October 23, 2017

The politics of damming (alternative version)

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Dams are never built in a political vacuum. For politicians they mean votes and prestige. To criticise dam projects is thus to face an uphill battle against the power of the state-one that is nearly impossible to win.

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 were under-taken only after building work had 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.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 14 No. 5–6, September 1984. Co-written with Nicholas Hildyard.


James Bay, Canada

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

“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 wilderness, 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 Walter Taylor in a special issue of Survival magazine,

“did not mention social or ecological considerations – not even in passing – and provided only a crude “guestimate” of costs and benefits.” [2] 

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 state:

“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]

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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.

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Helmand Valley, 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 or planner should have seen them from the design stage, and some did. But, instead of redesigning 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.” [6]

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Selingue, Mali-Guinea

According to Brian Johnson of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the sole environmental study of West Africa’s Selingue dam – on the Mali-Guinea border – dealt “briefly with the tourist potential of the reservoir, its possible harm to water quality in the region and seismic stability.” [7]

A report, prepared at the time construction began, 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.” [8]

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”.

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Politics or Oversight?

The above examples 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 . . .” [9]

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 advice 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 . . .”. [10] 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 system 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.” [11]

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”. [12] 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 specialised 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 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 aidgranting bodies comply with this pattern of ‘planning’ for roughly similar motives. Their raison d’ etre is to move funds, and prudent inactivity 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 defence 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 programmes and the formulators of programmes and projects they wish to aid. Developing societies are alone held responsible for the inefficiencies engendered by this collusion.” [13]

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Dams and the Political Rat Race

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.” [14]

On what evidence does Waterbury base that conclusion? Below 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 river-bed 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 is 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.” [15]

Indeed, one senior official summed up the atmosphere by quoting the Rubayyat of Omar Kayyam:

“When the King says it is midnight at noon, the wise man says behold the moon.” [16]

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