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Troubled waters

SILENCED RIVERS: THE ECOLOGY AND POLITICS OF LARGE DAMS· Patrick McCully·Zed Books, London and New Jersey, in association with The Ecologist and International Rivers Network, California· 1996

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

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SHRIPAD DHARMADHIKARY

much water has flown down the rivers of this world and many attempts to stop the water from flowing have been frustrated by the growing anti-large dam movement since the now classic Social and Environmental Impact of Large Dams by Goldsmith and Hildyard was published in the mid '80s. Patrick McCully's book has come out as not only a worthy sequel but a very significant work in its own right.

Even after a decade of much publicised intense global struggles against large dams, understanding of the complex issues involved is limited except, possibly, on issues of rehabilitation and environmental impacts. This book does a remarkable job of documenting in detail all such issues, giving facts and figures from all over the world. The immense amount of data, documented in an eminently readable style, is probably the biggest strength of the book.

The book does a competent job of exploring, as the title suggests, the ecology and the politics of large dams, both of which have become equally important for anti-large dam movements. The book opens with a very interesting introduction to the history and spread of large dams, building a detailed picture of how they have irrevocably altered the landscape as well as the politics of the region.

Subsequent chapters cover the inevitable topics of rehabilitation and environmental impacts. However, the last few chapters are more interesting as they explore in detail the claimed benefits of large dams in power generation and irrigation, as also the technical failure of such dams. McCully documents in detail how flimsy the technical basis of such dams are. This includes problems like seismic impacts, geological problems, siltation and dam failures. He also lucidly explains how the vested interests push ahead the dams even though they know about these weaknesses. One of the sections, eloquently titled 'Political Hydrology', captures the essence of the attempts to twist even technical data for political ends that marks many of the large dams.

The alternatives to large dams are discussed in chapters appropriately titled 'The Wise Use of Watershed' and 'Energy: Revolution or Catastrophe'. These chapters are a well-compiled introduction to the society's vision of the alternatives and their technical details. As McCully says, "Dam critics are often asked what are their alternatives to building large dams. The question begs an easy answer such as small dams, but this would not do justice to the arguments of dam opponents. For many critics oppose both the means and the ends of dam builders they are not interested in providing water for huge irrigation schemes which dispossess small farmers for the benefit of agribusiness, alternative energy sources to feed the wasteful habits of cities and industries, or alternative ways of wiping out floods on which rural people and ecosystems depend. If the question is turned from 'what are the alternatives to dams?' to 'how can we enable people to obtain adequate and equitable supplies of water and energy far into the future, reduce the destructiveness of floods, and protect our watersheds from degradation?' then it can be properly answered."

However, the most interesting part of the book are the last two chapters. The last but one chapter 'Industry Applies, Man Conforms' is a devastating inside account of the dam building industry, possibly appearing for the first time in such a detailed compilation. The title of the last chapter 'We Will Not Move..." has obviously been taken from the slogan of the Narmada struggle " Hum Nahin Hatenge, Bandh Nahin Banane Denge " (we will not move, we will not let the dam be built) and is a wonderful testimony to the spirit and commitment of the people who have been involved in the intense struggles against large dams all over the world, often at great personal suffering and sacrifice. The chapter is all the more interesting because the author has been personally involved with and has close contacts with many of the struggles described in the chapter.

The one drawback of the book is its racy style which sometimes tends to distract from the depth and detail, and seriousness of the issue.

All in all an important book, it has come at a very crucial time when the efficacy of large dams is increasingly being questioned with even supporters like the World Bank showing much less interest in such projects now. A must read for those interested in the debate on large dams, and in the quest for just and sustainable development.

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