December 16, 2006

The Argument Against Dams

Thursday, on KQED's Forum, Michael Krasny interviewed Jacques Leslie, the author of Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment. It was a very interesting discussion as Jacques laid out a number of the problems with dams. As he noted, clean, fresh water will be the most precious resource of the 21st Century, just as oil was the dominating resource of the 20th Century. Here were some of the observations he had:

  • Although the perception is dams provide clean energy, dams in the tropics can produce dangerous greenhouse gases in the form of methane (a particularly bad greenhouse gas) as plants in the base of a reservoir rot after being flooded
  • All dams are a temporary solution because they eventually fill up with silt which means they are not a sustainable solution
  • The amount of water captured in dams has shifted the weight of the earth toward the equator which in turn effects the earth's gravitational field
  • Throughout the world, the large dams symbolize the power and authority of central governments
  • One of the biggest problems with the world's biggest dams is the enormous consequences borne by the people who are displaced by the reservoir created and the people downstream who no longer have the dynamic river ecosystem that created their environment
  • As with many large construction efforts, the greatest effect is to enrich those in the government that built them and to encourage graft and corruption
  • The United States has come to realize that dams are not an unmitigated blessing and now we are dismattling dams that don't provide much benefit.
  • Yet, the World Bank is still financing dams like the Three Gorge Dam in China despite the huge cost to the people and the environment.

Mr. Leslie conveys the story of dams using the same framework an independent commission used to provide a report to the World Bank.

In the mid-1990s, the World Bank, at the urging of nongovernmental organizations and with the cooperation of donor organizations, supported the development of an independent commission to study the effects of large dams. The World Commission on Dams (WCD) was made up of 10 members with a wide variety of views. The commission’s 400-page report, Dams and Development, appeared in 2000 to great publicity (Nelson Mandela and other dignitaries made speeches at the press conference announcing its release), and the report remains available at the commission’s Web site (

But as Leslie notes, with seeming regret, the report has had little lasting impact on either the World Bank or on the appetite for new dam projects. Many observers think that is all to the good. The dam-building community and many in the development community echo the World Bank’s senior water advisor John Briscoe’s view that the commission’s report was hijacked by dam opponents and does not provide a reasonable path for the future.

Today, 10 years after the hiatus on new dam building that occurred in the mid-1990s, the dam industry is in full gear, especially in South America and Asia, and is also riding a wave of privately financed small and mid-sized projects as a result of rising energy prices. The impact of Dams and Development has turned out to be less than its proponents presumably hoped for. Dam projects remain controversial, but they are moving ahead at a fast rate.

This sounds like a fascinating book about a topic that we should all consider. Do we use water wisely? It seems that many of the problems covered in the interview on Forum could be mitigated by using water more conservatively and more wisely. Listen and see what you think.

Posted by Mary at December 16, 2006 08:36 AM | Environment | Technorati links |

The dam industry is in full gear in Australia. Instead of preparing for climate change, our politians are still trying to capture electoral votes using old technology of dam building. A national focus on alternatives to building new dams is what the people of the Mary River, in the State of Queensland need to save them from being driven from their homes, losing 7600 ha of prime agricultural land and irrepairable environmental damage to the Mary River and its endangered wildlife.

Who is really going to pay for the social and environmental impacts of this proposed dam at Traveston Crossing that will wreck the lives of thousands of people and ruin a river hundreds of kilometres to Hervey Bay? Why would anyone propose to put a dam wall on an alluvial flood plain over a known high salinity hazard area and expect that future generations will clean up the salinity problems created? The people of SE Qld deserve to know the full cost(including the social and environmental $ costs) of building new dams and pumping water compared to other alternatives such as recycling water back to existing empty dams, desalination and installing rainwater tanks which would be overflowing by now!
Save the Mary from becoming the Murray and a fate worse than Paradise Dam. More details at

Posted by: Glenda Pickersgill at December 17, 2006 05:05 AM

'Cadillac Desert' is a classic on the problem covering the swath of dom induced problems in the arid west and a good look at the bleak outcome like abandonment of LA.

Posted by: Chris Rich at December 17, 2006 04:17 PM

In Brazil dams worked really well. Yes, during the military dictatorship there were problems with displaced people, but some of the most important rivers in the country(Like Tietê and Paraná) have Dams and there is no major problem with fishing or whatever.

In some cities, these dams´ laes are touristical atractions. And if you cut the trees before flooding, there is no greenhouse gas emissions.

Posted by: André Kenji at December 19, 2006 07:06 AM

Is this an joke because I have never heard such ridiculous garbage in my life:

"The amount of water captured in dams has shifted the weight of the earth toward the equator which in turn effects the earth's gravitational field"

What? There is no way that moving water will have any significant effect on the Earth's gravitational field. The total mass of the oceans is about 1/4400th of the total mass of the earth and we move a very small percentage of that maybe 1/100000. At best you might have a very small local effect but even this is doubtful since water isn't very dense.

I also strongly doubt that the dead trees will release significant amounts of greenhouse gases.

Actually dams provide the cheapest, cleanest power by far.

Posted by: assman at December 23, 2006 09:22 PM