September 19, 2017

Dam starvation

Editorial article published in The Ecologist Vol 14 No 5–6, June–July 1984. This article was co-authored by Ecologist editor Nicholas Hildyard.

Commenting on the Bhopal tragedy, the Wall Street Journal expressed grave concern lest the disaster – which killed, according to unofficial sources, 20,000 people and maimed another 100,000 after a cloud of deadly methyl isocyanate escaped from a Union Carbide pesticide plant – led the Indian Government to turn its back on western technology:

“The Indians need technology. Calcutta-style scenes of human deprivation can be replaced as fast as the country imports the benefits of the West’s industrial revolution and market economics”.

The Journal went on to quote a doctor from Georgia Tech:

“Of the people killed, half would not have been alive if it were not for that plant and the modern health standards made possible by the use of pesticides.”

Had the Bhopal disaster involved the collapse of a large dam, the same arguments would undoubtedly have been trotted out by way of apologia. Without the dam, we would have been told, there would have been no irrigation projects, no local industries to manufacture the inputs of modern agriculture – and, therefore, greater poverty and starvation. But does that argument actually stand up? Have large-scale water projects helped to alleviate hunger? Or have they in fact compounded-and, In some cases, created- the problem?

On the face of it, there is every reason to suppose that large-scale irrigation schemes have much to offer the hungry. Certainly, irrigation agriculture is the most efficient farming system In the world, producing high yields on very small areas of land. At present 200 million hectares are irrigated – but the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) argues that unless another 100 million hectares are brought under irrigation by the turn of the century, starvation will be widespread. Others maintain that even that rate of expansion will leave many hungry.

But setting up large-scale irrigation schemes is exorbitantly expensive – in some areas, it costs as much as US$10,000 to irrigate a single hectare of land – and in order to earn the foreign exchange to pay the bills, irrigated land is invariably used to grow cash crops for export, generally to the industrialised world. The rural poor have thus been the last people to benefit from large-scale irrigation schemes. Iran’s Dez Dam, for example, was intended to provide over 80,000 hectares of irrigated land to small farmers in Khuzestan. In the event, however, the land went almost exclusively to foreign-owned companies which cultivated crops for export. An executive of one of the companies Involved was quite candid about how he viewed the scheme: “They develop the water, and we come and farm it”.

It is a story which has been repeated time and again the world over. In Senegal, over 370,000 hectares are to be irrigated under a massive scheme to develop the entire Senegal River basin. Between 75,000 and 98,000 hectares will be Irrigated by the Diama Dam near the coast and a further 255,000 hectares by the Manautali Dam, 1000 kilometres upstream. Officially the scheme is intended to promote “communal rural development”. In reality, the setting up of small farms in the Manautali area will have ceased by 1987; after that date, all resources are to be devoted to expanding the area under large farms. Federick Mounier of the aid organisation Frères des Hommes, Terres des Hommes, comments:

“In effect, the decision has been made to favour large-scale mechanised agriculture, with its imports of fertilisers and pesticides, in order to produce crops for export. All at the expense of the individual small holder.”

As prime agricultural land is taken over for the production of cash crops so peasant farmers are invariably pushed onto marginal lands. Many now ascribe the disastrous famines which have ravaged the Sahel since the late 1960s to the expansion of cash crops and the consequent pressure on local pastoralists to graze the arid and inhospitable margins of the Sahara desert (See Ecologist Vol 11 No 4, 1981). Moreover, the intensive nature of plantation agriculture has resulted in the over-exploitation of that land used to grow cash crops. In Africa, for example, vast tracts of land which are suitable for growing grazing grasses or trees, but little else, have been torn up to make way for cotton or peanut plantations. Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins of the Institute for Food and Development Policy rerport that:

“The soil becomes rapidly poor In humus and loses its cohesiveness. The wind, quite strong in the dry season, then easily erodes the soils. Soil deterioration leads to declining crops and, consequently, to an enormous expansion of cultivated land, often onto marginal soils.”

In the Sahel, many peanut-growing areas are now so over-exploited and under-fertilised that there has been a rapid deterioration in the soil quality of the region. According to the Prefect of the Maradi District of Niger, some soils in his area “can be considered totally depleted”.

The environmental degradation caused by plantations is further exacerbated where the land is under perennial irrigation. Perennial irrigation schemes Invariably raise the water-table-in some cases by 3 to 5 metres a year – thus rendering arid lands particularly susceptible to salinisation and waterlogging. As the groundwaters approach the surface, they begin to evaporate. The salt contained in the water is then left behind to accumulate in the topsoil. Beyond a certain point, plant life can no longer survive and eventually the whole area becomes covered with a white saline crust. The land is effectively dead.

Over 50 percent of the world’s irrigated land now suffers from salinisation, according to FAO. Professor Victor Kovda of Moscow University puts the figure even higher, estimating that between 60 and 80 percent of irrigated land may be salinised. A recent report claims that as much irrigated land is going out of production due to salinisation and waterlogging as is being brought into production through new water projects. One country which has been badly hit, is Pakistan, where 25 million out of the 37 million acres under irrigation are estimated to be salinised.

What do rural peasants get in return for having their land turned into salt-encrusted desert and the food they grow exported? The answer is precious little. Unable to grow crops for themselves, they must buy food on the open market. But as more and more land is taken over for cash crops – or simply degraded to the point where it can no longer be farmed – so less food can be grown for local consumption, inevitably pushing up the price. So too the increasing costs of production as peasant farmers get hooked onto the treadmill that is modern agriculture – (those pesticides from Bhopal were not being given away for free) – further inflates the price of food. The result is widespread starvation, hunger and malnutrition.

Small wonder that millions of peasants throughout the Third World trek into the cities in search of employment every year. Few find jobs and the rest are condemned to eke out a miserable existence in the shanty towns. That is why the area around Union Cardide’s Bhopal plant was so crowded – not, as the Wall Street Journal suggests, because “India’s agriculture has been thriving, bringing a better life to millions of rural people”. And the Bhopal tragedy will surely be repeated in many other cities of the Third World. Indeed, ‘permission to pollute’ is one of the major concessions granted by ‘developing’ countries in order to persuade foreign industry to set up shop in the Third World.

Those industries – many of them powered by hydro-electric schemes – will not help the rural poor. Food not industrial goods is the commodity most needed in the Third World. And industrialisation will only lead to a reduction in the amount of land available for growing food. Like it or not, agricultural land will of necessity be lost to shanty towns, factories, office blocks, roads and the rest of the physical Infrastructure of an industrial society. In that respect, the experience of Egypt is telling. According to Mohammed Kassas of the University of Cairo:

“Nationwide programmes to reclaim new land, the irrigation of desert lands etc. brought a total area of 372,000 hectares under cultivation during 1955-75 but the loss of prime croplands of the fertile Nile Valley and Delta due to urban expansion was 400,000 hectares.”

In fact, the loss of land to industry and urban sprawl is probably very much worse than Kassas suggests – not least because the official figures take no account of the quality of the land lost. The greater part of the land which has been reclaimed from the desert is of extremely poor quality and cannot possibly compensate for the prime agricultural land which has been lost in the Nile Valley where most of the urbanisation In Egypt has taken place.

Quite apart from paving over agricultural land, urbanisation and industrialisation also leads to competition for water. The water abstracted to satisfy industrial and urban requirements results in a corresponding decrease in the water available for agriculture. Unfortunately when such competition occurs, water tends to go to the highest bidder – and industry invariably wins out. (A Californian company recently paid $1,750 per acre-foot for water in Utah where local farmers could only afford $25 per acre-foot.) That trade-off between industry and agriculture is clearly nonsensical in countries of the Third World where every scrap of food is needed to feed the burgeoning numbers of hungry people.

The evidence we present in The Ecologist (Vol. 14 No. 5/6, 1984) makes it clear that large scale water projects are not a means of feeding the world; on the contrary they are a recipe for widespread land degradation and Inevitable starvation In the decades to come.

Unfortunately, to persuade Third World governments to abandon plans to build water development schemes is a lost cause. The “think big” mentality is just too firmly entrenched. The only way to prevent their construction is to appeal directly to donor governments, to development banks and to international aid agencies without whose financial help the schemes could not be built.

We therefore call upon those organisations to cut off funds for all the large-scale water development schemes that they may plan to finance, or are involved in financing, regardless of how advanced those schemes might be.

The vast concrete hulk of a three-quarters finished dam may not provide irrigation water or electricity. But, then, it will not drown ancient villages, precious forests and fertile bottomlands. Nor will it necessitate the uprooting of thousands of people to make way for its reservoir. Nor will it condemn yet more people to malaria and schistosomiasis. Nor will it systematically transform agricultural land into waterlogged and salt-encrusted desert.


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