Damning Big Dams
Dam! Water, Power, Politics, and Preservation in Hetch Hetchy
and Yosemite National Park. John Warfield Simpson. xxiv +
356 pp. Pantheon, 2005. $28.50.
Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and
the Environment. Jacques Leslie. xii + 352 pp. Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 2005. $25.
The Future of Large Dams: Dealing with Social, Environmental,
Institutional and Political Costs. Thayer Scudder. xviii +
389 pp. Earthscan, 2005. $82.50.
The publication of three new books addressing the problems
associated with large dams reflects an ongoing debate over concerns
such as development in industrializing nations, social and
environmental justice, and the protection of river ecosystems. On
the one hand, people who wish to prevent the building of huge dams
have become increasingly organized and effective at bringing their
message to wider public attention. The protesters range from
environmental organizations such as the International Rivers
Network, which is active on a variety of proposed dams, to the Save
the Narmada Movement, which came into being to oppose a specific dam
proposal. On the other hand, as Jacques Leslie notes at the end of
Deep Water, in 2003 the World Bank announced a new
water-resources policy that advocates just such projects. And
ironically enough, industrialized nations, which have already built
thousands of big dams, are now expending a vast amount of money and
energy trying to determine how to reduce their negative effects.
Presumably today's industrializing nations will have to work equally
hard in the future to reverse the problems brought on by the current
phase of dam construction.
Those opposed to large dams can marshal a sobering array of
criticisms based on those already built, which have provided some
benefits but have without exception destroyed river environments and
the human communities that depend on them. In Dam!, John
Warfield Simpson presents a thorough case study of one such project,
which flooded Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley early in the 20th
century. The story of the Hetch Hetchy Dam, whose construction was
one of the first major defeats of the nascent American environmental
movement, has been told in many other books, but not in such detail.
Simpson skillfully creates a context for the heated debate that
occurred before this dam was built, outlining the emerging national
environmental movement as well as the development of San Francisco
and its water politics. He evokes time, place and personalities such
as John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, creating a
highly readable account.
In the second half of the book, Simpson discusses current debates
over removing the dam. These focus both on environmental issues and
on the wisdom of depending on public versus private suppliers for
electric power. He argues that perceptions have played a large role
historically in the debate over Hetch Hetchy. For example,
development and recreational use in Yosemite made it easier to
accept the plan to flood a portion of a national park that was
already compromised by a long history of land use. After carefully
reviewing arguments for retaining the dam and ones for getting rid
of it, Simpson concludes that Hetch Hetchy should never have been
built and provides a forceful endorsement for removing it.
Both Thayer Scudder's The Future of Large Dams and Jacques
Leslie's Deep Water provide further examples of
ill-conceived hydroelectric and water-management projects that have
created more damage than benefits. Scudder, an anthropologist who is
one of the world's foremost experts on resettlement of people
displaced by dams, brings a lifetime of personal experience and
specific examples to his book. Despite the inclusion of the word
"environmental" in the subtitle, the volume addresses
primarily social and political concerns.
Writing in a more scholarly tone than Simpson or Leslie, Scudder
draws on his experience to synthesize general principles such as the
stages of response among resettled peoples (planning and
recruitment, adjustment and coping, community formation and economic
development, handing over and incorporation). He also provides
several case studies, concluding that under certain circumstances
large dams remain a reasonable development strategy. Specifically,
Scudder argues that they are justified under two sets of conditions:
first, "where export of hydropower is seen as the best option
for providing small late-industrializing countries such as Laos and
Nepal with the foreign exchange that is necessary for raising the
incomes of their very poor majority"; and second, "where
an increasing disconnect between a nation's growing population and
its life supporting natural resource base requires major dam
construction to meet immediate and near-future needs for water . . .
and for food."
These statements are hard to accept, given the following
observations, which Scudder makes two pages earlier:
As global population and consumption continue to increase
so too does the disconnect between people and their environmental
life support systems. . . . [I]n the longer run, most [large dams]
will worsen environmental conditions still further. In other cases,
as with Laos' NT2 Dam, the dam option makes sense not because it is
a good option, but only because it is the best option available for
gaining the necessary foreign exchange for poverty alleviation.
There is evidence that even in the best scenarios, large dams tend
to encourage population growth and resource extraction in areas that
are marginal for human settlement and thus in the long run only
exacerbate existing problems and create new ones. Thus I found it
difficult to accept Scudder's assertion that large dams are
sometimes a promising and even necessary tool for development.
My skepticism was strengthened by Leslie's examination in Deep
Water of three case studies, from India, Australia and South
Africa. In each he follows an individual who is deeply involved in
the dam being discussed. Indian activist Medha Patkar repeatedly
risks her life to protest the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada
River. Australian Don Blackmore, chief executive of the
Murray-Darling Basin Commission, leads Leslie through the lengthy
and complicated attempts to restore ecosystem functions lost along
the Murray River as a result of multiple dams and more than a
century of land-use changes. And it is none other than Thayer
Scudder who introduces Leslie to some of the people who have been or
will be displaced by dams in southern Africa, and to the vibrant
Okavango Delta, where Scudder and others helped to prevent a
proposed dam from being built. Like Simpson's book, Deep
Water is a highly readable account focused largely on people.
The discussion of the Murray River is the only material in it that
provides any detail on the river ecosystem and regional
Of the three books, The Future of Large Dams most resembles
a reference work, one aimed at specialists or those wishing to
extract numbers and generalizations across many case studies. Its
price tag is also likely to deter the casual reader. Dam!
and Deep Water are books that anyone interested in
environmental history or the issues surrounding large dams can sit
down and read for pleasure. Both contain plenty of reference
material, too, but Deep Water is marred by the lack of an index.
None of the books contains detailed descriptions of the river
environments affected by dams. Rather, the authors assume that
readers know that dams alter the ecosystems of rivers. But the
details of how they do so go unexplained. This omission may be
appropriate. Simpson observes that in the Hetch Hetchy Valley
politics ultimately trumped environmental concerns (as well as
economic, engineering and philosophical ones), and it appears to
play a similarly influential role in most decisions about large
dams. The lack of material on ecosystem alteration is nonetheless
disappointing—especially in light of Leslie's concluding
statement that large dams will someday "be reminders of an
ancient time when humans believed they could vanquish nature, and
found themselves vanquished instead." This remark leaves the
reader with the vaguely comforting idea that someday we will realize
that we made serious mistakes in building large dams, but it does
not acknowledge the irreparable losses in species and ecosystems
that will occur before we attain such collective wisdom. That caveat
aside, all three of these books provide discussions and insights
valuable to anyone concerned with the future of our planet.