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Rivers must flow

Book>> Economics of river flows: lessons from dam removals in America • by Bharat Jhunjhunwala • Rs 750

By Bharat Lal Seth
Published: Sunday 31 October 2010

imageThis book about lessons from dismantling of dams in the US comes at a time when Indian government has been forced to cancel a few dam projects on the river Ganga.

Economist and columnist Bharat Jhunjhunwala was drawn to the subject a few years ago on a visit to his daughter in the US. On subsequent visits, he tried to gauge the anti-dam sentiment and the momentum behind the movement to dismantle hydraulic infrastructure in the country.

A known activist against dams on the Ganga, Jhunjhunwala loves rivers. But his arguments are not one-sided. He presents problems of dam removal and accepts that dams do benefit society. He makes an important point that dams should not be dismantled in a manner that hurts people dependent on the river.

But he finds it hard to remain non-partisan. At times, he presents a case for removing dams by comparing rivers to tiger reserves: just as reserves are created without cost-benefit analysis, the sanctity of rivers surpasses all benefits from hydropower and irrigation. The argument might seem romantic. But its not: Jhunjunwala says the results of cost benefit analysis for dams in India would be different from that made out by proponents of hydropower, if it takes into account the loss of biodiversity. He cites the case of Edwards dam on the Kennebec river in Maine, where the owners, faced with a US $9 million expenditure on a fishway, removed the dam.

imageAt some points, Lessons from Dam Removals in America appears the work of a river romantic. For example, he said, “There is a possibility we will attach more value to higher pursuits of life such as mental peace obtained from sitting on river banks and less value to the consumption of power.”

This takes away from some of the hardhitting economic analyses and is grist to the mill for the hydropower brigade. They could well argue that it is a misconception that electricity is mostly used by the rich for material comforts—three quarters of electricity produced in India is used for agriculture, industry and in commercial establishments.

One wishes the book had more photographs. It would have surely done well with a few maps to reach out to an audience less aware of the geography of the US. If you are a dam proponent or hydraulics engineer, this book is highly recommended. If you are an anti-dam activist it will arm you in your fight.

Bharat Lal Seth reports on water-related issues for Down To Earth

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