A Very Good Week for the World's Rivers and a Bad Week for Dams

It’s been a bad week for dams – and a very good one for the world’s rivers.


In Queensland, Australia, river protectors thrilled to the news today that their long fight to Save the Mary River from the ravages of a large dam is, finally, over. The nation’s Environment Minister announced the rejection of the proposed Traveston Dam due to its ''unacceptable impacts on matters of national environment significance.''

The river-endangering dam would likely have killed off a few endangered species (including a lungfish species that has been around since the dinosaurs roamed the earth), flooded farmland, and dewatered the river for miles. The Sydney Morning Herald said, “By stopping the dam, experts said, [Peter] Garrett had made the biggest decision by an environment minister in 10 years of national environment laws.” Residents of the Mary Valley, 160 kilometres north of Brisbane, had for three years fought the dam with everything they had – from horseback protests to long-distance canoe trips to a widespread grassroots PR campaign that saw every fence post and farm building in the Mary River valley sporting signs to Save the Mary.

These dogged and inspiring activists succeeded in creating a national debate on the dam, and shone a bright spotlight on the project’s flaws. Valley residents had been on edge for three years; now, they can get on with their lives – and take immense pride in their accomplishment to save a critical watershed.

Halfway around the world, in Mexico, equally inspiring community activists have prevailed in their fight to prevent a bad dam project planned near Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico. In late October, the governor of Jalisco State announced the cancellation of the Arcediano Dam. The dam was expected to bring serious health risks for the three million people who would drink its water, since its source – the highly polluted Santiago River – is the recipient of large amounts of untreated domestic and industrial wastewater. In 2001, the National Water Commission called the Santiago unsuitable to supply drinking water.

It’s the second such announcement in Mexico this year; in May the Mexican press reported that another big dam – this one near Acapulco – is being postponed. Since 2004, thousands of local farmers have been fighting the construction of La Parota Dam in Guerrero state. They staged blockades, protests and legal actions, and often faced violent police repression in return.

Further south, Brazil, now on the verge of massive damming of the Amazon, may be slowing its dam boom down a bit as well. This week, a judge suspended the licensing process for Brazil’s biggest dam, the huge Belo Monte hydropower project, and ordered new public hearings on the project. Past public hearings on the contested project broke down in protests in September after it became clear the process was a sham. The judgement buys some time for activists working to raise concerns about the dam’s true costs, and its huge impacts on one of the world’s most important river systems.

As if to show just how in-the-dark Brazil’s dam builders are, the Belo Monte ruling came the same day as a huge regional blackout, caused by a flawed transmission system from Brazil’s huge Itaipu Dam. The outage left a third of Brazil’s population in the dark. According to Associated Press, "It is at least the fourth time since 1985 that Brazil has suffered a massive power outage involving transmission lines from Itaipu."

Dams were also in the news in California this week. The Golden State has been all abuzz over a new water plan, pushed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and recently passed behind closed doors by the Legislature. The plan is intended to correct some of the biggest problems with our over-engineered water supply system. But critics say the plan goes too easy on agricultural interests (our biggest water user), and that there are better alternatives to the planned engineering projects.  The Governator’s proposal to build new big water-storage dams and a canal to ship water to Southern California go against the tide of river restoration sweeping the country – including, most recently, a plan to remove four destructive dams on the Klamath River on the California-Oregon border. These dams have been killing fish and harming water quality for decades. In fact, the new water plan has a devious twist: It would grant money to help bring down the dams, but could harm the main tributary of the Klamath with greater water withdrawals. Let's hope California's river lovers can find some inspiration from these global victories, and mount a campaign  to improve our water system without damaging new dams.

But that fight will come another day. For today, here's to the activists in Australia and Mexico who fought so well to protect their rivers. We raise our water glasses to you: To Rivers! To Water! To Life!

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