When the Rivers Run Dry

January 13, 2011 · Posted in Book Review 

Since one of my philosophies is Stay Informed, I read a fair amount about food, the environment, and how our choices are in fact all connected.  My most recent read is called When the Rivers Run Dry, by Fred Pearce.  While it focuses on water, its main theme is one well-known by anyone with even a slightly environmental bent to them.  He casts his gaze on dams and hydrological attempts to maintain rivers and provide irrigation.  What he exposes is that time and time again we over-estimate our ability to control mother nature, and wind up doing much more harm than good.

To start, why do we build dams?  For primarily three different reasons.  We want flood control, hydro-power, and upstream irrigation potential.

As Fred demonstrates, the only one of those aims that comes close to being met is the hydro-power, but that’s only in developed nations.  In most developing nations, the power source is oftentimes not hooked up to the main power grid but rather gets diverted directly to private corporations and their mining/farming/extracting interests.

Flood control fails for two different reasons.  The first is that instead of creating a reservoir that will hold all possible floods, we create a reservoir that will create bigger floods when they do break.  “Once in a lifetime” floods are now occurring much more frequently, as he cites throughout the book.  When and if a dam breaks or reservoir fails, the resulting flood is much bigger due to the sheer volume of water sitting behind.

And what happens when that water breaches the dam?  On that previous river, perhaps there were floodplains or wetlands.  These areas were periodically flooded, but did a pretty good job of retaining water and limiting further downstream damage.  Now, because of the damn, floodplains and wetlands disappear.  They dry up, and their soil becomes caked and brittle.  There is no natural stoppage for this water anymore.  So a larger volume of water rushes over a less-hospitable area, causing quicker and more severe damage than in the past.

Pearce also shows that the promise of better upstream irrigation falls far short of actual goals.  Overall the idea is that better upstream irrigation will grow more food, feed more people, and increase output.  Well, to hit those goals you at minimum need to cover the costs of destruction created downstream as soils die and farms become deserts.  The economic benefits of dams have been greatly exaggerated, and in many cases cause much more economic distress overall.  The politicians and some corporations may win, but the people that depend on the land for their livelihood lose in almost every single case.  One of the book’s best passages is a discussion with the old director of the Bureau of Recreation.  He says “and the actual contribution made to the national economy by these dam projects was small in comparison to the alternative uses that could have been made with the public funds they swallowed up.  We are now spending billions of dollars to correct the unanticipated impacts such as lost fisheries, salinized soils, and desiccated wetlands.”

All of these costs translate in one way or another to human beings.  Reduced fish stocks, worse soil, harsher floods, more deserts where there used to be wetlands – these things all effect local populations, and sometimes in extremely drastic ways.

The World Bank used to finance large dam projects, but has stopped doing so.  The impetus for this change was a simple cost-benefit analysis.  It didn’t occur for about 30 years, but it still happened.  They found enough corruption, cost over-runs, delays, and downright failures to warrant closing their dam projects.  Perhaps the worst though, is that they found that their damn projects had resulted in the forced resettlement of over 10 million people.  10,000,000 people.  For power lines that go nowhere, loss of fish to eat, destruction of wetlands, and ruining our soil.

He does point to some hope though, and helps illustrate how we are all in this together.  Using examples from China to India to South Africa, he showcases rainwater harvesting, and shows several different possibilities for generating local water based on the available resources.  These efforts are of course local, and so won’t ever feature prominently in some political agenda.  But they work, and they make a difference in the lives and health of the local populations.

In the end, it’s one more example of something that, as a human necessity, should not necessarily be nationalized, corporatized, and commoditized.  Water is obviously essential to our lives, and local communities can and should be responsible for their own water whenever possible.



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