The International Anti-Dam Movement

Excerpted from Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams by Patrick McCully.
Zed Books, London, 1996.

We Will Not Move: The International Anti-Dam Movement
Koi nahi hatega, bandh nahi banega
(No one will move, the dam will not be built)
Doobenge par hatenge nahin
(We will drown but we will not move)
Slogans of the Narmada Bachao Andolan

The decade since the mid-1980s has seen the emergence of an international movement against current dam-building practices. The movement is comprised of thousands of environmental, human rights, and social activist groups on all the world’s continents except Antarctica. It coalesced from a multitude of local, regional and national anti-dam campaigns and a smaller number of support groups working at an international level. Dam builders recognize and bemoan its effectiveness. ICOLD President Wolfgang Pircher warned the British Dam Society in 1992 that the industry faced ’a serious general counter-movement that has already succeeded in reducing the prestige of dam engineering in the public eye, and it is starting to make work difficult for our profession.’

The earliest successful anti-dam campaigns were mostly led by conservationists trying to preserve wilderness areas. Until recently, resistance from those directly impacted by dams was usually defeated. Since the 1970s, however, directly affected people have gained the power to stop dams, mostly because they have built alliances with sympathetic outsiders - environmentalists, human rights and democracy activists, peasants’ and indigenous peoples’ organizations, fishers and recreationists. The rise of environmentalism has greatly helped the opponents of dams - and anti-dam campaigns have in many countries played an important role in the growth of national environmental movements. Other factors contributing to the emergence of the international movement have been the overthrow of authoritarian regimes and the spread of modern communication technologies.

Dam opponents are not just ’antis’, but are advocates for what they see as more sustainable, equitable and efficient technologies and management practices. Political changes which would best encourage the preservation or adoption of these technologies and practices have been a central demand of many anti-dam campaigns. Struggles that have started with the aim of improving resettlement terms or of stopping an individual dam have matured into movements advocating an entirely different model of political and economic development. That decision making be transparent and democratic is now seen by many dam opponents as being as important as the decisions themselves. The clearest illustration of the wider political importance of anti-dam movements is the crucial role that dam struggles played in the pro-democracy movements of the 1980s in Eastern Europe and South America...

Activists working at the local, national and international levels have together managed to seriously tarnish the lure of large dams as icons of progress and plenty. To many people, large dams have instead become symbols of the destruction of the natural world and of the corruption and arrogance of over-powerful and secretive corporations, bureaucracies and governments. Although hundreds of large dams are still under construction and many more are on the engineers’ drawing boards, aid funds and other public sector sources of financing are drying up, and public protests are provoked by just about every large dam that is now proposed in a democratic country. The international dam industry appears to be entering a recession from which it may never escape.

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