The case against dams worldwide: Not too big to fail

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The failure of the Teton Dam in Idaho on June 3, 1976. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation

This is the first of two stories about dams around the world. Part two can be found by clicking here.

"The time has come," the Walrus said, "To talk of many things: Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax -- Of cabbages -- and kings -- And why the sea is boiling hot -- and whether pigs have wings."

Today's seas, while not boiling, are warming significantly but only self-appointed "elite" pigs currently possess synthetic -- aluminum -- wings.

In Jan., 2010, unrelenting dam construction was subjected to analysis in Worldwatch Magazine. The article "Greenwashing Hydropower" by Aviva Imhof and Guy R. Lanza emphasizes, "Big dams have a serious record of social and environmental destruction, and there are many alternatives. So why are they being built?"

Illustrating a typical dam problem, they discuss the fate of 6,200 people whose farms were flooded to make way for the 450-square-kilometre reservoir behind Nam Theun 2 dam in Laos. This dam was proposed as a poverty reduction enterprise -- implying that it would be "different" from almost all other dams. People were provided with houses and electricity but their verdant valley of bottomland farms were replaced by plots of infertile upland soil. One peasant observed that the fertile land he had prior to dam construction grew enough food to support his family, enabled him to own 10 buffalo, and the surroundings provided fruit, berries and medicinal plants. His alternative residence does not enable him to grow enough rice to feed his family. Several of his buffalo have died from lack of food and the future has become bleak.

His problems illustrate typical social and environmental costs of dams. The World Commission on Dams states that most dam projects do not compensate individuals for their losses and display little concern for mitigating impact on displaced people. Imhof and Lanza comment that in "hydro projects worldwide... promises were made prior to project approval that were later broken by project developers and governments."

Readers aware of rapid population growth and the importance of arable land might question the wisdom of flooding fertile valley bottomland and driving people to starvation levels simply to foster technological structures of dubious value. There are many indications that our narrow definition of progress is seriously flawed. The authors suggest that 120,000 people downstream from the dam in Laos will suffer serious damage from destruction of fisheries, flooding of riverside gardens, and poor water quality. Program to restore livelihoods are "badly underfunded and poorly planned... Nam Theun 2 threatens more broken promises, shattered lives and ruined ecosystems."

There is now a major resurgence of dam building worldwide, with infusion of money from many countries involved in construction of 216 large dams in 49 countries. "Large" signifies reservoir capacity of at least 3 million cubic metres.

China already has more than 25,000 large dams -- more than half the world's total. These have displaced more than 23 million people. Yet China plans to double hydro generation by 2020. The Three Gorges Dam has displaced 1.3 million people. Some received tiny plots of land. Others were sent to urban slums with rudimentary housing and small compensation. Some were resettled in towns on the edges of Three Gorges Reservoir, but shore collapses in 91 places have killed "scores of people" and forced relocation of some towns. Imprisonments and beatings have sometimes occurred.

China's ambitions include damming the Mekong River "The Mother of Waters," famed for its $2 billion annual fishery. Dam construction there would block major fish migrations that provide income and food security for millions of people. Technological ambitions which destroy river ecology seem warped.

Seismicity

Natural Earth structures exist in a state of balance with one another. The likelihood that mankind is affecting earth stability was pointed out by D.S. Carder in 1945 when he called attention to events at Boulder Dam, in Colorado. There had been no earthquake shocks there for at least 15 years before the dam was built and Lake Mead began to fill in 1935. The first shock took place in September 1936, and there were 100 shocks during 1937 when the lake was 400 feet deep and the weight of stored water was 21 billion tons. Authorities placed seismographs around the lake to establish if it was the cause. When water behind the dam reached full weight of 25 billion tons, quakes reached a maximum. More shocks resulted in later years when the lake was nearly full. A total of 600 shocks were recorded in 10 years, the largest at magnitude 5.

Elsewhere, Kariba Dam in Rhodesia, capable of holding back 175,000 cubic metres of water began filling in 1960. Tremors were noted in Jan. and Feb. 1962 and were declared to originate in Kariba. In March, 1963 there were 30 shocks in five days. In September of that year there was a 5.7 quake , followed three hours later by a 6.1 quake and others 5.8, 5.5. and 6.0. This was the first occasion where tremors of such magnitude had been noted. The sparsely populated area was free of tremors before the dam was built.

Tragedies have occurred. A 6.2 magnitude tremor was caused when artificial Lake Kremasta in Greece reached its full capacity of 4,700 million tons. Numerous fractures and earth slides caused 480 houses to collapse; 1,200 more received serious damage; 60 people were injured and one killed.

On Oct. 9th, 1963; behind 262 ft. high Vaiont Dam in Italy, a landmass of 240 million cubic metres avalanched into the reservoir, displacing 50 per cent of the stored water. "Tsunamis up to 300 ft. high moved in both directions." The concrete dam survived, whereas an earth-filled dam would have failed. Water swept over the dam burying the town of Longarone and 2,600 people beneath 70 metres of water.

Teton Dam in Idaho failed on June 3, 1976. A member of the U.S. Geologic Survey had commented to friends that, "It was a crummy place to put a dam." Another geologist stated there was no true bedrock for the dam. Failure was rapid. "One second there was a dam 300 ft. high and 1,700 ft. wide at the base, the next minute it was gone." Two small communities, Wilford and Sugar City were wiped out. Their debris became a "battering ram" that smashed the down-river town of Rexburg to pieces. Tens of thousands of acres were stripped of soil down to bedrock. More fertile land was destroyed and made incapable of growing crops again than would have benefited by irrigation from the dam. 4,000 homes were damaged at Rexburg and 50 businesses were lost. Heroic efforts by state police kept deaths to 11 people. But if the dam failure had happened at night the result would have been disastrous.

The catastrophic Sichuan earthquake in China killed an estimated 90,000 people in May 2008. The 7.9 magnitude earthquake, was likely caused by the Zipingpu Dam. Christian Klose, Columbia Univ. geophysical hazards researcher, stated that "The several hundred million tons of water piled behind the Zipingpu Dam put just the wrong stresses on the adjacent Beichuan fault." That other dams in southern China may produce quakes has become a concern. Imhol and Lanza note the fact that "more than 100 instances of reservoirs causing earthquakes exist around the world."

Reservoir enthusiasts look forward to ambitious dam projects globally. The Amazon River is high on their itinerary. Devotion to technology and the "economic need" to keep machinery working seems to make humans unaware of the sound likelihood that "men propose but Nature will ultimately dispose." Greenhouse gas emissions could be enormous as a result of vegetation left to rot underwater.

Mica Dam and Kenney Dam in B.C. are widely-repeated examples of valuable mature forests flooded behind dams and left to rot. Unheeded public protests illustrate political opacity and ignorance.

A WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) study observed that in Brazil (for example) lower social, economic, and environmental impact could result from investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Brazil has enormous wind power potential and equally great potential for electricity production from biomass. Valuable fish species are threatened with extinction from dams being constructed on the Madeira River. Planned dams in Brazil will displace more than 100,000 bank dwellers from their homes while destroying native lands and protected areas.

Nutrient loss

Rivers transport silt which serves as nutrient for downstream fish and also fertilizes agricultural land which is flooded during high water levels in spring. But when a dam is built silt is trapped behind the dam and downstream fish and soils suffer accordingly. Prior to High Aswan Dam being built on the Nile, the irrigation dam that was replaced allowed silt transport downstream. This was ignored in building the High Aswan. Egyptian farmland, deprived of annual fertilization by silt, now requires near-record amounts of artificial fertilizer. Other serious ecological problems have been identified.

The article, "Greenwashing Hydropower," concludes that big dams contribute to some aspects of development which often come at a "staggering cost" to displaced refugees and persons dependent on downriver fisheries.

Big dams also vector waterborne diseases and usually construction costs are more than amounts predicted. While being "touted as a solution to climate change" they often emit enormous quantities of greenhouse gases during their construction. The Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, stated "Big dams are to a nation's development what nuclear bombs are to its military arsenal. They're both weapons of mass destruction."

Corruption

So why are so many dams being built? "Greenwashing Hydropower" suggests that vested interests, including a host of hydropower organizations with their panoply of special interests plus the economic cancer that metastasizes its way toward doom -- offer carte blanche to "development."

Development aspirations of consultants and engineering companies cause them to propose glorious projects that will result in one dam after another. Hype overrides wisdom which might sense that Nature knows more than humans do about planetary management. Everywhere, Environmental Impact Studies overlook basic principles that would protect ecosystems.

The authors point out that the nature of dam construction calls for huge upfront investments of cash. This makes it easy "for government officials and politicians to skim money off the top." One example offered, concerns the Yacreti Dam between Argentina and Paraguay, on the Parana River. This was named a "monument to corruption" by former Argentine president Carlos Menem. Proposed dam cost, estimated to be $1.6 billion, rose to over $8 billion.

In 2002 and 2003 a number of the world's leading dam-building companies were convicted for bribing Lesotho Highlands Development Authority in order to procure contracts on Katse dam in Lesotho. Examples of bribery are given which involve Acres International of Canada and Lahmeyer International of Germany. In China corrupt officials stole millions of dollars intended for individuals displaced by the Three Gorges Dam.

The World Commission on Dams proposed a new framework for making decisions regarding dam-building, but industry has rejected these guidelines and chooses to create its own regulations. The writers of the article contend that the demand for energy in developing countries could be halved by utilization of existing efficiency technologies. Meanwhile dam builders industry prefer to ignore wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass energy.

The dam industry should doggedly clean up its inefficiency and corruption. Internal reform is actually vital in all aspects of society.

The pricelessness of natural systems ruined thus far is visible only by hindsight.

Bob Harrington lives at Galena Bay, B.C. His latest book: Testimony for Earth and a new edition of The Soul Solution with a foreword by Dr. David Suzuki are now available by clicking here or telephone 250 369-2281 for autographed copies $23.

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