DAMS AND FLOODS (Printed in PanGaia, California)
March, 2002

Day by day, river by river, forest by forest, mountain by mountain, missile by missile, bomb by bomb - almost without our knowing it, we are being broken. Big Dams are to a Nation's 'Development' what Nuclear Bombs are to its Military Arsenal. They're both weapons of mass destruction. They're both weapons Governments use to control their own people. Both Twentieth Century emblems that mark a point in time when human intelligence has outstripped its own instinct for survival. They're both malignant indications of civilisation turning upon itself. They represent the severing of the link, not just the link - the understanding - between human beings and the planet they live on. They scramble the intelligence that connects eggs to hens, milk to cows, food to forests, water to rivers, air to life and the earth to human existence. (“The Greater Common Good" by Arundhati Roy, April 1999)

It was the impact of dams that I was thinking of in early February when a major flood came through our neighborhood here in the city of Lismore, (northern New South Wales, Australia), population 10,000. Within 24 hours the flood had wiped out the garden and the fruit trees as well as the Rainforest Information Centre office.

As the water level rose by the minute, I found myself thinking of the courageous men and women in India who, in 1990, declared that they would rather drown than lose their homes to the Narmada dam. I remembered seeing pictures of these people clinging to the few remaining structures, without food and shivering from the cold.

India is the world's third largest dam builder, with 3,600 dams that qualify as Big Dams and 1,000 more under construction.

Large dams are problematic for a number of reasons: They dislocate huge populations of people leaving them homeless and destitute, destroy entire forests and they cause floods, salinity and water logging. Dams have either eliminated or endangered one-fifth of the world's freshwater fish.

In India, dams are frequently constructed to provide year round irrigation of regions, known as command areas, that would otherwise be dependent on seasonal monsoon rains. As Arundahti Roy explains in "The Greater Common Good"

"How will the command area, accustomed only to seasonal irrigation, its entire ecology designed for that single pulse of monsoon rain, react to being irrigated the whole year round? Perennial canal irrigation does to soil roughly what anabolic steroids do to the human body. Steroids can turn an ordinary athlete into an Olympic medal-winner, perennial irrigation can convert soil which produced only a single crop a year into soil that yields several crops a year. Lands on which farmers traditionally grew crops that don't need a great deal of water (maize, millet, barley, and a whole range of pulses) suddenly yield water-guzzling cash crops - cotton, rice, soya bean, and the biggest guzzler of all (like those finned 'fifties cars), sugar-cane. This completely alters traditional crop-patterns in the command area. People stop growing things that they can afford to eat, and start growing things that they can only afford to sell. By linking themselves to the 'market' they lose control over their lives.”

Rather than constructing large dams to control water, what is needed are watershed management measures such as rainwater harvesting, tree planting, and soil conservation.

However, the international Dam Industry is worth 20 billion dollars a year. Some 40,000 large dams, most of which were built in the past 50 years, now obstruct the world's rivers. The United States, with 5,500 large dams (second most dammed country in the world) have stopped building large dams and are now spending great amounts of money trying to fix the problems created by existing dams.

In 1935, the first great dam, Hoover Dam, was declared by Franklin D. Roosevelt to herald in a new age of progress. With great pride felt by the entire nation, FDR proclaimed "Here is where man conquered the mighty river." Little were the developers then aware of some of the more damaging consequences of large scale dams.

In the case of the Balbina dam (1989) in Brazil, 1400 square miles of precious rainforest were flooded. All to produce a negligible amount of electricity. Now the trees stand rotting in 10 metre high water that is acidified, and undrinkable with heavy metal pollution. A large number of fish have died as a result as well.

In Brazil, 70 new dams are scheduled to be built by 2010. These dams satisfy short term profit motives, benefiting corporations while increasing developing countries' debt burden.

Unfortunately, the ideology of development has been linked to an archaic notion of progress that includes the construction of large dams. Sometimes the largeness is unfathomable as in the case of the Three Gorges dam scheduled to run along 4,000 miles of the Yangtse river, with 1.2 million people being forced to resettle during the 20 year construction plan. The dam itself will be a mile long with a 600 foot high wall. The rare Yangtse dolphin is also scheduled to be effected as well as other endangered species.

Such time and investment and damage is senseless given that the worlds' dams have an estimated life span of 50 - 100 years due to siltation build up.

Dams and floods. While the papaya trees keeled over 3 weeks after the flood from root rot, the garden beds are once again planted with tiny seedlings that make noticeable growth each day.

The flood here at home is yet one more wake-up call to the times we're living in. If the river were not deforested up and down its banks, there would be no flooding. If the banks were not coated in agro-chemicals, then the nearby rivers would not now be experiencing large scale fish kills and deoxygenation.

And yet the resiliency of the Earth shines through. As I wash out compost bins, I pray for the replenishment of top soil all across the world. Scrubbing hard now, I pray for the wellbeing of all of the little critters and us as well and the rest of the living web.

All my relations!