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Book Review : Are They Valleys of the Dammed or the Damned?

May 30, 1986|LEE DEMBART

The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams by Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard (Sierra Club Books: $29.95)

When you stand at the base of the Hoover Dam and look up, a shiver runs down your spine. On the other side of this concrete more than 700 feet high is the Colorado River. The dam creates Lake Mead, harnesses the river to produce electricity and tames flood waters for irrigation. What a remarkable creation, you think. What a symbol of progress and of technology in the service of humanity.

Everywhere people have thought the same thing, and today there are more than 200 major dams throughout the world, with dozens more being built. Almost 10% of the dams are in California, but Third World countries have been particularly eager to erect them as a way of providing electricity, irrigation and flood control and of showing the world that they have arrived.

Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard, two British science writers, argue that this love affair with large dams--superdams, they call them--is misguided, counterproductive and harmful. Far from being the salvation of developing countries, they say, large dams will be their bane. "Large dams will prove to be a passing phenomenon in the history of human affairs," they predict. "The devastation they will have caused, however, will be of a very much more permanent nature."

The Social Problems

There are social problems. Because damming a river creates a lake, people must be moved and resettled, usually with unsatisfactory results. There are health problems. The irrigation that dams provide cause standing water that spreads malaria and schistosomiasis. There are environmental problems. Irrigation increases the salinity of irrigated land (as it has in the central valley of California) and ultimately reduces crop yields. There are seismic problems. Evidence indicates that damming a river into a lake greatly increases the chance of earthquake and structural failure.

What's more, the authors say, the goals for building the dam in the first place are rarely achieved. "Building dams to increase the Third World's hydroelectric capacity provides for further urbanization and industrialization," they say. "That consumes land and water desperately needed to produce food. It also generates pollution, which in turn reduces crop growth and annihilates fish stocks, accelerating the ravages of malnutrition and starvation."

Ah, you say, but the irrigation leads to greater crop yields, providing food for hungry people. Not so, say the authors. In order to pay for their dams, Third World countries must grow cash crops rather than food crops. As a result, the social, environmental and technological upheavals that these dams cause end in more food for the well-fed people of the world and not for the people the dams were intended to help.

Much of this is tightly and convincingly written, and the authors would have done well to stop right here. Unfortunately, however, they go on, and in the process they lay their cards on the table, revealing the philosophical and political underpinnings that motivate their study. To Goldsmith and Hildyard it is not just big dams that are bad, it is technology in general that is culturally and ecologically ruining the world. "The whole gamut of ills that now beset the earth are merely the symptoms of a degraded ecosystem which, under pressure from Homo sapiens, can no longer continue to function properly," they assert. The whole gamut of ills? All of them?

Having argued that large dams do not provide the control of water that is a main rationale for building them, Goldsmith and Hildyard go on to assert that many "primitive" Third World people have known for millennia how to build small-scale irrigation systems that work in harmony with their society and environment.

In the authors' view, Western technological imperialists are destroying these happy societies that are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves if only the dam-builders would leave them alone.

TechnologicaL Culture

One reason they cite that dams don't work is that maintaining and using them properly requires a technological culture that is alien to Third World societies. To make large dams pay for themselves requires growing two or three crops a year, thereby depleting the soil. It also demands a lot of work, and, "People do not have time to interact in traditional ways--such as singing or dancing or feasting--which would normally create a climate for cooperation that is so vital to the sound management and maintenance of a viable irrigation system," they say.

Is it dams that the authors oppose or is it the 20th Century? Given a choice, who wouldn't choose singing and dancing and feasting over working? But this hardly seems like a practical standard for the organization of society.

To be sure, not everyone has to buy in to the materialism and creature comforts that motivate much of the industrialized world. If people want to live differently, fine. But there is scant indication that given the choice, people in underdeveloped countries would vote for Goldsmith and Hildyard's vision over the technological alternative.

Nonetheless, the authors' attack on large dams is serious and troubling. These seemingly benign behemoths, which are almost universally accepted as beneficial to civilization, may be as dangerous in their own way as nuclear power plants.

All technology is not bad, but this technology may be.

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