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.” 
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.” 
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.” 
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:
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“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.” 
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”.  Indeed, the Kamburu construction site was already populated by some 2,000 permanent residents and an estimated 2,000 migratory workers.Back to top
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:
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“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.” 
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.” 
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.” 
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”.Back to top
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 . . .” 
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 . . .”.  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.” 
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:
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‘”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.” 
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.” 
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.Back to top
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.” 
Indeed, one senior official summed up the atmosphere by quoting the Rubayyat of Omar Kayyam:
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“When the King says it is midnight at noon, the wise man says behold the moon.” 
Increasing Vulnerability, Increasing Fears
What then caused the new King to see the moon at mid-day? 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 (1 Feddan = 1.038 acres). 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.” 
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”.Back to top
The Need to Secure Water Supplies
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 scheme, the Century Storage Scheme, was grandiose in the extreme. Waterbury writes:
“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 over-year storage and release, and most important, to cut down the water losses through evaporation in the Sudd swamps.” 
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 (remember 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. 
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 he writes:
“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.”
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:
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“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.” 
In pursuit of Prestige
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 make 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 a vantages, 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.” 
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.” 
The 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.” 
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.” 
In such an atmosphere, Waterbury argues, it was not surprising that the dam
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“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.” 
Nonetheless, there were critics brave enough to speak out. The most notable of these was undoubtedly Dr Abdullah al-Aziz Ahmad, a past chairman of the State Hydro-electric 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 (cubic metres). 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 per cent a year. At that level, losses would cancel out all the High Dam’s expected gains.” 
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.” 
Ahmad was one critic whose fears have been largely vindicated; Professor Ali Fathy is another. Unlike Ahmad, however, Fathy was never ostracised 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.” 
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. 
What those fertilisers cannot replace, however, are the other trace elements in the silt and the organic matter it contains; nor, more important still, can they replace soil being lost to the more intensive agricultural practices rendered possible by perennial irrigation. Indeed, in 1974, Sayyid Marei, Minister of Agriculture since 1952 and Chairman of the 1974 World Food Conference, was to tell a parliamentary committee:
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“I say in all candour, as loudly as possible, I am worried, extremely worried, because of the threat to the fertility our soils.” 
Lack of Drainage
One aspect of the problem which particularly alarmed Marei was the lack of drainage at sites where land had been reclaimed. Marei himself maintains that warned his colleagues that the only possible result of reclamation without drainage, would be increased salinisation but, he claims, his warnings went unheeded.
What is certain, however, is that those reclamation schemes which lacked drainage proved disastrous for Egypt. Thus, a recent FAO study found that over a third of Egypt’s agricultural land is now afflicted with salinity whilst some 90 percent of cultivated land has problems with waterlogging. Hardly surprising, for in 1975 less than 3 million feddans had any drainage of any kind.
That the Egyptian government was able to ignore advice of one of its most prominent politicians is testament enough to its capacity for self-deception. Just as it did not wish to hear about the problems of soil fertility, evaporation, riverbed scouring or seepage, so it was quite unwilling to listen to talk of waterlogging and salinisation. Small wonder, then, that Waterbury ends his study of the hydropolitics of Nile Valley with the following observation:
“The political decision (to build a dam) frequently embodies a symbolic package that is designed to catch people’s imagination at home and abroad, to arouse the populace, to set collective goals and thus to find in motivational terms, a substitute for war. This is an atmosphere fundamentally inhospitable to the niggling of conscientious technocrats who may be seen as front-men, witting or unwitting for the regime’s enemies. Their sincerity will be in question. This has been the case in Egypt, where the sense of national cohesion and even consensus about national goals and leadership is far more pronounced than in many, if not most, Third World countries. But who would publicly stand up today to question the wisdom of sowing the desert with new cities or trying to make the Sinai green and populous?” 
It is a good question for, as we shall see in the next section, the political motives which led to the building of Aswan – are symptomatic of most dam building projects.Back to top
Power-Broking, Pork Barrel and Corruption
From the Aswan example, we may draw out three general factors that dominated the dam’s history. First, the political and psychological fears that were the initial spur to seeking over-year storage in Egypt itself, second, the messianic fervour which infected both the Nasser regime and the general public and, third, the unwillingness to contemplate criticism.
Although the details are specific to Aswan, those three features are common to many other dams around the world. The messianic element, for instance, is clearly evident in the James Bay project, launched under the slogan “The World Begins Tomorrow”. So too, President Nkrumah of Ghana promised that the Volta Dam would rescue the Ghanaians from being “hewers of wood and drawers of water for the West” and lead them instead into a new industrial age where “economic modernisation relieves the working man. . . of some of the less necessary forms of drudgery”. 
If millenarism is a constant feature of many large-scale dam projects, the political motives which influence their construction can be many and varied. In some cases, however, they are starkly obvious. It is hard to resist the conclusion, for instance, that the principal motive for Guyana proposing to dam the Upper Mazaruni River lay in a complex border dispute between Guyana and Venezuela which centred on the Mazaruni Basin. In 1970, a moratorium was signed in which it was agreed that neither party in the dispute would take unilateral action to strengthen its claim. Thus, it is suggested, by trying to develop the area, Guyana hoped to establish a presence strong enough to undermine Venezuela’s position in any future negotiations. 
There is little doubt, too, that the primary motive for the Sudanese government’s plan to push ahead with the building of the Jonglei Canal after the ending of the civil war in the Southern Sudan lay in the desire to consolidate its victory and complete the integration of the North and South. Indeed, the Commissioner for the project was quite specific as to the canal’s political advantages:
“Historically, the rift between North and South has increased in the past because of the lack of communications. The Sudd has always been a barrier. And that is why the Sudanese in the northern part tend towards the Middle East rather than Africa. Our link with Africa and with the South in particular was weakened because of the difficulty of communication.” 
But, whilst the Commissioner saw the Jonglei Canal as an instrument of reconciliation, others were less sanguine. Indeed, rumours that the area would be colonised by Northerners (and particularly Egyptians) led to riots in 1974.
Indeed, Sheridan argues that in many areas of the arid Western United States, “human systems are exceeding the carrying capacity of their natural life support systems”. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that any sensible conservation measures will be introduced voluntarily. The reason lies in the availability of federal pork.
No-one, least of all the farmers in the area, want to be told that they must limit their use of water: instead, they see the solution lying in the massive water projects which the politicians promise to build with federal funds. Sheridan cites the city of Tucson’s response to its dwindling groundwater supply as typical of the problem. Thus, he writes:
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“Limiting water consumption. . . would seem to be the logical solution, but it apparently has not been politically feasible. Many of the people who have moved to this desert oasis from parts of the country with much wetter climates and have brought with them water consuming habits such as lawn watering that are ill-suited to the desert. More importantly, to limit water use is to limit economic growth, and many vested interests in the area – developers, construction companies, financial institutions – have a big stake in continued economic growth. So, instead of conserving water or doing without more water, cities such as Tucson look to the federal government to provide inexpensive water.” 
States within States
If the eagerness of politicians to bring home the pork is one side of the dam-building coin, the power of those institutions which build and plan dams and other water projects is the other. Handling vast budgets, and enjoying considerable political power themselves, they are well-versed in the art of lobbying. For example, George Laycock recalls how one civil servant, working for the US Corps of Engineers, went about “handling” a congressman he wished to interest in a project. The civil servant told a biologist from the US Fish and Wildlife Service:
“We maintain dossiers on each member of the Appropriations Committee. When one of these congressmen came to New Orleans recently, we were ready for him. One of our people took a friend of his to dinner in Washington just to learn more about him. We found out that he was a diabetic. So, when he arrived in New Orleans, his air-conditioned limousine was already equipped with a refrigerator stocked with everything he might need, including insulin.” 
Whatever the means used to obtain its influence in congress, the US Corps of Engineers – together with the Bureau of Reclamation – undoubtedly wields considerable political power on Capitol Hill. When in 1979, President Carter tried to put through a bill which would have created a new department, the Department of Natural Resources, and made it responsible for reviewing water projects, his efforts were stymied by the Corps and its allied agencies. Later, in 1980, Carter was forced to lift his presidential veto on a proposed bill which would have sanctioned $4.2 billion worth of water projects – a bill he had previously called
“a travesty, wasteful, destructive and expensive.” 
Elsewhere we find agencies which are equally powerful. Thus Tasmania’s Hydro-Electric Commission (HEC) has been accused of being a state within a state. As Peter Thompson of the Australian Conservation Foundation writes,
“For more than fifty years, the Commission has played a virtually unchallenged role as Tasmania’s economic, social and land-use planner. It has been an organisation operating in a power vacuum, created by a succession of parliaments which have never insisted on the public accountability of the HEC.” 
Thompson is not alone in expressing that view of the Commission. Other, more official, bodies have also voiced growing concern at the power now enjoyed by the HEC. Thus, in 1980, Tasmania’s own Directorate of Energy noted with alarm that the Commission was “sounding out” potential customers for its hydro-electric power without referring to other government departments.
“It would seem that the Hydro-Electric Commission has been permitted, in the absence of adequate policy guidance, to act as a de facto and largely autonomous, economic planning agency. This is indisputably not its role.”
Earlier, in 1974, a committee of inquiry into the HEC’s plans to flood Tasmania’s Lake Pedder expressed harsh criticisms of “the limited scope of the Commission’s planning objectives and evaluation criteria . . . and the narrow scope of the Commission’s professional expertise”. Indeed, the Committee of Inquiry argued:
“It appears to be a close knit and tightly disciplined organisation and might be considered the archetype of the kind of government instrumentality (which has been) described as a ‘guild authority’. Such organisations are common amongst public works agencies in Australia, particularly in the water resources field. They tend to internalise expertise to avoid independent review of their proposals, to discourage public knowledge of their activities and to have limited (generally single purpose) objectives.
Because of their staffing structure and the nature of their charter, such organisations are ill equipped to handle problems which involve multi-objective planning, environmental considerations or inter disciplinary co-operation. (Some organisations react by drawing within themselves and refusing to acknowledge that problems outside their own field or expertise exist. The Hydro-Electric Commission was one such organisation in 1967. The experience of this Committee suggests that it is still very much so.” 
That view of the commission has been amply born out in the ten years since the Committee of Inquiry sat. Indeed, nothing could better illustrate the HEC’s tunnel vision and unwillingness to accept criticism than its reaction to the international outcry over its plans to dam the Franklin River. It was not until the High Court of Australia ruled that the area (which had been included in the World Heritage List as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) should be preserved that the HEC agreed to halt work on the dam.Back to top
Such outright disregard for international opinion is exceptional. Nevertheless, the determination shown by the HEC to build the Franklin River Dam is symptomatic of a more general tendency within the industry to push ahead with projects apparently regardless of the case against them.
The record makes it quite apparent that figures have frequently been falsified in order to win approval for projects which – on the basis of any objective analysis – would never be sanctioned, let alone constructed. Indeed, it would appear that those who stand to gain politically and financially from the building of a large dam are willing to go to Inordinate lengths to ensure that it will be built.
Among other things, they are willing purposefully to mislead those who must be persuaded of the dam’s desirability and viability before the go-ahead to build it will actually be given. This they do by grossly exaggerating the dam’s likely benefits and seriously underestimating its probably costs – in particular its social and ecological costs which, as we have seen, are often totally ignored.
The power, prestige and financial resources of the politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists involved in dam projects greatly facilitates that deceit – as does the credulity and apathy of the public. Moreover, unlike the authorities, those who oppose dams – often local tribal or peasant leaders, obscure academics or youthful environmentalists – have meagre financial resources and little credibility.
To add to their difficulties, they must also confront the entrenched belief that large – scale water development schemes are an essential part of the process of economic development – a process which we have been taught to see as the only means of combating poverty and malnutrition, and of assuring health, longevity and prosperity for all.
To challenge dams is thus to challenge a fundamental credo of our civilisation.Back to top
|1.||Walter Taylor, “James Bay: Continental Crisis”. In Survival (North American Edition) No. 12, March 1973, p.4.|
|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”. In A Look at Africa. Environment Liaison Centre, PO Box 72461, Nairobi, Kenya, 1981, p.17.|
|6.||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.|
|7.||Brian Johnson, The Return of the Big Dam. Earthscan, London, 1979, p.3.|
|8.||Anon, Selingue Dam Project, Mali. Commonwealth Secretariat, Undated, p.43.|
|9.||E. Barton Worthington, “The Nile Catchment – Technological Change and Aquatic Biology”. In M. T. Farvar and J. P. Milton (Eds), The Careless Technology; p.204. Tom Stacey, London 1973. In the same paper, Worthington remarks: “Every project In Nile control has to be undertaken with a strictly limited background of knowledge. As a scientist who has participated in development, I have sometimes found it positively frightening to make decisions which will affect the lives of millions of people when the basic facts were unknown. It felt a bit like writing the conclusions of a scientific paper before settling down to do the research.”.|
|10.||Aloys Michel op.cit. 1973, p.265.|
|12.||John Waterbury, The Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley, Syracuse University Press, 1979, p.4.|
|15.||Ali Fathy, The High Dam and its Impact, pp.50-51. General Book, Cairo, 1976. Quoted by John Waterbury in Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley. Syracuse University Press, 1979, p.116.|
|16.||Quoted by John Waterbury, Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley. Syracuse University Press, 1979, p.101.|
|17.||Mackenzie Wallace, Egypt and the Egyptian Question, pp.15, 250. Macmillan, London, 1883. Quoted by John Waterbury, Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley, Syracuse University Press, 1979, p.35.|
|18.||John Waterbury, Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley, p.39. Syracuse University Press, 1979.|
|20.||Such fears were not new. Indeed, they date back to an unsuccessful attempt by the French in 1898 to establish a military presence at the head of the Nile. Since then, the British had shown themselves fully aware of the power they held by controlling the major upstream states. Thus, in response to the murder of Sir Lee Stack, commander of the Anglo-Egyptian armies in 1924, Lord Allenby had announced that the size of the Sudan’s Gezira cotton scheme would immediately be increased from 300,000 feddans to “an unlimited figure as need may arise”. Although Allenby assured the Pasha of Egypt that Britain had “no intention of trespassing upon the natural and historic rights of Egypt in the waters of the Nile”, the threat had been clear enough: if Egypt did not control its nationalists, then Britain would interfere with its water supplies.|
|21.||J. Waterbury, op.cit. 1979, p.63.|
|22.||Ibid, p.78. Sadat was responding to news that Cuban troops were present In Ethiopia: how much more threatened must Nasser have felt when his fledgling regime first confronted Britain in the 1950s.|
|26.||Gamal Abd Al-Nasser, Speech at first closure of the Nile at the High Dam site, May 14th 1964. Quoted by J. Waterbury, op.cit. 1979, p.98.|
|27.||J Waterbury, op.cit. 1979, p.117.|
|30.||William Willcocks, The Nile in 1904, London, 1904. Quoted by John Waterbury, op.cit. 1979, p.39.|
|31.||J. Waterbury, op.cit. 1979, p.130 (footnote).|
|34.||Quoted in Rob Pardy et al: Purari: Overpowering PNG?. International Development Action for Purari Action Group, p.136.|
|35.||See: Gordon Bennet et al: The Damned: The Plight of the Akawaio Indians of Guyana. Survival International Document VI, London, 1978.|
|36.||Quoted in The Jonglei Canal, p.28. Press Briefing Document No. 8, Earthscan, London.|
|37.||W. Linney and S. Harrison, “Large Dams and the Developing World: Social and Environmental Costs and Benefits”. In A Look at Africa, p.31. Environment Liaison Centre, PO Box 72461, Nairobi, 1981.|
|38.||Quoted by F. Powledge: Water: The Nature, Uses and Future of our Most Precious and Abused Resource, p.288. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1982.|
|39.||George Laycock, The Diligent Destroyers, Audubon/Ballantine, 1970, p.30.|
|40.||Quoted in F. Powledge, Water: The Nature, Uses and Future of our Most Precious and Abused Resource, p.286. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1982.|
|41.||David Sheridan, “The Underwatered West: Overdrawn at the Well”. Environment, Vol. 23 No. 2, March 1981, p.9.|
|43.||George Laycock, op.cit. 1970, p.8.|
|44.||F. Powledge, op.cit. 1982, p.309.|
|45.||Peter Thompson, Power in Tasmania, Australian Conservation Foundation, 1981.|
|46.||Quoted in Peter Thompson. op.cit. 1981.|