High Stakes for the Next Wave of Dams

by Barbara Rose Johnston

Our world is full of serious problems, from escalating violence and war to global food and water shortages to increasingly deadly natural disasters. With so many urgent issues, why should we care about the legacies of large dam development?

At least 80 million people have been forced to make way for dams. Clearly, the world's 50,000 large dams have played a major role in fueling modern economies. Yet they have also flooded some of the most productive agricultural lands in the world. Changes in downstream water quality have decimated the fisheries, waterfowl and mammals of the world's deltas. For the tens of millions of people whose lives and livelihood were rooted in the banks and valleys of wild rivers, and for the hundreds of millions of people who struggle with the degenerative impacts of dead or dying fisheries, dam development has literally destroyed their health, economy, and culture. Recent assessments of the record of large dam development worldwide has produced dismal findings: not a single case can be found where displaced peoples now experience an equivalent, let alone, improved quality of life.

Who are these people? In India, 2% of the population has been forcibly displaced by dams, and at least 40% of Indians displaced since 1947 are categorized as "tribals" and ethnic minorities. The story is similar in most nations in large part because those who still live in the wild lands where rivers run free are typically those with little power: the ethnic minorities and indigenous groups who have managed, even in modern times, to eek out a traditional way of life. Dam development has meant loss of land with inadequate or nonexistent compensation, and loss of access to the varied resources the previously supported communities and the cultural traditions that sustained them. In case after case, the end result is best described as an ulcerating mess.

We are just beginning to understand the many and profound intergenerational consequences of completed dams. Some 80,000 Tongans, for example, forced from their homelands in 1952 for the Kariba Dam now live in abject poverty. As displaced communities around the world attempt to document their plight and negotiate some form of remedy, responsible parties - governments and international financiers - have largely reacted in minimal ways on a case-specific basis.

Not only have we failed to learn from our mistakes, we are now setting out to repeat these mistakes in exponential ways. And this time, the stakes are even higher.

In the past few years, thousands of new large hydroelectric dam projects around the world are being planned. Hundreds of large dam projects have been announced in China. Every river on both sides of the Himalaya will be modified. Some 22 dams are planned or being built on 20 rivers in Turkey alone. This new boom in dam development is occurring at an unprecedented scale and rate, in many cases without the public financing that stipulates consideration for social and environmental concerns.

Consider these changes on a global scale. Map out where dams are planned or being built. Add an overlay of biodiversity hot spots. Add another overlay of cultural diversity, where the world's remaining indigenous groups and ethnic minorities reside. Then, add a final overlay of known and as yet undeveloped mineral and energy reserves. You will see a dismaying convergence. Many planned dams will generate hydroelectricity primarily to support the extraction and processing of gold, aluminum, copper, uranium, oil shale, and other resources. And it will most assuredly threaten, if not wipe out, a huge portion of the world's remaining diversity of life. Where will these people go? How will they survive? And what consequences will we see in global rates of poverty, health, misery, and violence, from their collective experiences with dam development and displacement?

We live in a time of immense crisis. The lessons we learn from examining the legacies of past dam development and addressing ulcerating conditions in meaningful ways - with political processes and actions that repair the damage and, make amends - are lessons in creating security and peace. Dealing with dam legacy issues and rebuilding a sustainable way of life requires governance and action that prioritizes human and environmental security over profit and power. It's a legacy we can't afford to ignore.