December 11, 2017

Social and environmental impact studies

Published as Chapter 18 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.

By this time, the reader will probably be asking why we obstinately continue to build dams – let alone bigger and bigger ones. It may be argued, of course, that the governments, development banks and international agencies which promote and finance large dam projects are genuinely unaware of their likely social and ecological consequences.

We ourselves do not accept that view. Indeed, time and again we find that dams and other large-scale water projects have been given the go-ahead on the basis of the most cursory ecological appraisals. In some cases, the appropriate studies have only been under-taken after building work has begun. We can only conclude that governments and international development agencies alike, attach little importance to the ecological and social problems caused by large dams. The following examples suffice to make the point:

James Bay, Canada. The go-ahead for Quebec’s giant James Bay scheme was given before any ecological or economic cost-benefit subsidies had been undertaken. Such an omission is staggering. As planned, the project involves:

“The building of 10 of the world’s largest dams; 2 new airports; a new ocean port; 60 miles of dikes; 11 or more electrical generating stations; 500 miles of new roads into the wildness; the diversion of the Nottaway and Broadback Rivers into the Rupert River through an elaborate tunnel system; and the ‘development’ of the Eastmain and La Grande still farther to the North.” [1]

Yet, despite the scale of the operation and its potential environmental impact, the Government of Quebec based its decision to push ahead with the project on just two engineering reports. Those reports, claims the Committee for the Defence of James Bay,

“did not mention social or ecological considerations – not even in passing – and provided only a crude ‘guesstimate’ of costs and benefits.”

Nor were those vital considerations given any attention in a subsequent report by a joint Federal and Provincial Government Task Force, set up to advise on the project. Indeed, the Task Force was at pains to distance itself from dealing with either the ecological or economic issues. By way of excuse, it commented:

“It is understood that the decision to proceed has been taken. This report, therefore, does not reflect any personal or collective reservations held by the Task Force members as to whether society really needs the project, whether there are more economical or less environmentally disturbing ways of harnessing energy resources to meet Quebec’s future needs, or whether society should strive to restrain its electrical demands rather than increase its supply. It was assumed that these fundamental questions had been adequately considered by the authorities prior to making the decision to proceed.” [3]

Quite how the Task Force came to make that assumption it is hard to know. Only a year before the Task Force reported – and only a few months before the James Bay decision was taken – the provincial government’s own economic planning board had argued that the feasibility of the scheme had still to be proved and that millions of dollars worth of studies would be needed before work could begin.

There is no evidence that such millions of dollars were in fact spent. Moreover, the assurances of government ministers that ecological studies had been undertaken prior to the James Bay decision are hard to reconcile with subsequent studies – notably one by Quebec-Hydro – which admitted that little was known about the ecology of the 144,000 square miles to be developed under the scheme. Indeed, Dr. K. A. Kershaw – a plant biologist at McMaster University – was subsequently to tell the Committee for the Defence of James Bay:

“I have no hesitation in saying that we do not have any biological knowledge of this area worth a damn and I would be prepared to go into court and swear it under oath.” [4]

Tana River, Kenya. No studies were undertaken on the ecological effects of the Kindaruma and Kamburu dams on Kenya’s Tana River before construction work began. The feasibility studies for the dams, only mentioned the likely ecological effects. And, by the time studies were commissioned – under the auspices of Dr. B. Lundholm of Sweden’s Secretariat for International Ecology and R. S. Odingo of the University of Nairobi – work had progressed on the dam to such an extent that it “was impossible to establish a baseline study of the area”. [5] Indeed, the Kamburu construction site was already populated by some 2,000 permanent residents and an estimated 2,000 migratory workers.

Anchicaya, Colombia. In what has been called “an unpardonable lack of foresight” the planners of Colombia’s Anchicaya hydro-electric project failed totally to assess likely sedimentation rates at the dam. Indeed, according to Robert N. Allen – a construction engineer who worked on the project – the problem of sedimentation and accumulation of debris due to deforestation was “completely ignored by the originators of the project and the consultants in their review of the project”. [6]

In fact, when the first signs of sedimentation became apparent,

“a letter from the (dam’s) manager to the consultants noting the sedimentation and requesting information on possible sedimentation rates, brought the reply that tropical rivers carry little sediment and that there would be no sediment problems at Anchicaya.”

Later, when Allen submitted a report to the consultants which argued that the reservoir would be lost to sedimentation earlier than expected, he received the following replies:

“We do not believe that the estimates as to the possible rate of annual accumulation of deposits in the reservoir are justified.”

“We are of the opinion that the Anchicaya watershed is such that the deposits will not accumulate to a serious extent within the economic life of the plant.” [7]

Twenty-one months after the dam was first closed, 23.4 percent of the reservoir’s volume had been lost to sedimentation.

Skagit Valley, Canada. Permission to build the High Ross Dam on British Columbia’s Skagit River was originally granted to the Seattle City Department of Lighting after a single public hearing lasting just two hours. Because the High Ross Dam would impound water belonging to both the US and Canada, permission to build the dam had first to be sought from an international commission set up under the Canada-US Boundary Waters Treaty. That commission – known as the International Joint Commission (IJC) – held its hearings in Seattle on 12 September 1941. Thomas I. Perry describes the meeting:

“of the six Commission members, three were absent, including the Chairman of the Canadian section. Most of the Hearing time was consumed by Seattle Light’s technical presentation, while discussion of environmental effects of the dam was limited to a one minute statement by the British Columbia Game Commissioner. Having never before heard of the project, he was unable to comment on the effects of flooding except to note the inevitable loss of one of the best fly-fishing streams in the whole of British Columbia.” [8]

In the event, wrangling over the amount of money to be paid to the Government of British Columbia in compensation for the flooding of Skagit Valley meant that Seattle Light did not obtain full permission to build the dam until 1967. Nonetheless, it was not until 1970 – when Seattle Light sought US permission for the dam – that the first hearings on the environmental effects of the dam were held. Despite the evidence presented at those hearings, the Government of British Columbia remained intransigent: the dam would go ahead regardless.

When in 1971 – under increasing pressure from the public – the Federal Government of Canada intervened in the controversy and referred the Skagit Valley decision back to the IJC, the provincial Government expressly forbade its scientists to give evidence before the Commission. Not that such evidence – however damning to Seattle Light’s case – would have made much difference, for the IJC’s hands were firmly tied. Indeed, its brief was quite specific: namely to

“make recommendations for the protection and enhancement of the environment and the ecology of the Skagit Valley not inconsistent with the Commission’s Order of Approval dated 27th January, l942. [9]

In effect – whatever conclusion it reached (and in the event, it came out guardedly against the dam) – the Commission was still to be bound by the decision it had taken some 30 years earlier.

Helmand, Afghanistan. The introduction of modern canal irrigation to the Helmand Valley of Afghanistan was undertaken without any consideration of the possibility that the land might become salinised. Ten years after the start of the project, 5 million acres out of 23 million acres had been lost to salinisation and water-logging, with a further 50,000 to 100,000 acres passing out of production annually from the same causes. Commenting on that loss of land, Aloys A. Michel, then Professor of Geography at the University of Rhode Island, had the following to say:

“The only remarkable points in the Helmand experience are that disaster struck so quickly and that the reasons for it were so obvious. Any engineer of planner should have seen them from the design stage, and some did. But, instead of re-designing the project, or substantially increasing the size of individual holdings or lowering the water allowances from the start, the project was implemented in defiance of reality.” [10]

Teton Dam, USA. Idaho’s Teton Dam collapsed on 5th June, 1976, causing $1 billion worth of damage. The dam was put under construction even though the final feasibility study and design study (the so-called ‘definitive plan report’) was not finished. According to Rosaline Bertolino of the Sierra Club, a geological survey of the dam site had been “watered down” and thus failed to indicate “the severity of the instability of soil materials in the area”. [11]

Ironically, one of the major purposes of the 85 million dollar project was flood control. In fact, as we have seen, it is a characteristic of ‘flood control’ dams that they tend to increase the severity – while decreasing the frequency – of floods.

Jonglei Canal, Sudan. Twice as long as Suez and carrying one quarter of the Nile, the Jonglei Canal is intended

“to enable the Nile to bypass the huge papyrus swamps of Sudan’s Southern Sudd region where half the flow of the White Nile is otherwise lost to evaporation.” [12]

Although the scheme (which was to have been completed in 1983 but which, at the time of writing, is still under construction) is less ambitious than when first proposed in 1954, there are still major doubts about its ecological effects. (The 1954 scheme was based on a canal carrying 53 million m3/day of water: the present scheme is for a 20 million m3/day canal.) Those doubts are heightened by the general lack of data available to the Sudanese authorities. Indeed, Dr. C. E. Gischeller told a 1975 UNESCO/ROSTAS conference

“With respect to the construction of the proposed Jonglei Canal, it is certain that presently existing data is largely insufficient to estimate, even approximately, the consequences of such a canal. This means that action without accompanying studies would reduce the entire enterprise to an adventurous undertaking for which no technician can take responsibility.” [13]

Gischeller’s remarks were further reinforced in 1977 when the Nairobi-based Environment Liaison Centre produced a report highlighting some of the areas where insufficient data existed to predict the environmental consequences of the scheme.

In particular, the report stressed that no-one even knew the exact size of the swamp: that the social effects of the scheme had not been studied; and that there was considerable controversy over the possible climatic consequences of depriving the Sudd of its annual flood. [14]

Selingue, Mali-Guinea. According to Brian Johnson of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the sole environmental study on West Africa’s Selingue dam, now being built on the Mali-Guinea border, “deals briefly with the tourist potential of the reservoir, its possible harm to water quality in the region and seismic stability”. [15]

A report prepared for the London-based Commonwealth Secretariat noted that the dam authorities were unable to answer such fundamental questions as to how they intended to inhibit siltation; whether or not there were plans to clear the forest in the area prior to flooding; what the ecological consequences were likely to be of not undertaking such clearance; or what measures were being taken to provide for the resettlement of the 9,500 people who would be displaced by the dam.

The report also noted that the feasibility study prepared for the dam gave no “back-up information” to support “the brief assertions” it made as to possible environmental effects; and more seriously, that a paragraph warning that the growth of marsh plants and algae might have a detrimental effect on fisheries, had been “apparently struck out”. Indeed, the author of the report comments:

“It appeared that, because of the immense pressure from the Government of Mali to have the dam closed and the first turbine operating by August, 1980, various corners (especially those affecting the environment) were being cut.” [16] 

In particular, the report argues that

  • “massive eutrophication of parts of the lake appears to be a possibility” but that studies on the growth of algae had simply been ignored;
  • that “little was being done to inform the villagers of the plans for the area”;
  • and that, despite evidence that the fish in the lake would need to be able to travel upstream in order to spawn, “no provision was being made for a fish ladder or elevator”.

Small wonder that Brian Johnson warns: “Portents of environmental disaster still hang heavy over Selingue”. [17]

Kariba, Zambia. Following the disastrous resettlement programme at Zambia’s Kariba dam, it emerged that no detailed study had ever been undertaken to assess the best areas for resettlement. As Professor Theo Scudder reports,

“Though the local district commissioner and his immediate superiors were much concerned about the impact of resettlement on the Tonga . . . no positive action was taken on their request for an accurate ecological survey which could serve as the basis for the selection of resettlement areas and the intensification of agriculture following resettlement. Action was delayed until after the 1955 decision to proceed with the dam and by then it was too late to undertake the type of detailed surveys required.” [18]

Volta, Ghana. Here, too, no studies were carried out on the resettlement scheme until it was too late. According to Sir Robert Jackson, husband of the late Dame Barbara Ward and a noted Foreign Office civil servant, the lack of studies resulted largely from the protracted negotiations over the financing of the dam. Indeed, he says,

“we always assumed that during the interval, during which final negotiation would be carried out, (the) final planning (on resettlement) would be refined in a great many ways.” [19]

It wasn’t, however, and it was not until two years after preparatory work on the dam had been started that the director and staff of the Resettlement Unit were even recruited.

Chico, Phillipines. Funding for the four dams on the Philippines’ Chico River was approved by the World Bank on the basis of a feasibility study carried out by a firm of West German consultants. That study, critics claim, “misinterpreted the area, making it out to be a wilderness with only a few scattered families”. [20] In fact, the area is the homeland of 90,000 Kalinga and Bontoc tribesmen. In the event, the project was cancelled after intense opposition from the Kalingas and Bontocs led to a state of virtual civil war.

Mesopotamia. Although water projects in the Mesopotamian Plains have resulted in the over-irrigation and consequent salinisation of both ground-water and soils, plans are afoot to ‘develop’ the region still further. That development, however, is not intended to wait upon the appropriate studies being completed beforehand. Instead, the search for suitable water distribution and water-control methods to prevent over-watering and salinisation will be undertaken as the projects proceed. [21] Should the outcome of that research prove fruitless, it need hardly be said that the likelihood of the project being halted is negligible.

The Texas Water Plan. In the US, few of the environmental implications of the giant Texas Water Plan have been studied in depth. In the first 1968 proposal, the increased salinity of the water to be transported under the plan to West Texas was looked at, as was the quality of the water to be imported from the Mississippi, but not in any detailed way. Charles Greer of Indiana University reports that mention was also made of

“the recreational and scientific significance of impacts on freshwater fish, waterfowl and other wildlife habitats which would be affected by reservoir development in the exporting basins of East Texas.” [22]

Beyond this, however,

“none of the major changes in hydrobiology of these basins which could result from the proposed development were reported as having been studied.”

When, in 1977, a revised version of the scheme was proposed, environmental considerations were still given short shrift, remaining “very much secondary to the plan’s main considerations of engineering and economic feasibility”. Indeed, environmental problems were perceived largely “as political obstacles to the plan’s adoption” rather than as “geographic realities in which the development is to be carried out”.


1. Walter Taylor “James Bay: Continental Crisis”. Survival (North American Edition) No.12, March 1973, p.4.
2. Ibid, p1.
3. Quoted by Walter Taylor, op.cit. 1973; p.2.
4. Quoted by Walter Taylor, op.cit. 1973; p.5.
5. W. Linney and S. Harrison, Large Dams and the Developing World: Social and Environmental Costs and Benefits – A Look at Africa. Environment Liaison Centre, PO Box 72461, Nairobi Kenya 1981; p.17.
6. R. N. Allen “The Anchicaya Hydroelectric Project in Colombia: Design and Sedimentation Problems”. In M. T. Farvar and J. P. Milton, The Careless Technology, Tom Stacey, London 1973; p.325.
7. Ibid, p.327.
8. Thomas I. Perry “The Skagit Valley Controversy; A Case History in Environmental Politics”. Alternatives spring 1975; p.9.
9. Ibid, p.12.
10. Aloys A. Michel, “The Impact of Modern Irrigation Technology in the Indus and Helmand Basins of Southwest Asia”. In M. T. Farvar and J. P. Milton, The Careless Technology. Tom Stacey, London 1973; p.265.
11. Rosaleen Bertolino, Water Supply: Constraints and Opportunities, Sierra Club, 1977; p.7.
12. Earthscan, “The Jonglei Canal”. Press Briefing Document No. 8; p.3.
13. Quoted by the Environment Liaison Centre, The Jonglei Canal, Environmental and Social Aspects, Abstract of a Report by Oscar Mann for ELC, Nairobi, August 1977; p.2.
14. Environmental Liaison Centre, The Jonglei Canal, Environmental and Social Aspects. Abstract of a Report by Oscar Mann for ELC, Nairobi, August 1977./ See in particular pp.2, 13, 14, 21, 22, 28, 33, 34.
15. Brian Johnson, The Return of the Big Dam. Earthscan, London 1979; p.3.
16. Anon, Selingue Dam Project, Mali. Commonwealth Secretariat, undated;
17. Brian Johnson, op.cit. 1979; p.3.
18. Quoted by Rob Pardy et al. Purari: Overpowering PNG? International Development Action for Purari Action Group, Victoria, Australia 1978; p.104.
19. Quoted by Rob Pardy et al. Purari: Overpowering PNG? International Development Action for Purari Action Group, Victoria, Australia, 1978; p.148.
20. Rob Pardy et al. op.cit.; p.162.
21. K. Ubell, “Iraq’s Water Resources”. Nature and Resources Vol.III No.2, June 1971, p.9.
22. Purari: Overpowering PNG?. International Development Action for Purari Action Group, Victoria, Australia, 1978, p.85. Quoted by Rob Pardy et al..
23. Ibid, p.126.
24. Ibid, p.85.
25. Charles Greer, “The Texas Water System: Implications for Environmental Assessment in Planning for Interbasin Water Transfers”. In Asit K. Biswas et al., Long Distance Water Transfer: A Chinese Case Study and International Experiences. Tycooly International, Dublin, 1983; p.84.
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