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Damned If You Do... 2
|by Kumud Biswas|
Continued from Previous Page
The time gap between the Damodar Valley and the Narmada Valley Projects is nearly 50 years and in course of this time public perceptions about the benefits of dams have undergone a sea change. The questions which are being asked by the adversely affected people of Narmada valley today were not asked by the similarly affected people of the Damodar valley fifty years ago. Only the experience of the past half century has taught these otherwise silent people, accustomed for ages to suffer silently, to ask these questions. Investigations and studies by the scientific community during the last few decades have also added to our understanding of the effects of dams, both good and bad. Today it is found that the adverse impacts of dams are not small as it was earlier thought. Worldwide about 40 to 80 million people have already been displaced by dams and their reservoirs and more than 400,000 square kilometres of land ' larger than Zimbabwe, 13 times the size of Lesotho and equivalent to the area of the state of California - have been lost. And the majority of the people affected belong to the socio-economically weaker sections of the society. Very few of them have recovered from the ordeal, either economically or psychologically. One-fifth of the world's freshwater fish are now either endangered or extinct. So are many aquatic plants.
The engineers and the planners are the least likely persons to consider these questions. They are technologists and are therefore concerned only with the technical aspects of the project. The professional politicians who take the final decisions ' the so-called policy makers ' usually take into account their own political prospects which depend more on the opinions of powerful pressure groups than on the views of the unorganized common people. And the people who form these pressure groups are technocrats, bureaucrats, industrialists, the urban elites, rich farmers, brokers, financiers, consultants, dam building companies, contractors and suppliers who are the immediate beneficiaries of such projects. Often there are unholy alliances among some of these elements and in many cases there is corruption.
Corruption is generally thought to be an essential characteristic of capitalist societies. But the extent of corruption detected in the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China, a country ruled by the Communists, is stupendous. In this case a considerable part of the fund embezzled was meant for rehabilitation of displaced persons and the list of thieves is headed by high level functionaries.
Over the years vested interests in dam building have developed on global scales. For construction of large infrastructure like large dams involving heavy investments poor nations, with little savings and power to mobilize enough capital, have to seek outside financial assistance. This is provided by rich nations which invest through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial institutions. The motive of donor countries is never altruistic and the loans have strings attached to them; most familiar of these are the borrower country's compulsion to engage consultants and contractors of the lender's choice paying heavy fees and allowing big profits, to purchase equipments from the lending countries at prices which are very often much above the competitive world market prices, and to pattern its economy to better serve the economic interests of the lending country. All these ultimately lead also to political interference. This is colonialism in a new guise. This has been shown by Teresa Hayter in her Aid as Imperialism in which she studied the role of foreign aid in Latin American countries. The role of large dam building companies, according to the report Dams Incorporated, The Record of Twelve European Dam building Companies, prepared by The Corner House and sponsored and published by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, is revealing. "Dams do not build themselves. Nor are they the outcome of impartial decision-making by impartial political and economic actors responding to the pre-existing needs of society. On the contrary, underpinning each of the 40,000 large dams that now straddle the world's rivers is a well-developed political infrastructure that has enabled a small but powerful group of vested interests to direct water for their own benefit; to capture public subsidies; to crush, co-opt or bypass opposition; to filter out or suppress alternative solutions to water and energy problems; and to ensure their own institutional survival, or even expansion" ' these scathing comments of the report about the role of the dam building companies are equally applicable to all the key players.
Construction of such large infrastructures are in many cases wasteful and are deliberately undertaken by corrupt politicians of poor countries because they give them enormous scope of pocketing large sums of money. A major portion of the loan amount ultimately lands up in private Swiss bank accounts back in the first world. A large dam is thus a kind of mutual benefit scheme for all these people. And to promote their benefit they have developed the sale of the idea of a dam into a fine art. The consultants and the self-styled experts, engaged by the hypocrite helpers - the World Bank or the IMF, as the case may be, - will pay visits to the poor country and draw a rosy picture about the benefits of a proposed dam ' so many thousands of acres will be irrigated, so much electricity will be generated, so many jobs will be created, poverty will be alleviated and so on and so forth. Very few will know how these conclusions are arrived at, for the process of consultation is a top secret affair. Not to speak of the people who stand in danger of being ruined by the dam and its reservoirs, even very few, if any, of the would-be beneficiaries would be taken into confidence. They will also suggest some so-called 'structural adjustments' to be made in the borrowing country's economy as the precondition for sanction of the loan which in effect would reduce it, both economically and politically, to a satellite of the lending country. It will often find itself in a kind of 'debt-trap' because the actual cost will be found to be far more than the original estimate.
Investigations have shown that the rosy pictures painted at the time of the planning of many dams were highly exaggerated and based on unrealistic and false presumptions. A recent study, for example, ' The Bhakra Project, the reality behind the legend - made by an Indian NGO, the Manthan Research Centre, has shown that increases in food production in the irrigated areas at the initial stages were modest and that it actually peaked only after the use of heavy doses of highly subsidized chemical fertilizers.
All these people often with ulterior motives and activated by highly unethical considerations, cannot be expected to view a river in the manner in which the early Vedic Aryans in India viewed the river Indus, for example, as recorded in the 7th Rik of the 10th mandala of the Rigveda '
'The irresistible Indus proceeds straight, white and dazzling in splendour! She is great and her waters fill all sides with mighty force. Of all the flowing rivers, none is like her! She is wild like a mare, beautiful like a well-developed woman!'.
Such a poetic view is beyond them no doubt, but what is really strange is that these self-styled experts are even incapable of recognizing the very prosaic and scientific fact that a dam is an antithesis of a river. In their efforts to tame the 'wild mare' they not only hobble and silence her but in most cases they kill her. Nor do they seem to recognize that our physical environment is a product of many factors which are inextricably interconnected in an organic whole. Any change in any of its parts affects the whole system. And a river is the most important factor of that system. Whenever there is any interference in its natural regime it changes the character of the entire basin ' its hydrology, ecology, climate etc.
To meet man's increasing demands for fresh water as well as hydro-power there must needs be interferences which are not always and altogether harmful. But when such interferences are allowed to cross reasonable limits they endanger the river, its entire basin along with everything, both living and non-living, that that basin supports. Damming is an extreme step which should be taken with extreme care. In damming the human interference in the natural regime of the river and consequently in the environment is total. It affects the environment very profoundly. It de-links the river from other channels which together form a network or system of which the dammed river is an integral part. This de-linking does not augur well for the basins which this network serves, as the nervous system serves the living cells in an animal body. It affects the geomorphology of rivers by altering the natural pattern of the discharge, the energy, velocity and direction of the flow, sedimentation, flooding etc which adversely affect the aquatic and riparian ecosystems both upstream and downstream. The dammed river will no longer be able to maintain its channel as an efficient drainage, receive supplies from its tributaries or distribute its water through its distributaries in the manner in which it performed these functions before its damming. It will no longer be able to regularly inundate, enrich by silt deposits and refresh the floodplains and maintain their prosperity which was the river's original gift. Because of the changes in temperature, oxygen balance and nutrients in its water many fishes, insects and aquatic plants will be threatened and gradually become extinct. With diminished flow and velocity it will lose the power to effectively flush its mouths where it meets the sea and thus fail to ward off the inland invasion of salt water which will salinize not only the surface water but also groundwater in coastal regions where vast areas supporting vast populations will become unfit for economic use and human settlement. The estuaries may become the breeding ground of toxic and harmful algae causing havoc to the estuarine ecosystems.
Such extreme steps should not therefore be taken without considering if the objectives sought to be achieved by damming could be achieved by some alternative means with less adverse environmental impacts. Past experience shows that in many cases this question was not adequately considered at the time of planning and such adverse impacts were downplayed to justify damming. The strongest argument in favor of hydro-power dams put forward is that they generate 'clean energy' and are therefore 'climate-friendly'. This myth has been exploded by the finding that large reservoirs emit large amounts of 'green house gases' like methane and carbon dioxide which cause global warming.
According to a study conducted in 2000 by a team of Canadian researchers of the University of Alberta, about 70 million tons of methane and around a billion tons of carbon dioxide are emitted annually by the reservoirs of all types and sizes worldwide. Such releases of the two gases combined contribute an estimated 7% of the global warming impact of other human activities calculated over a 100-year period. And this contribution would be considerably higher if measured over a shorter time span than 100 years. Another research by Dr. Philip Fearnside of the Brazilian National Institute for Research in Amazonia has shown that the rate of such emissions is much higher from tropical reservoirs than from those in temperate countries. The worst tropical reservoirs can contribute many times more to global warming than coal plants generating the same amount of power. Then there is the problem of eutrophication ' the excessive concentration of nutrient, usually phosphorus, in large inland water bodies like lakes and reservoirs. In extreme cases it leads to algal blooms which are often followed by low oxygen levels when the algal material decays. High concentrations of algae cause taste and odor problems in drinking water, and some types of algae are toxic to animals.
Even very fundamental technical questions were not duly considered before building many dams. Normal life of a dam is between 50 to 100 years. What would happen after that? How a dam is to be decommissioned and how the river is to be restored? How to maintain the reservoirs which silt up gradually, progressively losing their live storage capacity? How to sustain the development which has already taken place as a result of the dam when its reservoir supplies less and less water as time passes? The quantity of water flowing through the channel of a river does not vary very dramatically over time. And a dam and its reservoir cannot by any miracle increase the total quantity of available water. On the contrary, it has been found that on an average 5% of the stored water is lost by a reservoir by evaporation. Can they therefore resolve the existing disputes among different parts of a river basin or between competitive sectors like agriculture and industry over its limited water supply? Instead, might not diversion and storage by dams and reservoirs multiply or exacerbate such conflicts? All they can do about quantity is to modify the seasonal variation in supply by making water available during lean months. But what about the quality of river water? Do they cause its degeneration? Scientific studies have shown that they do. In many cases they have been found to have caused degeneration of the land they irrigate. During his travels narrated in his Among the Believers V.S. Naipaul found such bad lands in Pakistan.
Over-irrigation from the Aswan High Dam has degraded the quality of land in vast areas of the proverbially fertile Egyptian delta. This dam has stopped the annual flooding of the Nile, on which one of the earliest civilizations was built. This has put an end to the building and natural fertilization of its basin. Now cultivators are forced to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides in heavy doses which in their turn have caused degeneration of the land and the environment as a whole. And what about the safety aspect of the dams? Are they properly designed keeping this aspect in view? Are their constructions monitored from day to day to ensure that they are built according to design? With so much corruption in dam building industry, is it not probable, nay certain, that there are large scale deviations and use of sub-standard materials? These allegations have been borne out by the large number of catastrophic disasters caused by dam failures throughout the world.
There are people who think that large dams and reservoirs cause earthquakes. In India the Koyna dam is generally blamed for the earthquake that took place on December 11, 1967, in the Koyna region of Maharastra, so long considered aseismic. Similarly, the Latur earthquake of September 29, 1993, is also thought to have been caused by a small dam on the river Terna. Though this theory of reservoir-induced seismisity (RIS) is yet to be adequately verified by the scientists the protests of the anti-dam campaigners have stemmed also from this theory. The critics of this theory think that dams and reservoirs, however large, are too insignificant and cannot be sufficient causes of such colossal extreme geological phenomena as earthquakes.
The international financial institutions, particularly the World Bank, whose total investment in large dams amounts to billions of dollars, as well as the dam building companies, have high stakes in the dam building industry. At first they faced opposition from the affected people in the economically and technologically highly developed countries of the Northern hemisphere where dam building on massive scales had begun earlier and where people first became aware of and articulate about the adverse impacts of dams. These financiers and dam builders therefore gradually shifted their operations to the economically weak and poor countries of the Southern hemisphere. Here again they began to face similar opposition. Now they found that their business was under great threat and the market for their vast investment was shrinking and their past investment was in danger of becoming 'bad'. To deal with a government is one thing, but dealing with the amorphous body of masses is quite different. In order to get out of this impasse, in April,1997, the World Bank, along with the The World Conservation Union (IUCN), supported and participated in a workshop organized in Gland, Switzerland, which was attended by 39 participants representing governments, the private sector, international financial institutions, NGOs and the people affected by dams. It was resolved in that meeting that a World Commission on Dams (WCD) should be established with a mandate to
Under the Chairmanship of Prof. Kader Asmal, the then Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry of South Africa, the WCD started its work in May, 1998 with 11 other members chosen to reflect regional diversity, expertise and representation of interested parties like the financiers, the builders and the affected people and the NGOs. Two of the members were from India ' Ms Medha Patkar, founder of 'Narmada Bachao Andolan', and Mr. L.C.Jain, who was also the Vice Chairman of the Commission. The members were independent, serving in an individual capacity and representing no institution or country. It conducted the first comprehensive and independent review of the performance and impacts of large dams, and the options available for water and energy development. It held public consultations throughout its work through a Forum consisting of 68 members representing a cross-section of interests, views and institutions. Its costs were funded by 'untied' donations from 53 public, private and voluntary social organizations and foundations. The final report of the World Commission on Dams, Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making, was released in November, 2000. It is a unique document and is the first of its kind. An Independent Assessment of this report made in collaboration by the World Resources Institute, Washington, Lokayan, Delhi and the Lawyers' Environmental Action Team, Dar es Salaam, very rightly calls it 'A Watershed in Global Governance'.
During the life of the Commission it was debated whether it was 'an experiment in global public policymaking' and whether it could be replicated in other areas like trade, industry, environment, food security, genetic modification of crops etc, all of which have today become matters of great concern for the common man universally. What is most remarkable about this Commission is its impartiality and transparency. Not many international organizations, not excluding even the UNO, can perhaps boast of these qualifications.
To fulfill its mandate to review the development effectiveness of large dams and assess alternatives for water and energy development, the Commission undertook detailed case studies of 8 large dams ' Aslantas dam (Turkey), Glomma-Lagen Basin (Norway), Grand Coulee dam (USA/Canada), Kariba dam (Zambia/Zimbabwe), Pak Mun dam (Thailand), Tarbela dam (Pakistan), Tucurui dam (Brazil) and Gariep and Vanderkloof dams (South Africa). It also prepared country reviews for India and China and a briefing paper on Russia and the Newly Independent States. In addition to these 125 large dams were surveyed and 17 thematic reviews produced on social, environmental and economic issues; on alternatives to dams; and on governance and institutional processes. At 4 regional consultations 947 submissions and presentations were received. From all these the Commission collected a huge mass of data on the issues regarding dams and their alternatives. The objectives were to evaluate the technical, financial and economic performance of large dams, their ecological, climatic and social impacts and the distribution of gains and losses; an assessment of the alternatives to dams, their benefits and the obstacles and opposition they face; and finally, an analysis of their planning, the process of decision making, selection, design, construction, operation and decommissioning.
According to the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), a large dam is 15 m high from the foundation and includes those which are between 5 ' 15 metres and have a reservoir volume of more than 3 million cubic metres. The WCD adopted this definition and found that there are 45,000 such dams around the world. The distribution of these dams are, China ' 22,000 (48%), the USA ' 6,575 (14%), India ' 4,291 (9%), Japan ' 2,675 (6%), Spain ' 1,196 (3%) and the remaining 7,372 (23%) in other countries like France, Brazil, Turkey, Canada and South Korea with less than 1,000 large dams each.
The economic performance of large dams varies from dam to dam but the Commission found that:
The Commission found that the ecological impacts of large dams have been:
The social impacts of large dams have been:
The deficiencies in the planning and decision-making process found by the Commission were:
The findings of the Commission explain why there have been so much resistance to large dams. In fact any development project, however desirable and beneficial, will fail to find public acceptance if it is iniquitous, inefficient, decided upon without open consultation with all the interested parties, environmentally unsustainable and there is no accountability. The WCD noted that the pressures and the driving forces which made us build these dams have enormously intensified. Total annual freshwater withdrawal today is about 3800 cubic kilometres ' twice as 50 years ago, population is rapidly growing, economies are expanding, groundwater is depleted, water quality is declining and there are severe limits to surface water extraction. Water is no longer viewed as a free gift of nature but as a limited natural resource, a scarce economic good and a human right. There should be equity in its allocation.
But unfortunately globally water consumption is very unequal. According to the experts per capita daily requirement of water for domestic use should be about 50 litres. In 1990 more than a billion people had less than that, whereas people in wealthy countries and city dwellers everywhere were using 4 - 14 times as much. (What is worse, now water is being increasingly treated as a tradable commodity and there are disturbing talks in certain quarters about leaving its allocation to the free market forces and its privatization). There are forecasts that competition will increase among three largest users in global terms ' agriculture (67%), industry (19%) and municipal/residential (9%) uses. By 2025 agriculture alone will require about 15-20% increase in water supplies and about 3.5 billion people will be living in water-stressed countries. For lack of irrigation agriculture will fail to ensure food security for the growing population and more and more countries will experience food shortages.
Two billion people lack electricity, the demand for which is continuing to rise in developing countries. Freshwater species, specially fish, are being increasingly threatened, a significant percentage of wetlands have already been lost, and the capacity of aquatic ecosystems to produce many goods and services on which societies depend is rapidly declining.
To meet these challenges, according to the WCD, we have to:
In cases of existing dams steps should be taken to:
Before undertaking new dam projects alternative options should be carefully assessed to see that the dam is the most competitive development option and it will not seriously threaten or endanger the health and integrity of the river system; all deficiencies in planning should be avoided, steps to minimize social and environmental costs should be taken and they should be included in the estimates of total costs of the project and there should be continuous monitoring for efficient design, construction, operation, safety and maintenance and equitable sharing of risks and benefits. For peaceful sharing of river water and to avoid tension and conflicts between countries and within countries users of different parts of the basin should enter into enforceable agreements through negotiations conducted in good faith. The role of each agency should be clearly demarcated. Governments should draw up a national water policy which is environmentally sustainable, just and realistic to avoid disputes and ensure efficient and equitable water use. The Commission has also suggested a set of code of conduct for all concerned -national governments, NGOs, affected peoples' organizations, professional associations, the private sector, bilateral aid agencies and multilateral development banks.
Through its report the World Commission on Dams has offered its criteria and guidelines to help states, developers and owners as well as affected people and their organizations meet the expectations when faced with the complex issues associated with dam projects. Let us hope that in place of ad-hoc or arbitrary decisions this will foster informed and appropriate decisions and thus raise the level of public acceptance and improve the performance of dams as a development tool. For fulfillment of this expectation, however, all concerned in dam building have to do their respective duties 'in good faith' with the sincere conviction that water is the most precious and critical resource and rivers are no less; they are our very life. Saving our rivers and saving our life are one and the same thing.
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