Sunday, March 9, 2014

Deep Water

The completion of the Hoover Dam in 1935 was a head-snapping experience — something like the moon landing, or the atomic bomb — history-making techno-craziness.  It was the greatest construction project in human history, and the world’s biggest power plant.  It was a giant leap forward in humankind’s crusade to enslave and abuse Big Mama Nature, and leave behind enormous messes for the kids.

Legions of hustlers were thrilled to realize the fabulous new opportunities for becoming rich whilst not getting their hands dirty.  From 1935 to 2000, about 45,000 large dams were constructed in 140 nations.  In his book, Deep Water, Jacques Leslie takes readers to India, Africa, and Australia to explore the dark world of the dammed.

In India, we meet Ms. Medha Patkar, a charismatic full-throttle activist determined to stop the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River.  It would flood the homes of 200,000 to 300,000, many of whom were indigenous tribal people.  Tribal folks were happy to live in the roadless forest, where the Hindus didn’t molest them.  In the Hindu world, tribal people were assigned a status even lower than the untouchables.  Tribes had zero political power.

The primary villain in this book was the World Bank, which poured billions of dollars into dam projects, to spur what is comically referred to as sustainable development.  Devious bureaucrats in India were highly skilled at diverting a good portion of this flood of money into their own pockets.  The politicians of India were so corrupt that they made American officials almost look virtuous.  Social and environmental concerns went out the window.

In India alone, dams have displaced somewhere between 21 and 55 million people (40 to 80 million worldwide).  In the relocation game, officials promised the sun and moon to the families to be displaced, like five acres (2 ha) of good land and a government job.  What they actually ended up getting was screwed.  Their fields were under water, and they were prohibited from fishing in the reservoir.  Often the tribes scattered to the winds, and ended up in urban nightmares.

India’s population is projected to be larger than China’s by 2050.  The privileged folks hunger to enjoy a planet-trashing consumer lifestyle, and have little concern for what happens to the politically invisible.  The nation has already built 4,300 large dams, and has plans for 700 to 1,000 more.  Dam building is easier and more profitable than population management.

The next section of the book takes us to Southern Africa, where we meet anthropologist Thayer Scudder, who spent decades as a consultant specializing in the resettlement of unlucky people who resided in future reservoirs.  He was skilled at creating high quality resettlement plans, and disappointed to see them all mostly ignored.  Once again, the natives were screwed, the officials pocketed a lot of money, and the ecosystem was damned.

Scudder had no doubt that dams were cool, in theory.  In theory, it was not impossible to create water projects that were fair, equitable, beneficial, and environmentally sensitive.  On the other hand, he believed that 70 percent of the world’s 45,000 large dams should have never been built.  Decade after decade, he nurtured a fantasy that some day he would be involved in creating just “one good dam.”  Instead, the great triumphs of his long career were his successes in killing a few stupid projects.

The last stop is Australia, where we meet water commissioner Don Blackmore, and get a thorough analysis of his frustrating struggle to keep the dying ecosystem of the Murray-Darling Basin on life support.  It’s the continent’s only major river system, but its annual flow is a wee trickle compared to the Amazon.  Australia was an especially unsuitable place to transplant the British way of life, and many experiments have fallen far short of their lofty goals, agriculture for example.  Much of the continent is arid, droughts are common, the ancient soils are low in nutrients, and the supply of fresh water is far from dependable.

Before the colonial invasion, thirsty Australian forests prevented most precipitation from reaching the water table in the Murray Basin.  When the white lads chopped down 15 billion trees to create cropland, the water table surged upward, as much as 75 feet (23 m), mobilizing the salts stored in the soil, and poisoning large areas of land.  The soils in the basin contain 100 billion tons of salt.  It would be a terrible place to attempt large-scale irrigation, but they did. 

Radical reductions of water diversions would slow the growing damage, but without water, farming is impossible.  Climate change presents a new wild card.  It could add major strains to a system that’s already staggering.

Leslie spent a day with an Aborigine man, Tom Trevorrow.  He lives in the Coorong, a 90-mile (145 km) lagoon near the mouth of the Murray.  When he was young, the land was thriving with abundant wildlife.  Today, with 75 percent of the water diverted upstream, the Coorong is very salty, and the habitat for birds, fish, and trees is devastated.  He wants the dams removed.  “The River is a living thing.  When you start interfering with it, everything dies.”

Aborigines managed to survive with an unrestricted free-flowing river for 50,000 years.  They survived because they learned how to live with the land, an extremely intelligent strategy.  They were not possessed with unhealthy impulses to temporarily control and exploit nature.  And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the powerful wisdom that our ancestors forgot — wisdom that we damn well need to remember if humankind is to have any chance for sticking around for a while.

This book is a powerful parable.  Readers are given a backstage tour of the hideous world behind the dazzling magic show of endless growth and sustainable development.  The heroes of our culture, the wealthy pioneers of progress, without their makeup and glittering costumes, are sad creatures, like spoiled two-year olds.

Every single one of those 45,000 dams will die, sooner or later.  About 5,000 large dams are more than 50 years old.  As they age, the costs of maintenance rise, eventually eliminating profits.  Investors must make an important decision — should they abandon the dam, or come up with billions of dollars to safely decommission it?  It often costs more to decommission a major hydropower dam than it did to build it.

Many dams are nearly impossible to safely decommission.  Exactly where do you dispose of billions of tons of accumulated sediment, mud often loaded with pollutants?  Abandoned dams become the responsibility of taxpayers, who may not have the expertise, funds, or desire to safely decommission them.  Earthquakes may decommission some dams.  So might terrorists or wars.  Old age and normal decay will certainly remove many.

The good news here is that we enjoy a surplus of super-important lessons to learn.  We currently have access to outstanding tools for learning and teaching.  We have a ridiculously out-of-balance culture to practice on, and little to lose.  We have been presented with a fabulous opportunity to become the most beloved generation of ancestors ever.

Leslie, Jacques, Deep Water — The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2005.

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