Rethinking "Development" on the Day of Action for Rivers

Margaret Daly, 2016 Day of Action for Rivers Coordinator
The Free Stanislaus
The Free Stanislaus
Brian Washburn/Flickr

Serving as the Day of Action for Rivers Coordinator in these past two months has been an inspiring and transformative experience. In the days leading up to today, March 14, the International Day of Action for Rivers, I've found myself reflecting on the ways that rivers – and global ideas of development and modernity – have shaped the course of my life.  I’ve come to realize that my love for water, rivers, and the outdoors is inextricably connected to the desire, held by many, for a good life in a “developed” country, the same desire that moved my mother’s family from the Philippines to the United States.

Protest against San Roque Dam in the Philippines
Protest against San Roque Dam in the Philippines
International Rivers

In the Philippines, rushing waters of a river changed my mother’s life. When she was just a young child, one of my mother’s older brothers submerged and held her face in a river near their home. To this day, the lasting trauma from this incident keeps her from swimming.

Sometimes I wonder if my mother’s future life flashed before her eyes during those moments of submersion. Did she see herself and her family immigrating to the United States? Did she catch a glimpse of the faces of her three children who would have the life she could not? Maybe. After all, at any given point rivers are at once a past, present, and future.

Because of my mother’s insistence that I never drown as she almost did, I started swimming early in life. I remember delightedly jumping into a swimming pool for the first time at three years old. And thus, the fear that originated in my mother’s harrowing brush with a river transformed into my passion for water sports—swimming, water polo, kayaking, canoeing. 

Margaret Daly

Sifting through my childhood memories, the clearest ones feature free-flowing water. I’m kayaking in the Sierras, paddling furiously to overtake my brother, or moving calmly with the current, admiring the life bristling on the shores around me.  On a slow-moving body of water I float weightlessly on my back, dissolving into an endless vision of the sky.

I take for granted the privileges I’ve had growing up in the United States—access to a pool for swim lessons, a car to drive the long distance to the Sierras, leisure time to spend camping by a river. These are all parts of a lifestyle I might not have had were I born under different circumstances. Sometimes I forget that my mother and her family immigrated to this country to cash in on their share of the limited promises of development.

In our “modern” world, where the hope of development lingers as an alleged guarantee for a better life, rivers are a contested space. Mega dam projects exploit desires for modernity; stakeholders promise hydro electricity and higher standards of living, but ultimately, these projects are economically, ecologically, and spiritually disastrous for communities impacted by their construction.

As the US-born child of immigrants, I understand the drive for a better life and the desire to trust the promise of development, but

Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum
Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum
Courtesy of Roshan Batti

dams are neither an equitable nor sustainable way forward. They benefit wealthy elites and at best light the homes of some urban city-dwellers, at the expense of water quality, wildlife, entire river ecosystems, and indigenous, land-dependent peoples—most recently, Honduran Berta Cáceres and her indigenous resistance movement COPINH. The great turnout of support that we're witnessing on this March 14 Day of Action attests to the fact that so many people worldwide are fed up with the corporate greed, corruption, and environmental and social injustice that accompany large hydropower projects.

We can no longer passively stand by and watch the arteries of our earth, and the communities that depend on them, be systematically destroyed. Vibrant, free-flowing rivers sustain and enrich lives. I know mine wouldn’t be the same without them. 

Monday, March 14, 2016