 2003 U.S. government budget. The world's dams 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. They adorn 60 percent of the world's two hundred-plus major river basins, and the water behind them blots out a terrain bigger than California. Their turbines generate a fifth of the world's electricity supply, and the water they store makes possible as much as a sixth of the earth's food production.

Take away Hoover Dam, and you take away a bearing, a confidence, a sense of what nations are for. Yet in a sense, that's what's happening. Even if Hoover lasts another 1,100 years (by which time Bureau of Reclamation officials say Lake Mead will be filled with sediment, turning the dam into an expensive waterfall), its teleological edifice has already begun to crumble.

In seven decades we have learned that if you take away Hoover, you also take away millions of tons of salt that the Colorado once carried to the sea but which have instead been strewn across the irrigated landscape, slowly poisoning the soil. Take away the Colorado River dams, and you return the silt gathering behind them to a free-flowing river, allowing it again to enrich the downstream wetlands and the once fantastically abundant, now often caked, arid, and refuse-fouled Delta.

Take away the dams, and the Cocopa Indians, whose ancestors fished and farmed the Delta for more than a millennium, might have a chance of avoiding cultural extinction. Take away the dams, and the Colorado would again bring its nutrients to the Gulf of California, helping that depleted fishery to recover the status it held a half-century ago as an unparalleled repository of marine life. Take away the dams, finally, and the Colorado River returns to its virgin state: tempestuous, fickle, in some stretches astonishing.

From the peak of dam construction in the early 1970s, when large dams rose at the rate of nearly a thousand a year, the pace has dramatically slowed. One part of the explanation is simple topography: particularly in the U.S. and Europe, the best dam sites have been used. The other part reflects a gradual appreciation of dams' monumental destructiveness.

Dam planning processes, once the province of bureaucrats, engineers, and economists, have expanded to include environmentalists and anthropologists charged with limiting dams' harm. And environmental and human rights activists in the U.S. and Europe have allied with groups in poor countries whose members are threatened with displacement.

Though limited by their tiny budgets (and, typically, police intimidation), the groups discovered that if they could tie up projects in long delays, investors might withdraw. The battle over dams now is at the core of conflicts throughout the world involving water scarcity, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, development and globalization, social justice, the survival of indigenous peoples, and the growing gap between rich and poor.

As water has grown scarce in one river basin after another, some people have predicted water wars, but the mortal struggle involving dams is already a couple of decades old. How it is resolved will determine the fate of countless river basins and the life -- human, animal, and plant -- that they support.

Despite their paltry resources, dam opponents in recent years have won the more telling victories. Under pressure from its critics, the world's largest dam financier, the World Bank, established policies to protect indigenous peoples and tightened its regulations to improve resettlement and limit environmental harm -- but the Bank often ignored its own policies.

In 1993, it established an appeals mechanism, the Inspection Panel, which allowed people adversely affected by Bank development projects to file claims -- and dams became by far the likeliest Bank projects to elicit complaints. These constraints constricted dam construction: between 1970 and 1985, the Bank supported an average of 26 dams a year, but as the projects grew politically charged, the number dropped to four a year over the next decade. And dams became the Bank's most problem-ridden projects; as Bank senior water advisor John Briscoe put it, a major dam project "will often account for a small proportion of a country director's portfolio but a major proportion of his headaches."

By the mid-1990s, the Bank was staggering from one dam-related embarrassment to another. For the first time in its history, it was forced to withdraw from a project it had begun funding -- naturally, a dam. And when the Inspection Panel responded to its first claim -- also involving a dam -- by questioning the project's value, the Bank cancelled it.

Led by the tiny but effective International Rivers Network of Berkeley, California, dam opponents campaigned for the creation of an independent commission that could arrive at an honest assessment of Bank dams' performance. On the defensive, the Bank agreed, with the proviso that the Commission study not just the Bank's dams, but all large dams -- an apparent attempt to divert attention from the Bank's problem-ridden dams.

The result was the formation of the World Commission on Dams, an independent body of twelve commissioners charged with assessing dams' impacts, positive and negative, and providing guidelines for future construction. "Truce called in battle of the dams," said a 1997 Financial Times headline over a story about the commission's creation. "The end result," the story said, "may be the development of pathbreaking international guidelines for building and operating dams which balance the competing demands of the economy and the surrounding environment."

In pursuit of independence and across-the-spectrum representation, the Commission's organizers drew Commissioners equally from three categories of nominees: "pro-dam," "mixed," and "anti-dam." Among the Commissioners were Göran Lindahl, president of ABB Ltd., then the world's largest supplier of hydropower generators, and Medha Patkar, the world's foremost anti-dam activist, an Indian firebrand whose protests against dams repeatedly involved courting her own death.

The Commissioners were so diverse that few people who followed the Commission thought they could achieve consensus. Yet in November 2000, two and a half years after its formation, the Commission unveiled its final report in London, accompanied by an enthusiastic keynote address by Nelson Mandela. The Commission's success seemed to herald the growing role of non-governmental organizations, and speculation spread that the Bank would use a process similar to the formation of the Commission in constituting a newly announced review of Bank participation in the international oil, gas, and mining industries.

The finished report, titled Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making , was more than four hundred pages long. Its first part, based on the findings of the most thorough study of dams' impacts ever conducted, seemed to confirm many dam opponents' claims.

It said large dams showed a "marked tendency" towards schedule delays and significant cost overruns; that irrigation dams typically did not recover their costs, did not produce the expected volume of water, and were less profitable than forecast; that their environmental impacts "are more negative than positive and, in many cases, have led to irreversible loss of species and ecosystems"; that large dams' social impacts "have led to the impoverishment and suffering of millions, giving rise to growing opposition to dams by affected communities worldwide"; and that since the environmental and social costs of large dams have never been adequately measured, the "true profitability" of large dam schemes "remains elusive."

The Commission even challenged the conventional wisdom that a major advantage of dams over fossil-burning energy sources is that they don't cause climate change. On the contrary, the Commission said, dams, particularly shallow, tropical ones, emit greenhouse gases released by vegetation rotting in reservoirs and carbon inflows from watersheds.

For all that, the document's second part is more important than its first, for it provides a framework for building dams in the future. Most controversially, it lists 26 guidelines meant to replace the existing arbitrary and politically weighted process of dam decision-making. It calls for examining cheaper and less damaging alternatives before deciding on dams, for obtaining the "free, prior and informed consent" of indigenous people threatened by dams, for planning water releases from dams that can mitigate environmental damage by mimicking rivers' pre-dam flow.

Given the many disasters that dam projects have produced, the recommendations' guiding concept was to identify problems before dams are built instead of afterwards, in the wake of tragedy. But the report drew only scattered endorsements, and many of those were hedged. Most significantly, the World Bank turned its back on its own creation.

The Bank had done something like this once before, but on a smaller scale: in 1991 it had funded an independent panel to review a hugely controversial dam in India, then tried to ignore the panel when it recommended quitting the project. (This dam, Sardar Sarovar, is the subject of Section One.)

Now Bank officials said the guidelines were too numerous and cumbersome, and would cause long project delays. The Bank took thirteen months to issue an official response to the report, by which time it was anti-climactic. The statement diplomatically praises the report, calling it "a carefully prepared and well-written" document that "makes a substantial contribution" and "presents innovative ideas" -- but none were so substantial or innovative as to cause the Bank to change any of its policies.

Indeed, the statement ends by touting the Bank's policies, not the report's. Briscoe, who'd been instrumental in selecting commissioners, now charged that dam opponents "hijacked" the Commission. A more convincing explanation of the Commission's findings is that they arose from dams' historical record. Complacently counting on triumphal conclusions, the Bank gambled on a favorable report and lost.

International commissions typically fade quickly from the collective consciousness, but despite the Bank's disregard, the report so far has escaped this fate. A few countries and regional groups -- South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal, and the Southern African Development Community -- have launched initiatives to consider the report, and many others have taken fledgling steps.

Even without the World Bank's endorsement, the Commission report has become a standard, a compilation of best practices against which less rigorous approaches are measured. Unheeded but not forgotten, the report hovers over dam projects as an admonition to dam builders in the name of human decency and environmental sanity. Meanwhile, the battle between dam builders and opponents has been rejoined.

[Excerpt from "Prologue" of Deep Water by Jacques Leslie. Copyright (c) 2005 by Jacques Leslie. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. ]

Jacques Leslie is the author of Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment , which won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.