Commentary: Living With Rivers

by Lori Pottinger
Tuesday, April 1, 1997

"The river runs through me like blood in my veins. If you dam the river, it is like stopping the blood that gives me life."  Raul Rocco, Argentinian fisherman

Raul Rocco lives with a river. Not beside it or near it, but with it. He is a fisherman, and the river he lives with -  the Paraná in northeastern Argentina - provides him and his family with food, a livelihood, water for drinking and washing, inspiration for their songs, their poetry, their lives. The river in fact defines their lives. Rocco cannot conceive of life without this river, his people's river, which they have lived with for generations.

But he has recently learned that there are a surprising number of people around the world who have their eye on the Rio Paraná, people who have never visited his home or even seen the river. Hailing from Washington, DC, Chicago, Moscow and Rotterdam, this international cadre of engineers, manufacturers and politicians envision the river trussed up in concrete and steel and "harnessed" to create electricity. The Paraná Medio Dam, as proposed by its backers, would create one of the largest reservoirs in the world (at 760,000 hectares, it would be 40 times bigger than Buenos Aires), displace thousands of people, flood productive land, destroy fisheries and a diverse ecosystem. And as usual, people like Rocco will be the last to learn the details - in fact will likely be left out of the planning process entirely.

Rocco has decided not to wait to see how the dam will affect his community and way of life - he has begun to take action. At the first International Meeting of People Affected by Dams held recently in Brazil (see page 1), Rocco told of his travels by canoe along 1,000 kilometers of the Paraná to tell people living along its banks about the proposed dam. He used poetry and street theater to convey the message. After the conference, Rocco's story was taken back to Lesotho, Thailand, Russia and Chile, where it will be retold, along with dozens of other stories about people standing up for their rivers. The retelling of these stories will give strength to those who hear them, people who are themselves fighting large dams.

This special issue is full of stories like Rocco's. These stories share a common thread, one that runs through the stories of most people affected by large dams. It goes like this: a poor, rural community suddenly learns about a dam project that is to be imposed upon it and which will forever change its way of life; the community has no resources to fight the project and even less political power to wield against it; the project is being promoted by a well-connected "hydromafia" of government officials, bankers and multinational corporations intent on building it. But if there are harsh similarities to these stories, there are also echoes of hope as communities unite to keep their homelands dam-free. The move to dam India's Narmada River (see story on page 4) gave rise to one of the most inspiring pro-river, anti-dam movements ever formed. Today, the Save the Narmada Movement continues its struggle to stop the ill-conceived project, and to inspire other river communities around the world.

The Declaration of Curitiba (page 9), which was written by delegates at the Brazil conference, offers a shared vision for the world's rivers from people who have had to live with the consequences of large dams. It insists that local people be active participants in the planning and development of rivers and watersheds. The declaration will provide a starting point for the next generation of people confronting megaprojects in their watersheds.

Dam-affected people are also heard by telling their stories to the international institutions behind the projects. Local people have brought their concerns about World Bank-funded dams to the Bank's Inspection Panel, which investigates violations of Bank policy. Three Latin American dams have come before the Inspection Panel recently; read about these cases on pages 10-11. Because almost half the cases so far brought before the Inspection Panel have been large dams, the World Bank is becoming ever more hesitant about funding large, destructive river projects.

As the stories in this issue illustrate, the voices of people affected by dams are growing louder. We will continue to retell their stories, and work toward a day when they do not have to be repeated.