Large Dams 1: An introduction

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Photo: Palmyra Sculpture Centre, boats Aral Sea
Photo: Palmyra Sculpture Centre, boats Aral Sea

 ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  15 September 2015

Preface

In my post Rukmini Rao Woman of the Year 2014 I mentioned that I have worked with Rukmini and Gramya Resource Centre for Women in India for up to two months each year as a volunteer since 2004. I said my role has been a minor one mostly, doing backroom research, providing a sounding board and visiting various projects. This is true with one exception in 2006.

When I visited Gramya in 2006, Rukmini said that the women’s groups (sangams) she’d been working with in VR Puram Mandal, a tribal area of Khammam District, Andhra Pradesh were in the submergence zone of a proposed dam project — The Polavaram Dam Project. The Polavaram Dam was to be located on the Godavari River in what was then Andhra Pradesh State.

Tony: Protest Poster Polavaram Dam Project 2006
Tony: Protest Poster Polavaram Dam Project 2006

Rukmini said she was too busy to deal with this issue and wanted me to write a pamphlet on the dam to counter the Government of Andhra Pradesh. I agreed to use my analytical skills to investigate the dam but said that if I found that it was a good project, then I would only write about the problems of the displacement of people in the submergence zone and try to help to pressurise the government to treat them fairly (as I learned later this has never been done in India since independence and rarely if at all anywhere else in the world).

The dam did not turn out to be a good project and the pamphlet turned into a dense booklet of 75 pages, virtually a book, and took a year of my life. Although dense it is relatively easy to read. I also had the editorial assistance of a couple of friends (not a small task) and graphic design by another. The booklet was also translated into Telugu.

The booklet is entitled India’s Dam Shame: Why Polavaram Dam must not be built by Tony Stewart and Rukmini Rao, Gramya 2006. You can download a copy below.

Nearly ten years later the Polavaram Dam has not been built but it is still threatened. The two main feeder canals each nearly 200 kilometres long, however, were constructed relatively quickly. No-one local could build the dam but local contractors who donate money to political parties could build the canals. The contracts were worth several billion US dollars.

I have visited VR Puram many times and have also worked closely with V Gandhi Babu and his organisation Agricultural and Social Development Society (ASDS), a Khammam District NGO. Natwan Sangam, a Khoya tribal women’s organisation were also heavily involved in organising opposition to the dam. VR Puram is a beautiful tribal area on the Godavari River and it seems such a shame that it will possibly be inundated for a dam that makes no sense economically.

The following posts on large dams are a way to introduce the idea that large dams and large scale development projects in general are not necessarily a good thing. Vulnerable and powerless people often need to be protected from the negative consequences of such projects because governments, engineers and those with power usually overlook them.

I did an art poster once in a series of generic complaints, which posed the question Is the World Bank guilty of crimes against humanity? With regard to large dams, the World Bank demonstrably is, but the World Bank is not a person and can’t be prosecuted as such.


Dams and diversions in history

The human race, without intending anything of the sort, has undertaken a gigantic uncontrolled experiment on the earth. In time, I think, this will appear as the most important aspect of twentieth-century history, more so than World War II, the communist enterprise, the rise of mass literacy, the spread of democracy or the growing emancipation of women. (McNeill, 2001)

The earliest dam known diverted the Nile near Memphis in ancient Egypt 4900 years ago. Other early cradles of dam technology were Sri Lanka, Mesopotamia and China. But there were limits to dams constructed of earth and rock until after 1850, when applied science, engineering, hydraulics and fluid mechanics opened the way for much bigger dams: first in Europe then, at the turn of the century, in the United States. Italy, colonial India and other states built networks of modest-sized dams, others like Egypt built on a heroic scale. A few, like the USA, the USSR and post-colonial India, did both.

In the nineteenth century the purpose of dams was to extend irrigated agriculture. By the start of the twentieth century a subsidiary purpose was to generate electricity. Dams generally only had one major purpose until the 1930s, when the US pioneered river-basin management and multipurpose dams. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was the first such multipurpose project, inspiring others in the USSR, India and elsewhere. But the primary purpose of most large dams remained irrigation.

The giant dams [also] served larger political purposes wherever they were built. Communists, democrats, colonialists and anti-colonialists all saw some appeal in big dams. Governments liked the image they suggested: an energetic determined state capable of taming rivers for the social good. Dams helped to legitimate governments and popularise leaders something the United States needed more than ever in the Depression years, and something Stalin, Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, and others all sought.

Although not all dam projects are mistakes (particularly smaller ones), all have unintended consequences not envisaged by their builders.

This is a root problem and unnecessary today because of modern tools and technologies (global information systems, new project planning and analysis techniques, among many). It is now possible to foresee and plan to avoid future problems, such as salinisation, other land degradation, sedimentation, fisheries decline, resettlement problems, social trauma and reclamation costs.

Dam construction around the world continued to grow from the 1930s with many large projects, such as in Egypt, India and on the Volga in the USSR. ‘During the 1960s, more than one large dam (15m or higher) was completed per day on average. The historic climax came in 1968. Although the pace tailed off, dam construction continued, so that by the 1990s about two-thirds of the world’s stream flow passed over or through dams of one sort or another.’

Their political utility helps explain why so many uneconomic and ecologically dubious dams exist.

Criticism of large dams grew from the 1980s, particularly with studies conducted by the World Commission on Dams completed in 2000. There is now a huge body of information and case studies on dams and their consequences worldwide.

Photo: NASA, Aral Sea 2000
Photo: NASA, Aral Sea 2000

There are numerous case studies of dams and diversion projects around the world that illustrate issues and teach lessons. The disappearance of the Aral Sea in the Soviet Union is perhaps the most notorious. It is an extreme example of diversion irrigation in a desert to grow cotton: an awful lesson of where extreme ambition and unwillingness to face basic facts can lead to ecological and economic disaster. Other case study dam projects are the Kariba in Zambia, the Tarbela in Pakistan, the Three Gorges Dam in China, dams on the Volga in Russia and the Colorado in the USA.

The Aswan High Dam in Egypt is particularly pertinent and will be discussed in detail in the next article. The Aswan High Dam as a case study exemplifies the many negative consequences of large dams, such things as negative health impacts, salinisation, pollution, loss of fisheries, shrinkage of deltas and siltation. The other frightening prospect raised by Aswan is that forty years of modernisation did not bring prosperity and, to the contrary, may yield disaster in the next 40 years.

Another case study outlines the situation of India pre-Independence and of the Punjab ‘canal colonies’ and Pakistan post-Independence. This will also be covered in another article and exemplifies the growing, seemingly insoluble problems of salinisation and rising groundwater that are too expensive to fix. India has also lost huge areas of its irrigated land to salinisation, a fact that is rarely publicised. These lands are also never removed from the Indian government statistics on ‘irrigation potential’.

Key words: large dam, Rukmini Rao, India’s Dam Shame, Andhra Pradesh, Polavaram Dam, World Commission on Dams, World Bank, Aral Sea, Aswan High Dam, Punjab Canal Colonies, John McNeill


Further information

Introductory quotation from John McNeill Something new under the sun: an environmental history of the twentieth century Penguin, London 2001.

The information closely follows McNeill 2001 p157-159 and the quotations are from McNeill.

The World Commission on Dams, Cape Town 2000 (WCD) as well as producing a final report in 2000 commissioned and encouraged many other reports. These used to be kept as a knowledge base at the WCD website but are no longer.

Video on the environmental catastrophe of the Aral Sea.

India’s Dam Shame: Why Polavaram Dam must not be built by Tony Stewart and Rukmini Rao, Gramya 2006.

Download: India’s Dam Shame

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