December 11, 2017

Preface and Foreword – (SEELD)

The Preface, Ballad and Foreword for The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams (SEELD): Volume 1. Overview, Wadebridge Ecological Centre, Worthyvale Manor Camelford, Cornwall, 1984.


This report is an attempt to provide an overview of the social and environmental effects of building large dams. It is the first of three reports on this subject. The other two will provide, respectively, a collection of case-studies, and an annotated bibliography. They are due out in late 1985.

The work has been financed by the Ecological Foundation to which we are very grateful.

We would also like to thank Peter Freeman, Robert Goodland and Robert Mann for their encouragement and for all the information they have provided us; Victor Kovda, Jean Pierre Rothe and John Waterbury for kindly reading and correcting chapters dealing with their particular field of expertise; and Brent Blackwelder and Philip Williams for correcting the proofs of the report as a whole.

We would also like to thank Hilary Datchens for helping us with the report in all sorts of ways – not least by typing its many versions; Rita Marshall of Rita Marshall Editorial Services for producing the final version on her word processor; and also Ruth Lumley Smith, past Managing Editor of The Ecologist and Maria Parsons, her successor, for undertaking to do the proof-reading.

Finally, we would like to make it absolutely clear that the conclusions we have come to are not necessarily those of the people who have helped us produce it. We are alone responsible for them.


Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard.

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A Ballad of Ecological Awareness

The cost of building dams is always underestimated

There’s erosion of the delta that the river has created,

There’s fertile soil below the dam that’s likely to be looted,

And the tangled mat of forest that has got to be uprooted.

There’s the breaking up of cultures with old haunts and habits loss,

There’s the education program that just doesn’t come across,

And the wasted fruits of progress that are seldom much enjoyed

By expelled subsistence farmers who are urban unemployed.

There’s disappointing yield of fish, beyond the first explosion;

There’s silting up, and drawing down, and watershed erosion.

Above the dam the water’s lost by sheer evaporation;

Below, the river scours, and suffers dangerous alteration.

For engineers, however good, are likely to be guilty

Of quietly forgetting that a river can be silty,

While the irrigation people too are frequently forgetting

That water poured upon the land is likely to be wetting.

Then the water in the lake, and what the lake releases,

Is crawling with infected snails and water-borne diseases.

There’s a hideous locust breeding ground when water level’s low,

And a million ecologic facts we really do not know.


There are benefits, of course, which may be countable, but which

Have a tendency to fall into the pockets of the rich.

While the costs are apt to fall upon the shoulders of the poor.

So cost-benefit analysis is nearly always sure.

To justify the building of a solid concrete fact,

While the Ecologic Truth is left behind in the Abstract.

—Kenneth E. Boulding

(From The Careless Technology, T. Farvar and J. Milton, Tom Stacey, London, 1973)

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Popular thinking holds big dams to be of great economic and social benefit because they produce clean power, stop damaging floods, and help combat world hunger by providing water for irrigation. Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard have pulled together an unparalleled assemblage of data demonstrating that big dams and water projects have not only failed to achieve those basic objectives but are also leaving a legacy of unsurpassed cultural destruction, disease, and environmental damage. This remarkable study of large water development schemes from around the world shows the dramatic difference between the rhetoric of project promoters and the grim reality of the ‘super-dams’.

Goldsmith and Hildyard present telling evidence of the extensive range of problems which large dams have caused throughout the world – from engineering mistakes and operational errors to severe social disruption and the spreading of disease: to the elimination of forests and significant wildlife habitats; to the destruction of estuaries and endangered species; to the ruination of the very land designed to be made productive.

Because the pace of large-scale dam building is increasing exponentially, it is imperative that industrialised nations take the warnings in this book to heart. The case against irreversible manipulation of river systems on a global scale is so overwhelming that we proceed with funding of these superdams at our own peril.

A significant percentage of water development in the United States has been a sad mistake, but developing countries seem intent on replicating our mistakes. America’s Tennessee Valley Authority is often held up as a model of how to make the economy of a valley flourish. In fact, people from all over the world come to see what TVA has done. Unfortunately, the TVA story is really a myth. [See William U. Chandler, ‘Water: Stewardship and Development’, in Volume II – Case Studies. Available from The Ecologist , Worthyvale Manor, Camelford, Cornwall, U.K. Price £25 for institutions, £15 for individuals.]

The Environmental Policy Institute’s analysis of the costs and benefits experienced by TVA’s water projects during its first 50 years showed that the flood control and navigation objectives have yet to pay for themselves by any reasonable standard of accounting. Furthermore, areas in the Southeastern United States which did not receive financial aid from TVA did as well as or better than the TVA region, even though they were as poor, or poorer, to begin with.

One outstanding feature of Goldsmith and Hildyard’s work is the discussion of ancient or traditional irrigation societies, whose sustainability over centuries stands in stark contrast to the short-lived, poorly-designed irrigation projects which industrialised countries have funded throughout the Third World.

The staggering array of problems created by large-scale water development is so alarming and widespread that an international network has been established to halt the destruction and to propose sensible alternatives. Goldsmith and Hildyard’s book stands as a landmark in providing the most comprehensive information and analysis to date on the tragic impacts of the superdams.


Brent Blackwelder
Ph.D., Director of Water Resources at the Environmental Policy Institute.

Washington DC, 1984

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