August 20, 2017

The politics of damming

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Published as Chapter 19 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.

Politics or oversight?

The examples discussed in Chapter 18 clearly demand an explanation. One correct, but platitudinous view is that we cannot reasonably expect full and detailed studies for every dam – not least because the full range of ecological and social effects can never be studied in sufficient depth to resolve every uncertainty. As Professor Barton Worthington put it to the 1970 ‘Careless Technology’ conference:

“In developing countries, at least, there will never be enough funds or enough scientists to cover all aspects of information needed for thorough prediction.”

In some instances, Barton Worthington clearly has a case. But lack of funds will hardly suffice to explain the James Bay example. There, after all, we are not talking about research which has been overlooked or skimped for financial reasons: we are talking about a vast project which was sanctioned and constructed with little or no research into possible ecological and social effects.

What, then, of the second school of thought: namely that misplaced optimism and wishful thinking lead government and industry alike into minimising the problems they are likely to encounter? Here, again, we run into difficulties – not least the clear evidence that industry is often unwilling to learn the lessons of the past and, indeed, that it is quite prepared to ignore the advice of its own experts if that is contrary to what it wants to hear.

Thus, it is not for nothing that Aloys Michel remarks in respect of the Helmand Project: “The saddest thing about the Helmand experience is that it will probably be repeated, if not in Afghanistan, then in Iran or Iraq . . .”. The reasons, as Michel sees them, are clear enough:

“Many irrigation engineers have had the wisdom to recognise, and the courage to state, that provision of an artificial drainage system is an inescapable concomitant of providing an artificial irrigation system. But the time dimension of irrigation usually acts to ensure that only the storage and distribution components are initially provided . . .

Ingrained optimism and the tendency to procrastinate make yielding to this temptation all the easier, as does the fact that system designers are often driven to underestimate costs or to include disposable items in order to obtain administrative, legislative or voter approval for their schemes on the proven theory that once ground is broken the project will have to be completed. Furthermore, the engineer, planner, contractor, bureaucrat or politician may be looking for a short-term personal or professional gain.

By the time the omission of a drainage systems begins to damage crops, he has usually moved on to another project or another constituency or has retired. These factors would seem to apply in all modern societies regardless of their ideological orientation.”

Michel’s views are echoed by John Waterbury who argues in his book The Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley, that “policy-making groups and external creditors prefer an incomplete picture, for then the unanticipated can be written off to incomplete information and poorly defined responsibilities.” Indeed, he goes further and suggests that “the process of resource planning in developing countries is wilfully fragmented” – precisely because planners wish to avoid future responsibility for any disasters. Thus he writes:

“Planners and policy makers limit their responsibility by limiting their range of vision and by retreating into narrowly defined competences. Sectoral and time horizons are constricted as far as possible. Each specialized agency seeks a closely defined mission and relies upon the information of other relevant agencies in designating targets. If the information is erroneous or not forthcoming and if targets are missed, the blame can be shifted on to other quarters.”

Similarly, to launch a project at time X is relatively costless, for its benefits or shortcomings will not accrue until time Y, well after its originators have passed from the scene. When the shortcomings do become apparent, the incumbent policy makers can justifiably place the blame upon their predecessors. Short of criminal neglect no one is held to account except the society itself.

All too often, bilateral and multilateral aid-granting bodies comply with this pattern of ‘planning’ for roughly similar motives. Their raison d’etre is to move funds, and prudentinactivity will not win their administrators any plaudits or promotions. Thus they operate with the information provided them or seek to supplement it on the strength of lightning surveys whose conclusions are – not infrequently – foregone. Here again, fragmentation of the field of analysis serves as a defense mechanism to limit responsibility for what may or will go wrong. A top-ranking official in the UN World Food Council commented on this, saying, “there is a lot to be gained from not knowing what is going on.” There is, then, a natural collusion between the administrators of aid programs and the formulators of programs and projects they wish to aid. Developing societies are alone held responsible for the inefficiencies engendered by this collusion.

Waterbury’s observation that “prudent inactivity will not win any plaudits or promotions” raises a problem which is frequently glossed over in the literature. Put simply, no dam is built in a political vacuum. On the one hand, there are those who must design, plan and construct the dam: and, on the other there are the politicians who will sanction and approve its construction. Both are as subject to the psychological pressures of their jobs as the rest of us: the desire to impress colleagues, the fear of ‘rocking the boat’ and the urge to win promotion and recognition – all these are important influences.

So, too, politicians are keenly aware of the need to ‘nurse’ their power base (be it ‘the electorate’ in democratic countries or ‘the party’ in non-democratic states) whilst the large dam-building agencies themselves are equally aware of the need to lobby for future projects in order to increase their own power and prestige. To an extent, those ‘political’ pressures are openly acknowledged. What is adamantly denied, however, is that the actual decision to build a dam is ever determined by such considerations.

Waterbury, however, is less sanguine. Indeed, he is quite explicit in his view that political considerations are generally paramount when it comes to approving dam projects:

“The fact is, that as a rule the politically determined decision comes first and it is exceedingly difficult thereafter to nurture the informed and dispassionate debate requisite to assessing long-term costs.” [6]

On what evidence does Waterbury base that conclusion? In the next section we consider in more detail his study of the political decisions that led to the building of the Aswan Dam.

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The Aswan experience

Had it not been for the success of the 1955 Free Officers’ coup, which ousted King Farouk of Egypt and brought Colonel Gamal Adb el-Nasser to power, it is arguable that the Aswan High Dam would never have been built. For although the idea of the dam had been touted around Egypt’s ministries since 1948, its originator – Adrien Daninos, an engineer of Greek and Egyptian parentage – had generated little support for the scheme.

Not that the Egyptian government was adverse to the idea of providing over-year storage of the Nile’s flood waters: rather, it was the sheer size of the reservoir which Daninos envisaged – a reservoir capable of storing the entire annual flood of the Nile – that provoked the scepticism of the critics. In fact, even Daninos himself admitted to fears that the reservoir would silt up before its time.

Others, notably the irrigation expert H.E. Hurst (whom Waterbury has since described as “the Nile’s most authoritative twentieth century student”), were deeply concerned that evaporation rates would be so high that any potential storage gain from such a large reservoir would quickly be cancelled out. Still others warned that if the Nile’s silt was impounded along with its waters, the result would be riverbed erosion on a dramatic – and disastrous – scale.

In the years after Nasser seized power, however, few dared to voice such criticisms. The mood was so solidly pro-Aswan that it was a brave man who stood out against the scheme. Some did – to their cost, as we shall see – but the majority preferred to bend with the prevailing wind.

Even Hurst (by then a member of the committee which reviewed the Aswan scheme for the new regime) was soon insisting that the problems of evaporation could be overcome by proper design. Nor did the mood change when the side-effects of the dam became apparent. As Professor Ali Fathy – one of the few who stood his ground over the dam – was to comment:

“It became clear that competent technicians in government circles were collectively determined to overlook any signs of the deterioration of soil fertility . . . even as a hypothesis. This was the result of what might be called ‘the High Dam Covenant’, a psychological state born of political and other circumstances which has cloaked the project from its very inception.”

Indeed, one senior official summed up the atmosphere by quoting the Rubayyat of Omar Khayyam: “When the King says it is midnight at noon, the wise man says behold the moon.” [8] What then caused the new King to see the moon at midday? And why had his courtiers opted so decisively for the Aswan High Dam? Although a degree of perennial agriculture was known in Egypt even in the Ptolemaic period, it was not until the early 19th century that there was a widespread switch from seasonal to year-round farming.

Until then, the pattern of agriculture in the Nile Delta remained much as it had done for the previous 6,000 years. Every summer, as the Nile’s waters began to rise, off-take channels were dug in the fields to take the waters into large basins – sometimes as big as 80,000 feddans. Once these basins were filled, the water would be allowed to stand for up to 60 days, soaking deep into the earth and depositing the layer of silt which would replenish the alluvial soils. Excess water was then drained back into the Nile and cultivation began, the harvest taking place in May and the land then being returned to fallow until the next flood in September.

The switch to perennial agriculture radically changed that cycle. With two crops being grown a year, the problems of waterlogging and salinity soon made themselves apparent. To a degree, those problems were alleviated by introducing new cropping patterns (in particular a longer fallow period) and by complex networks of drainage.

Even so, in 1882, MacKenzie Wallace was to record “white nitrous salts covering the soil and glistening in the sun like untrodden snow.” Indeed, as early as 1908, the problem had become so acute that the first of many subsequent committees was set up to study the effects of salinity of Egypt’s soils: it concluded that areas then under cotton should be reduced by two thirds to minimise further destruction.

But if perennial agriculture brought with it the twin evils of salinity and waterlogging, it also instilled a new fear in the minds of Egyptians – a fear which was to grow with time and become almost an obsession as the century wore on. Waterbury points out:

“As the economy moved beyond subsistence and into production for world markets, it lost its tolerance for poor agricultural performance and its capacity to absorb bad years. Some time after World War I, the need for predictability in all elements of the Nile ecosystem became of paramount concern.” [10]

A low flood could cut Egypt’s agricultural production by half, whilst a high flood could “destroy the basins and leave the flood-plain pockmarked with pestilential swamps.”

It was to alleviate that vulnerability that, in 1902, Sir William Garstin of the Egyptian Public Works Department first proposed the idea of over-year storage of the Nile’s flood waters. His Century Storage Scheme was grandiose in the extreme, writes Waterbury:

“The essential elements of the strategy, were to increase seasonal storage capacity at Aswan, to utilise the Wadi Rayyan depression of Fayyum (formerly ancient Lake Moeris) to siphon and store excess flood waters downstream from Aswan, to build a discharge regulator at the outlet of Lake Mobutu in order to use it for overyear storage and release, and most important, to cut down the water losses through evaporation in the Sudd swamps.” [11]

Until the arrival of Nasser, it was Garstin’s scheme which was most favoured by the Egyptian authorities. But the scheme had an immediate – and obvious – drawback to Nasser and his Free Officers: it left Egypt at the mercy of those states which controlled the Nile upstream. Moreover, three of those states – Kenya, Uganda and the Sudan – were under the direct rule of Britain, a country with whom relations were extremely strained. (Recall that this was the time of Suez). The fear was clear enough: namely that Britain would attempt to put pressure on Egypt by interfering with her water supplies. [12]

Hardly surprising then that Waterbury considers the “sense of vulnerability and the attendant fears of the downstream states (in the Nile Valley)” to be central to “all the decisions affecting the choice of projects and technology used to master the river.” Thus:

“No other major river valley is shared by so many autonomous actors, and no other downstream state is so utterly dependent for its livelihood as Egypt is upon its river. The acute awareness of the juxtaposition of these geopolitical factors is at the heart of Egypt’s psychological response to all that goes on upstream.” [13]

Given those fears, the decision to opt for Aswan is perhaps understandable. Here, after all, was a scheme which (in theory at least) would provide over-year storage within Egypt’s borders. To Nasser and the Free Officers, the opportunity was one which could not be lost. A hint of the extent to which they undoubtedly felt threatened by the vulnerability of their water supplies can be garnered from a speech given years later by President Sadat. In 1978, he warned:

“We depend upon the Nile 100 percent in our life, so if anyone at any moment thinks to deprive us of our life we shall never hesitate (to go to war) because it is a matter of life or death.” [14]

If the desire to secure Egypt’s water supplies was one politically determined motive for building the Aswan High Dam, another lay in the sheer prestige of embarking on such a grandiose scheme. As Waterbury puts it:

“The specific decision regarding the High Dam must . . . be set in the general context of a new and unknown regime seeking to establish its credibility and to signal its citizens, and made known to the nations abroad, that it was prepared to do what no previous regime had dared contemplate or advocate to promote the country’s well-being . . .

There is no evidence that the conspirators had given any consideration to the High Dam Scheme before coming to power. Indeed, it is unlikely that they had even heard of it before it fell, somewhat fortuitously, into their laps. But once before them, the project’s political advantages, as well as its economic strengths, became immediately apparent. Politically, it had the advantage of being gigantic and daring, thrusting Egypt into the vanguard of modern hydraulic engineering. Moreover, during its construction and after its completion, it would be highly visible and fittingly monumental.” [15]

Those motives were, to become increasingly dominant over the early years of the dam particularly in view of the deteriorating relations between Nasser and Britain. Indeed, after Suez – and the end of any hope of British finance for the project,

“Nasser and his associates could no longer regard the dam as simply a big engineering project, but rather came to hold it up as the symbol of Egypt’s will to resist imperialist endeavours to destroy the revolution.” [16]

That mood of defiance translated itself into almost messianic fervour, both on the part of Nasser himself and on the part of the Egyptian people. Thus, crowds would run through the streets of Cairo, chanting, “Nasser, Nasser, we come to salute you: after the Dam our land will be paradise.” [17] As for Nasser, he promised that the “largest lake ever shaped by human kind” would prove “a source of everlasting prosperity.” He talked glowingly of the achievement that the dam represented:

“Here are joined the political, social, national and military battles of the Egyptian people, welded together like the gigantic mass of rock that has blocked the course of the ancient Nile.” [18]

In such an atmosphere, Waterbury argues, it was not surprising that the dam

“came to symbolise a national patriotism, and therefore any criticism of it was thought of as subversive or even treasonous. Technical criticism – at least in public – became tantamount to aiding and abetting the enemy.” [19]

Nonetheless, there were critics brave enough to speak out. The most notable of these was undoubtedly Dr. Abd. al-Aziz Ahmad, a past chairman of the State Hydroelectric Power Commission and a technical consultant to the Ministry of Public Works. Ahmad’s chief concern was that evaporation and seepage losses at Aswan would be far greater than predicted and would effectively cancel out any gains from storing such a large volume of water.

He calculated that high winds at the reservoir site could increase annual evaporation losses by as much as 4 billion m3. In addition, Ahmad argued that seepage losses if they followed the same pattern as at the Old Aswan Dam – would be considerable. As Waterbury reports,

“Assuming the reservoir’s life storage capacity to be 100 billion m3. Ahmad estimated that for the first 20 years, total losses due especially to seepage and the long period of rock saturation, and to evaporation, would be 124 percent of reservoir capacity. After thirty years, losses would reach a stable state of 17 percent a year. At that level, losses would cancel out all the High Dam’s expected gains.” [20]

Clearly, Ahmad’s views were not ones that the authorities wanted to hear. One can imagine the anger, therefore, when it was learnt that Ahmad had presented his findings to a meeting of the British Institute of Civil Engineers – a decision which, says Waterbury, led the regime to see Ahmad “as being in league with its enemies.” Ahmad was never forgiven for his indiscretion: when, in 1964, a committee voted to award him the State Prize for Outstanding Achievement, the decision was vetoed from on high. Three years later Ahmad died, still in disgrace.

Ahmad’s death, however, did not put an end to the argument over seepage and evaporation losses – an argument which still rages today. Although it appears likely that his figures were on the high side, it is widely accepted that official estimates of evaporation losses were (and still are) far too low.

Thus it is claimed that, on average, 9 billion m3 is lost annually to evaporation, with a further 2 billion m3 being lost to seepage. In reality, evaporation losses could be as high as 15 billion m3 , whilst seepage losses could reach 5 billion m3 a year. That last figure is based on the calculations of two Egyptian engineers Taher Abu Wafa and Aziz Hanna Labib. Such is the discrepancy between their figures and those put out by the Egyptian government that Waterbury is led to comment:

“Either they are wrong (and both gentlemen were top officials in the High Dam Authority) or the figures released for public consumption are being doctored.” [21]

Ahmad was one critic whose fears have been largely vindicated; Professor Ali Fathy is another. Unlike Ahmad, however, Fathy was never ostracized by the regime. Nonetheless, the authorities showed themselves singularly unwilling to take his criticisms seriously. Thus, when he warned of the dangers of riverbed scouring, a committee set up to study the problem dismissed his fears as exaggerated. So too, his warnings about the effect on soil fertility of depriving the Delta of the Nile’s silt were ignored.

In raising such issues, Fathy was not putting forward any new theory. Indeed, the dangers of both riverbed scouring and silt deprivation had been known for many years. In 1908, for instance, Sir William Willcocks wisely remarked:

“It will be an evil day for Egypt if she forgets that, though basin irrigation with its harvest of corn has given way to perennial irrigation with its cotton fields, the lessons which basin irrigation has taught for 7,000 years cannot be unlearned with impunity. The rich muddy water of the Nile flood has been the mainstay of Egypt for many generations, and it can be no more dispensed with today than in the past.” [22]

That, however, was not the view of the authorities. From the very outset, it was argued that the benefits of the silt previously deposited by the Nile’s flood could easily be matched by chemical fertilisers. The result has been a dramatic – and now crippling – rise in Egypt’s fertiliser bill: thus, from 1952 to 1964 consumption of nitrogenous fertiliser leapt from 648,000 tons to 1.2 million tons, whilst phosphate consumption rose from 92,000 tons to 322,000 tons. [23]

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