Dams: the downside.
How is it that electricity generated by hydro-dams is so cheap?
After all, it must require a lot of money to finance and build a dam. And we know, even as the first shovel of dirt gets dug up from the site, “the finance clock starts ticking”
People:The World Commission on Dams, in its 2000 Report, says it’s the people living around the site of each dam who end up paying so dearly for the dams. For often they do not get properly compensated (if at all), or they get given very poor alternative facilities, and they lose their livelihoods in the process. So really, governments get a subsidy for the power they generate from dams, and local people pay for it.
When governments disrupt people to build dams, it is right that they should be properly compensated. In the 1970s, I worked on social housing issues as a researcher, activist, legal advice worker, and housing official. So I saw at first hand what the experience of public sector housing tenants was like in the UK. In London, tenants got decent ‘disturbance payments’ when they were moved. Working with tenants we made history in taking the government to court (Knight versus Rex (the Queen)1976) over their rights and won the case! Of course it is good there. After all, tenants in the UK have proper redress if things go wrong: they can get free legal advice, support to fight a case, and from their local councilors. Members of Parliament can also bring up the issue nationally! That is as it should be. But this is not so for poor people.
Losing your home:
Probably the worst place to lose your home to development is China today.
The biggest construction project in the world has been China’s Three Gorges Dam. So far, two million people have forced out of their homes; 13 cities, 300 towns and 1,300 villages are submerged by the dam. Farmers in China do not own land: they lease it from the government, so it is easy to push farmers off their farms. Usually, the local Communist Party chief has to do it. His neighbours complain about the disruption. They tell him to inform the bosses. But he knows they won’t listen to complaints from below. So he is in a dilemma.
A recent BBC World series documented what occurred in White Horse Valley, where the farmland was taken over to build a new city. The local villagers were promised a brand new school, and medical facilities. The local political chief and his wife watched as their house was the first to be knocked down. The villagers watched the school being built; at least their children would receive a good education. Instead, children of the elite were bussed into the school while their children were sent to other, poor village schools.
"Farmers here are rather backward. They don't have much idea of what a modern city is all about" said Tang Hongyong, the vice governor. In China, the mantra: “Personal sacrifice for the public good” means what it says! The BBC programme pointed out: “the Communist leadership gets what it wants. The people must be given what the Party believes to be in their interests. But the villagers of White Horse Valley feel they've been tricked once too often. They were told the new city would make them rich and urban. The government told the farmers to move out of their homes within three months or face eviction, but without building them any homes to go to”.Thai people disrupted get promised compensation: it rarely arrives. Sanitsuda Ekachai (Bangkok Post August 2000) wrote about Boonmee Khamruang whose father was promised compensation in 1970 after their house was demolished to make way for the Sirindhorn Dam. After years of demonstrating, their claim was finally decided in 1996: most of the 2,500 odd families who had got only partial compensation and poor farmland, were now to get 15-rai of farmland plus a long term low-interest loan.
But this farmland wasn’t found: a fund was set up for the villagers to buy land themselves. Then a new government came to power and revoked the claim. In 2000, more protests led to another committee and another promise of compensation, followed another government refusal. So it goes on!
One of the biggest complaints of fishers around these dams is of a dramatic fall in fish stocks. The Mekong River (the second most diverse region in the world)* has had its fish stocks hugely damaged by the new dams. The Pak Mun Dam, (mentioned by James Fahn, in his book A Land On Fire), blocked the fish migration routes. Witoon Permpongsacharoen said there are more than a thousand fish species in the Mekong and its tributaries. Chris Barlow (Mekong Regional Commission) says that fishermen in the basin catch about two million tons of fish every year, worth about $1,400 millions. Four fifths of the population of Cambodia is involved in fishing the river. Altogether, some 60 million people in the Mekong’s Lower Basin draw their food and income from the river and its extensive wetlands.
Because much of this is eaten locally, it does become part of the region’s official economy. (When these stocks fell drastically because of the dams, this did not register as part of the livelihood losses). Another example of how local people pay dearly when dams are built!
Fred Pearce, one of the leading authorities on rivers and dams, says that the Grand Coulee and its fellow dams on the Columbia River has destroyed one of the most lucrative and largest salmon fisheries in the world. It is worth more than the value of the electricity generated!
An issue generally ignored is the amount of rotting vegetation that comes from the flooded areas or flows downstream into dams and produces amounts of methane gas. Marco Aurelio (of Rio de Janiero’s Cidade University) insists that up to half of Brazil’s hydro reservoirs warm the planet by more than the equivalent fossil-fuel plants. The University of Alberta has calculated the global effect of all this methane. It reckons that reservoirs produce a fifth of all man made methane, making up seven percent of all greenhouse gases. This is a bigger impact than all aircraft emissions! Worryingly, methane is twenty times more potent as a greenhouse gas than Cabon Dioxide!
When rivers flow into dams all year long, they bring with the water lots silt. Most river cycles depend heavily on the silt flowing to the deltas each year, protecting the area from erosion against the sea and offering rich, abundant soil for growing crops. Once the dams are built, this silt builds up within the dam. The Commission’s Report claims that these accumulations have reduced the storage capacity of the older dams by half. Coastal lagoons in West Africa are being washed away as part of the erosions caused through the loss of this silt. Also, the loss of silt from the Akosombo Dam in Ghana caused 10,000 people’s homes on the coast to be washed away.
The extreme case is the Yellow River, the world’s siltiest. It has filled the Sanmenxia reservoir in just two years, according to Fred Pearce. He says that many dams will be as good as useless in forty or fifty years. Rodney White, a British dam consultant reckons “the world requires between three and four hundred new dams every year to maintain the current total storage”. That is no longer possible on most rivers.
Perhaps the most damaging aspects of dams is the floods they have caused. Generally, we do not hear about this. Floods are reported but the specific causes are lost in these news reports. Mozambique suffered its worst flood in 2000. Torrential rain got the blame but the operators of the dams upstream in South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe had kept their reservoirs full during the rains. When the floods came, many of the dams were washed away.
For dams are required to do two contradictory things. They have to store water for irrigation and to produce electricity.
But they also have to manage the excess water brought down by the floods. This was universally soaked up by floodplains and the sponge like wetlands. But many of these no longer exist in the rush to drain them for farming and new cities. Dams are supposed to regulate these changes in river flows. Often they don’t. Dams managers usually keep the dams full for the power production and irrigation. Often, through bad management of simple, they let out the water through the sluice gates rapidly, causing floods below. Often, the spillways are inadequate for these floods.
In fifty years, 332 Chinese dams have failed. Fred Pearce says the worst disaster occurred in August 1975. The operators of the Banqiao Dam in Henan Province were not worried when a typhoon hit the hills and the river swelled. But they did not know that another dam upstream was in trouble. The dam burst, and 97,000 acre-feet of watern rushed down the river into the Dam below. The Banqiao Dam burst, and sent 400,000 acre-feet of water, mud, and masonry downstream.
One woman, the Chinese later reported, leapt clear with the cry: “The river dragon has come”.
Many more dams have burst their walls. Usually, it is not news worthy. Maybe there is a cover-up, since dam managers can easily blame the typhoons or monsoons and hope no one investigates further.
* Only this week, the WWF announced that it had found over a thousand new species of wildlife in the Mekong Region!
Post script: I’ve omitted to write about the rapid evaporation that occurs on dams, especially in the Tropics. That’s another story!