August 20, 2017

Dams, pollution and the reduction of food supplies

Published as Chapter 15 of The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams: Volume 1. Overview. Wadebridge Ecological Centre, Worthyvale Manor Camelford, Cornwall PL32 9TT, UK, 1984. By Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard.


Since the early 1960s, environmental pollution has become a topic of increasing concern. Disasters such as Minamata, Love Canal and Seveso have alerted people to the awesome power of chemicals to cause untold damage to both the environment and human health. Yet, despite the growing realisation that pollution and industrialisation are two sides of the same coin, cost-benefit analyses for new hydro-electric schemes rarely even mention the pollution which will be caused by the industries which a dam powers.

Clearly, in the short space available to us, it is impossible to examine all the adverse effects of industrial pollution: the subject is simply too vast. Of necessity, therefore, we have to limit ourselves. For that reason, we have chosen not to cover the hazard that pollution poses to human health or to wildlife – hazards which are well documented in the literature. Instead, we will concentrate on the effects of pollution on food supplies – a problem which is particularly relevant to the theme of this section. First, however, let us consider the extent to which hydro-industrialisation has exacerbated the problem of pollution in general.

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The export of hazardous industries

In the Third World, the industries powered by hydro-electric schemes are generally highly polluting. One reason, undoubtedly, is that pollution controls are almost non-existent in most developing countries. Indeed, ‘permission to pollute’ is one of the major concessions granted by Third World governments in order to attract foreign industries to their shores. [1]

If developing countries are willing (indeed eager) to accommodate polluting industries, it is largely because they do not see pollution as a problem. On the contrary, pollution is frequently seen as a sign of ‘progress’ – a point which is well made by The Oriental Economist in an article on the general attitude of Asian governments towards pollution:

“Such countries are now placing top priority on rapid economic growth and their complaints are not of industrial pollution but rather the lack of it. They want to attain the level of economic growth where they have to worry about industrial pollution.” [2]

To that end, Third World governments have not only been prepared to grant foreign industries a licence to pollute, but have also offered numerous other concessions. Those concessions include: tax holidays; the freedom to repatriate profits; the right to import, duty-free, any raw materials and components required from abroad; low-cost access to land; and (where hydro-electric schemes are involved) electricity at a price which is often below generating costs. [3]

Recently, some Third World countries have gone further still – and set up ‘Free Trade Zones’ where foreign companies are exempted from virtually all fiscal measures or domestic regulations which might impinge on their profitability. Such zones, reports the Republic of Korea’s Catholic Committee for Justice and Peace, tend to attract labour-intensive and polluting industries which “depend on having cheap labour and cheap land to exploit without regard to the environment.” [4]

Something of the philosophy behind Free Trade Zones can be gleaned from a recent speech by President Jayawardene of Sri Lanka. As he put it to the Sri Lankan parliament:

“I want to say quite frankly that the Free Trade Zone will be like the ‘Robber Baron’ areas set up in America, Japan and Britain before the industrial revolution. Let them fight each other, compete with each other, destroy each other and let the fittest survive – all for the benefit of Sri Lanka.”

The package of concessions offered by Third World countries – and, in particular, the licence to pollute – is one that many hazardous industries in the industrialised world have found hard to resist. Faced with tougher pollution controls in their home countries, many companies have therefore exported their ‘dirtier’ operations to the developing countries.

The pollution caused by the export of hazardous industries is further exacerbated by the tendency for such industries to be concentrated in a limited area. Where hydro-electric schemes are involved, for example, it is normal for several industries to form a consortium in order to guarantee that all the electricity produced is actually used and paid for – an assurance which is generally required by the major development banks before any loans are forthcoming. In addition, by forming a consortium, the companies involved greatly enhance their ‘bargaining power’ in negotiations with host governments.

Thus, the Amazon Aluminium smelter project (signed in 1976) involves no less than 32 different corporations including five aluminium companies and a number of trading companies. [5] Similarly, the Purari Scheme in New Guinea (as originally conceived by the Industrial Bank of Japan’s Survey Mission) would have involved installing an aluminium reduction plant; factories making ferro alloys, caustic soda and electrolytic copper; an electrolytic zinc plant; a silicon carbide plant; a natural gas liquefaction plant; and a urea fertiliser factory. One needs little imagination to visualise the pollution which would have resulted from concentrating so many heavy industries in a single area – particularly when their managers had been given carte blanche to pollute.

The trend towards exporting hazardous industries is particularly apparent in Japan. Indeed, as the Australian environmental group International Development Action (IDA) points out, one of the major reasons for Japanese interest in financing the construction of hydroelectric plants in SE Asia and Oceania is that conditions within Japan no longer favour the further expansion of energy-intensive heavy industries.

  • For one thing, the high price of labour has made construction costs uncompetitive;
  • for another, the small densely populated and heavily industrialised islands of Japan can no longer accommodate further pollution.

It is a problem of which Japanese industry is fully aware. In 1973, for instance, the Iron and Steel Committee of the Industrial Structure Council – government advisory body – reported:

“The biggest problems faced by the steel industry in the seventies are those of environmental pollution and of energy and raw material resources. In future . . . there should be positive endeavour to locate at overseas’ sites, with the Government providing the proper legal basis for a system enabling proper control of overseas siting projects.” [6]

That strategy has since been followed by numerous Japanese companies – generally with severe ecological consequences for those countries to which polluting industries have been exported. The following two examples suffice to make the point:

Some years ago, the Kawasaki Steel Corporation (KSC) announced plans to add a new blast furnace – to be the biggest in the world – to its main factory on Japan’s Chiba coast. The project met with widespread local opposition. Hardly surprising, perhaps, for the Chiba coast – once a beautiful and unspoilt area, dotted with small fishing villages – is now one of the most polluted regions of Japan. Indeed, since the KSC’s steel mill began operations just after the war, more than 30 large industrial plants (including oil and chemical factories, shipbuilding yards and power stations) have been established on 4,341 hectares of reclaimed land in the area.

As that industrial complex grew, reports IDA, so the local environment was progressively blighted.

“The sky and land became covered with smoke and wastes . . . crude oil and industrial wastes have turned the see a coffee colour and the air is a reeking, dirty violet haze.”

Indeed, the area is now so polluted that is known as ‘the pollution department store’, a grim reference to the fact that one can find every type of pollution there. Inevitably, the health of local inhabitants has suffered. By 1977, 39 people had died from diseases associated with pollution and nearly 700 cases of pollution-induced disease had been registered by the Chiba city authorities.

The new development proposed by KSC would effectively have doubled pollution emissions from its steel mill – and the public simply would have not have it. KSC was thus forced to compromise and eventually decided to transfer the sinter plant – one of the most highly polluting elements of the proposed development – to Mindanao in the Philippines. [*2]

“The sintering of iron ore involves the partial melting of the fine ore to form larger grains, suitable for the smooth operation of a blast furnace. The feed to the sinter plant consists of coke and limestone as well as the ore. They are heated together to temperatures around 1300C, and in this process impurities are burnt away. As well as heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, the exhaust gas from the plant contains large amounts of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. A sinter plant in an integrated steel works will produce about half the total emissions of these gases.” [Purari, International Development Action, p. 183.]

In 1974, the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr. Tanaka, visited Manila and obtained President Marcos’ agreement to KSC’s plans. “Industrialisation is what we are aiming for,” announced Marcos. “If it gets difficult to expand plants in Japan, we are willing to accept them.” [7]

The plant began operating in 1977, and the surrounding area rapidly became visibly polluted. Although the Government’s National Pollution Control Board attempted to monitor that pollution, the Board alleged that its efforts to do so were hampered by the company – apparently deliberately so. Thus the Board complained:

“By taking samples at 30 places around the factory, continuous investigation of water pollution is carried out. However, you are not allowed to go close to the factory to take the most important samples. It is forbidden to go near the plant and there is heavy surveillance equipment all around it. So the establishment of the National Pollution Control Board is a pure formality as it is impossible to do any real investigations.” [8]

Policed by a watchdog without teeth, Kawasaki Steel thus effectively obtained a licence to pollute. In addition, the company was able to benefit from supplies of both cheap electricity and cheap labour. In fact, for KSC, the move to the Philippines could not have been more profitable.

As with the iron and steel industries, growing opposition to the pollution caused by Japan’s aluminium industry has forced many companies to site their smelters abroad. The ecological damage caused by such smelters can indeed be devastating. Thus, according to IDA, Nippon Light Metal’s Kanbara plant has proved so polluting that, today, no plants grow “within a radius of ten kilometres of the refinery“. [9]

Not surprisingly, a proposal to build a similar plant at Okinawa was vetoed in 1973 as a result of local opposition. Five aluminium producers then formed themselves into a consortiumn and began to look for alternative sites outside Japan – sites, that is, where they would be given the requisite licence to pollute. In the event, they chose Kuala Tanjung on the eastern coast of Sumatra.

As a result of negotiations with the Indonesian Government, it was agreed that a smelter, capable of producing 220,000 tonnes of aluminium a year, should be built – and that it should be powered by two 500 MW hydro-electric dams on the Asahan River. To finance their share of the project – some $900 million – the five original ccmpanies joined forces with seven trading companies and formed the Japan Asahan Aluminium Company (JAAC). The contract for the scheme was signed in 1975.

Under that contract, 80 percent of the electricity produced by the Asahan Dams was to be supplied to the smelter at cost price : moreover, that price was to be determined by the JAAC. [10] The consortium thus obtained both cheap electricity and a means of exporting its pollution problems. Small wonder, perhaps, that the chief negotiator for the Indonesian Government was later to admit: “Indonesia is not going to draw any major benefit from the project.” [11]

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The effect of pollution on crop growth

Throughout this section, it has been our fundamental premise that the one commodity which the Third World needs most is food. Indeed, we would argue that the effect which a development project has on food supplies should be taken as a critical yardstick against which to judge the desirability of that project. With that yardstick in mind, therefore, let us consider how the pollution we have described above might affect food production.

The adverse impact of pollution on crop growth is now well documented. In the United States (where much of the relevant research has been undertaken) the National Agricultural Lands Study, for instance, reports that some grape-producing regions have had to be abandoned as a result of photo-chemical smog. [12] So too, there are cases of spinach production being discontinued near urban centres and of tobacco farms in the eastern USA being closed because of air pollution.

In 1975, a study of agricultural production in Michigan found that certain crops (notably beans) were being seriously affected by ozone pollution. [14] (Ozone is not emitted as such by industrial plants. It is produced by the action of sunlight on the nitrogen oxides generated by the combustion of fossil fuels. These tend to be oxidised by ultraviolet rays from the sun, thus giving rise to ozone.)

In particular, the Bay City-Sagina region – a major bean producing region – had suffered major crop losses due to increased ozone levels. More recently, a 1982 study (conducted by the National Crop Loss Assessment Network) sought to establish the effect of ozone pollution on the yields of corn, wheat, soya beans and peanuts. It concluded that ozone caused the loss of between $1.9 and 4.5 billion worth of such crops each year. [15 ]

Ozone is clearly not the only pollutant which reduces crop yields. Researchers in the UK, for instance, have found that yields of perennial rye grass drop when exposed to sulphur dioxide: so too, yields of plants continuously exposed to air with a sulphur dioxide content of 191 ug / m3 , fell by 50 percent. The researchers – Drs. Brough, Parry and Whittingham – concluded: “There is a strong indication that pollutants previously regarded as acceptable may be causing significant yield losses in agriculture.” [16]

Recently, the Plant Physiology Institute in Beltsville, Maryland, has carried out experiments to determine the effect of subjecting crops to various combinations of chemicals – ozone and sulphur dioxide for instance. That research revealed that when sulphur dioxide is added to air already containing ozone, the yield of snap beans and tomatoes correspondingly decreases. Moreover, it was found that the yield of snap beans fell more dramatically when exposed to the two pollutants simultaneously than when exposed to them separately – a finding which would suggest that sulphur dioxide and ozone have a synergistic effect with one another. [17]

Experiments have also been carried out in the UK to test the influence of total ambient air pollution on crop growth. [18] In one experiment, plants were grown in plastic-covered hooped channels where they were thus protected from ambient air pollution. Even after making allowances for the higher temperatures and the lower sunlight levels to which those plants were subjected, their yield was significantly higher than that of plants grown out in the open and thus exposed to current levels of air pollution.

Undoubtedly, the total worldwide loss of crops as a result of pollution is very high. In California alone, it is estimated that $1 billion worth of crops are lost annually to pollution. [19] Meanwhile, the Washington-based environmental group, Carrying Capacity, has calculated that industry in the Ohio Paver basin alone is causing $4.9 billion worth of damage to crops a year. [20] Carrying Capacity argues that such losses could be eliminated if local industries were to spend $9.8 billion on scrubbers to reduce sulphur emissions. But will they do so? Experience would suggest that such controls are rarely installed voluntarily. The Government, however, is unlikely to make them compulsory unless forced to do so by popular opinion.

In the Third World, the extent of crop losses to pollution is less well documented. Nonetheless, some statistics do exist. Thus, Professor D.N. Rao of the Benares Hindu University, estimates that pollution has reduced agricultural yields in India by between 17 and 30 percent. In particular, he notes that crops in the Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh have “suffered immensely due to pollution.” [21] In other Third World countries, the problem is likely to be on a similar scale. Where polluting industries have been concentrated in a small area (as a result of hydro-electric schemes or the setting up of Free Trade Zones) local crop losses to pollution can be expected to be severe.

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Pollution and the reduction of fish yields

As we have already seen in Chapter 8, fish stocks throughout the world have been adversely affected by pollution from agricultural chemicals. They are being equally affected by pollution from industrial processes, which, in the Third World, are more often than not powered by large dams. This is not surprising, since in developed and developing countries alike, rivers have frequently been used as convenient dumping grounds for unwanted toxic chemicals. In Europe, for instance, the River Rhone alone releases some 30,000 tons of oil, 700 tons of phenols, 1,250 tons of detergents and 500 tons of pesticides into the Mediterranean every year. [22]

Similar figures for the Third World are hard to come by: the research has not been done. Indeed, in an overview of the ecological effects of large-scale water projects, Peter Freeman notes, “no survey was found on the quantities and composition of water discharges into the rivers of the world, nor have comprehensive projections been attempted.” [23] One reason for that lack of research, argues Freeman, is that “many nations would be reluctant to make public the quantities of waste entering international waters.”

Despite the paucity of quantifiable data, however, there is every reason to suppose that the pollution of waterways in the Third World is rapidly reaching crisis conditions. In India, according to the National Environmental Engineering and Research Institute (NEERI), as much as 70 percent of available water is polluted. Indeed, the Institute tells us,

“from the Dal Lake in the North to the Perijar and Chaliyar Rivers in the South, from the Damodar and Hooghly in the East to the Thana creek in the West, the picture of water pollution is uniformly gloomy.” [24]

Apart from seriously affecting the health of the population (a recent study estimated that two thirds of all illnesses in India are caused by contaminated water) the pollution of India’s waterways has had a severe impact on fish life. In polluted stretches of the Hooghly River, for instance, the annual fish catch in 1982 was only 129.4 tons: by contrast, in unpolluted stretches, it was 719.25 tons – well over five times higher. [25]

Those figures are drawn from a highly acclaimed report issued by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and the Environment. The report, entitled The State of India’s Environment 1982, makes depressing reading. Indeed the following extract gives a graphic account of the devastation which untrammelled industrialisation has brought to India’s rivers and waterways:

“High levels of pollution exist along vast stretches of the Yamuna River. Everyday, its 48 km. portion through Delhi picks up nearly 200 million litres of untreated sewage. Twenty million litres of industrial effluents, including about half a million litres of DDT wastes, enter the Yamuna in this stretch.

From Delhi to Agra, the Yamuna water is unfit for drinking and bathing. A survey by the CBPCWP predicts that if the sewage from Delhi’s 17 drains is not treated properly soon, it will be highly polluted from Delhi to Allahabad. At present, the waters of six tributaries dilute the polluted wastes before Allahabad.

One of the major tributaries of the Yamuna is the Chambal River. The latter is Rajastan’s biggest as well as most polluted river. Kota, the site of a fertiliser complex, an atomic power station, a thermal power unit and other industrial units add toxic effluents, including urea, ammonia, chlorine, lead, mercury and other metals. Aquatic life has been destroyed . The Chambal’s water is unfit for consumption as evidenced by the large number of cattle deaths.

A 35 km stretch of the Gomti receives about 180,000 m3 of sewage and waste from pulp and paper factories near Lucknow, every day. A high MPN of coliform bacteria, 34,000 to 144,000 / ml, an average BOD count of 160 mg / l (maximum up to 2,000 mg / l) and SS concentrations up to 964 mg / l have been recorded, the recovery is not complete even 65 km downstream from Lucknow due to the river’s low self-purifying capacity.

The Sone River suffers heavy pollution near Dalmianagar, where effluents from paper, chemicals, cement and sugar factories are discharged into its waters. Many years ago, carp fish were eliminated here, along a 22 km zone. Discharges from paper mills and chemical units at Mirzapur (Bihar) are so toxic that the fish mortality rate is the highest recorded for an Indian river .

Rising in the Chota Nagpur hills, the Damodar river flows its 540 km course first through the mining belt of Bihar. It then receives effluents from chemical and metallurgical factories between Bokaro and Sindhri, including the Bokaro steel plant, a thermal power station and the Sindhri fertiliser unit. The lower Damodar Valley from Asansol to Durgapur is one of the most highly industrialised regions in India. Seventy major industries and 250 coal mines are spread around Asansol alone.

In terms of oxygen depletion, eight industrial units in Durgapur dump wastes that are equivalent to the sewage from a city of 1 million population. Fish kills are a common occurrence in summer. ‘The river is heading towards ecological disaster,’ predicts A. V. Natarajan and B.B. Gosh of the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute in Calcutta.” [26]

Summarising the overall ecological state of India’s rivers, the CSE report notes:

“The occurrence of massive fish kills and the destruction of lower aquatic life forms, due to industrial pollutants, have become a common feature in various parts of the country. Dead fish means the loss of a major source of protein and, worse still, a livelihood for millions of Indians.” [27]

In Malaysia, the situation would seem to be almost as bad as in India. Agricultural, domestic and industrial pollutants have all taken their toll on fish life and the general decline in riverine fisheries – in particular in the western coastal plans – can be attributed, at least in part, to the resulting decline in water quality. To quote Dr. Alexander J. Jothy of the Fisheries Research Institute of the Malaysian Ministry of Agriculture:

“Incidents of large-scale mortality in streams and rivers have been reported frequently, from such activities as man’s deliberate use of poisons to kill fish and the discharge of toxic effluents and effluents creating incredible biological demands of oxygen in the water. Riverine fishermen have reported on the decline of the giant river carp, Probarus Jullieni, which is known to occur in the rivers Sungai Perak and Sungai Pahang. This fish has now been listed as an endangered species.

Declines in molluscan shell fisheries, particularly oysters (Crassostrea rivularis ) to a level of almost total eradication in the estuarine areas of two rivers, Sundai Muar and Sungai Perak, have been reported. The oysters, known to be flourishing in both these areas in the early sixties, are believed to have been gradually wiped out by effluents from saw-mills, boat-yards and iron foundries.

Another discernible effect is the almost total disappearance of the fish, Clupea macrura, known to occur seasonally in immense shoals in the inshore coastal areas of the Straits of Malacca during their migration to spawning grounds up rivers. It is possible that the increasing pollution load in rivers would have destroyed their traditional spawning grounds.” [28]

In Jothy’s opinion, if industrial development continues in Malaysia without the government introducing stricter environmental control, the further deterioration of the aquatic environment is almost certain. Indeed, he warns:

“Fish life in the rivers and impoundments may be totally eradicated or decline to irrecoverable levels . Aquaculture will be faced with the situation of acute shortages of good quality water for successful culture operations. The fate of fisheries in general in the aquatic environment would be rather bleak.” [29]

It is a warning which Third World governments throughout the world would do well to heed – particularly where their countries are located in the hot, dry areas of the monsoon zone. In such areas, the flow of rivers is greatly reduced during the dry season and the chemicals they contain thus become increasingly concentrated. That problem is exacerbated by growing competition for water supplies: indeed, as Peter Freeman points out, “withdrawal (of water) which reduced dry season flow could convert rivers into virtual sewers.” [30]

For millions of people, the progressive contamination of Third World rivers is nothing short of a disaster. Unable to afford to buy meat, countless numbers of peasants rely on fish for their animal protein. How many will now die from eating fish contaminated by the chemical wastes dumped indiscriminately into their waterways? And how must they fare as the aquatic environment of their countries becomes so polluted that it can no longer support fish life?

To conclude, by building dams to increase the Third World’s hydro-electric capacity one provides power for further urbanisation and industrialisation – and that not only uses up the land and water which are so desperately needed to produce food but also generates pollution. That, in turn, can only serve to reduce crop growth and annihilate fish stocks, thus further exacerbating malnutrition and starvation.

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1. Rob Pardy, Mike Parsons, Don Siemon, Ann Wigglesworth, Purari: Overpowering Papua New Guinea?, International Development Action, Purari Action Group, Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia, 1978, p.22.

2. The Oriental Economist, quoted by Rob pardy et. al., op.cit. 1978, p.24.

3. Rob Pardy, et. al., op.cit. 1978, p.62.

4. Ibid, p.27.

5. Ibid, p.29.

6. Ibid, p.24.

7. Ibid, pp.183-184.

8. Ibid, p.189.

9. Ibid, p.181.

10. Ibid, p.l78.

11. Ibid, p.179.

12. Carrying Capacity, Report on the Carrying Capacity of the USA, Unpublished, Undated, Chapter 6, p.22.

13. Ibid, Chapter 6, pp.22-23.

14. Ogemaw County Herald, September 4th, 1975.

15. Environment (Spectrum Section), Vol. 24, No. 2, March 1982, p.24.

16. Here one might also note the growing concern regarding the effects of acid rain on crop yields – a subject which we cannot examine in this chapter.

17. ‘Mixtures of pollutants can cause greater reductions in crop yields than ozone alone’, Environmental Science and Technology (Currents Section), Vol. 16, No. 2, 1982, p.88A.

18. Chemical and Industry, 21 January 1978.

19. Environment (Spectrum Section), Vol. 24, No. 2, March 1982, p.24.

20. Carrying Capacity, op.cit. (undated), Chapter 6, p.21.

21. Centre for Science and Environment, The State of India’s Environment 1982, New Delhi 1982, p.73.

22. The Polluted Seas, Earthscan Press Briefing Document No. 7, Earthscan, London, 1977.

23. Peter Freeman, Environmental Considerations in the Management of International Rivers: A Review, Threshold Foundation, Washington DC, 1978, p.33.

24. Centre for Science and Environment, op.cit. 1982, p.17.

25. Ibid, p.25.

26. Ibid, pp.20-21.

27. Ibid, p.17.

28. Alexander A. Jothy, ‘The Fate of Fisheries and Aquaculture in the wake of a deteriorating aquatic environment in Malaysia’, in Consumers’ Association of Penang, Development and The Environmental Crisis, A Malaysian Case, 1982, p.54.

29. Ibid, p.59.

30. Peter Freeman, op.cit. 1968, p.34.

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