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Human Rights

Fred Pearce thinks that activism and science are coming together in the
South’s struggle to defend water against concrete.

The Gorgoram fishing festival in northern Nigeria, on the fringes of the Sahara, was once a celebration of the miraculous fecundity of even the most inhospitable environment. Gorgoram is in the middle of the Hadejia-Nguru wetland, a giant splash of green in near-desert, in the floodplain of two rivers. Every year, in mid-February, thousands of people gather to collect the last fish from the rivers.

But they all say the festival is not what it was. Catches are well down. The rivers no longer fill with water. And round the village there are other signs of desiccation in a once-green landscape. Hundreds of trees have simply fallen down because the water table has slipped beneath their roots. Local lakes, through which boys still herd their cattle, now dry up weeks earlier than they used to. And floods no longer reach the fields of fertile soils, known as fadamas, which they once irrigated.

Ask the people, and few know why the change has come. But at the offices of the Hadejia-Nguru Wetlands Conservation Project – set up a decade ago by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation – they know all too well. The wetland, a vital resource for tens of thousands of people, is dying because upstream the Government is damming and diverting the water for irrigation and to fill taps in Kano – the capital of northern Nigeria.

The conservationists have contacts with dozens of villages and nomadic cattle herders on the wetland. They help with the management of scarce water – a small dike here, a new fishing boat there, some seeds for a new orchard. But they know that they are fighting against the tide. Three major dams have already been built. And now the German firm Julius Berger is at work again, on the largest dam of all, at Kafin Zaki.

These projects have been undertaken in the name of ‘greening’ the desert margins. But according to Mahtari Aminu-Kano, director of the Project, the dams have cut flooded wetland area in half. There is less water for fisheries, for forestry, agriculture, cattle herding and drinking.

The water table has fallen by 25 metres in places, and wells have dried up for hundreds of kilometres downstream. Far from halting desertification, the dams are promoting it. Hydrological research for the project has found that, for every hectare of fields irrigated at the Kano irrigation project, two more dry out on the wetland.

All may not be lost. The dams could be made to operate more sustainably, says Aminu-Kano, by releasing water into the wetland in time to irrigate crops and maintain fisheries. The Project is making headway with local officials to encourage management of the projects for all the people – not just those lucky enough to have a plot on a Government irrigation scheme. But in a country where corruption is rife and respect for democracy minimal, they are lone voices.

Nigeria is not the only country to have an irrational love affair with dams. It has been a worldwide phenomenon. For more than a generation, from the 1950s to the 1980s, large dams were seen as a symbol of political independence and economic development. For Egypt’s Aswan Dam, which harnessed the Nile floods, or Ghana’s Akosombo Dam, which flooded an area of the country the size of Lebanon, they amounted to a fundamental remaking of the geography of the country. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called his dams ‘the new temples of India’. For 50 years the World Bank has spent more money on dams than anything else.

And yet today the tide of opposition to these symbols of modernism is in full flood. Opposition to dams has developed into an assault on all manner of river engineering schemes, such as canalizing river channels and draining their floodplains.

The most potent movement to date has been against a string of dams on one of India’s largest and most holy rivers, the Narmada. The declared aim of the dam is to provide water for irrigation in the desert region of Gujarat state. But, if completed, it will create a reservoir 500 kilometres long and drown the homes of an estimated 90,000 people.

The campaign has employed the Gandhian principles of village-based activism and personal sacrifice. Twice in recent years villagers closest to the dam have refused to leave their homes as the first flood waters lapped at their doors. Only police intervention to remove them has so far prevented them drowning as waters rise during summer monsoons. Throughout 1995 constant rallies, hunger strikes and other actions by local activists like the charismatic Medha Patkar and the community-based group Narmada Bachao Andolan, plus a Supreme Court case demanding an independent cost-benefit analysis of the project, have all but brought dam construction to a halt.

It is the abuse of the land rights of village people and farmers even more than environmental considerations that fuels opposition to dams in India. Already some 16 million people have been evicted to make way for the largest number of dams in any country outside the US. Almost every state in the country has its dam dispute. But aside from the Narmada, the only one to hit international headlines is the Tehri dam in the north. There opposition mounts to plans for damming a tributary of another holy river, the Ganges.

The site of the 250-metre Tehri dam, which is intended to be India’s largest, is within a few kilometres of the epicentre of a major earthquake in 1991, which killed several hundred people. According to both US and Russian earthquake geologists, its design is unsafe for the site. If it failed, a tidal wave of water would rush down the valley engulfing several towns.

For years, the anti-Tehri campaign has been masterminded by Sunderlal Bahuguna, a veteran of the Himalayan Chipko movement, famous for hugging trees in an effort to protect them from the axes of foresters. That battle was largely won when the Indian Government imposed a ban on deforestation in the region. Since 1991, Bahuguna has lived in a tin shack on the banks of the river Bhagirathi just upstream of the dam site. He swears that he will never move – come hell or, more likely, high waters.

In 1992, he forced a two-year suspension of construction after his well-publicized hunger strike brought Government promises to review the scheme. But promises were broken and in June 1995, with construction resumed, police arrested him during a second hunger strike. He was removed to hospital to prevent his apparently imminent death.

The prospects for a pan-Indian anti-dam movement appeared close after Medha Patkar from the Narmada protest rushed north from Narmada to be at his side, only to be arrested en route. Anti-Tehri campaigners too opposed the involvement of Patkar in their campaign. The respected science and environment magazine Down to Earth, edited by veteran journalist and campaigner, Anil Agarwal, accused the Tehri campaigners of destroying the anti-dam movement in India through factionalism. ‘Clearly, the ego-system of Indian environmentalists is more fragile than the eco-system of the Himalayan ranges,’ it commented acidly.

Despite such disputes, the model for successful action to save rivers from mega-dams remains passionate local activism backed up by the sophisticated media-manipulation of Western Green groups. Campaigners now increasingly believe that scientific orthodoxy is moving decisively in their favour. Most dams and other river-engineering projects are construction boondoggles that fail to deliver what they promise and cause huge damage to ecological systems and human livelihoods. Any sensible cost-benefit assessment would reveal that the losses to farmers, fisheries, villagers far outweigh the benefits of most dam projects.

This summer the World Bank finally heeded the complaints of international campaigners and local activists when it backed out of the Arun III dam project in Nepal. A year before the Bank’s vice-president Joseph Wood had roundly declared that if the Bank dropped Arun III it would ‘send a signal that the Bank can no longer support large infrastructure projects’. ‘We hope that Mr Wood was right,’ commented Gopal Siwakoti of the Arun Concerned Group in Nepal.

Western environmentalists once saw hydroelectric power as the ultimate ‘green’ renewable energy. But the tables are now turned. Opponents of dam-construction are chalking up regular victories in the North as well as the South. French campaigners, based at the town of Le Puy in the Massif Central, mobilized in the early 1990s to force their Government to abandon a plan to dam the headwaters of the River Loire – dubbed, a little fancifully, ‘Europe’s last wild river’.

Dams are no longer the campaigners’ only targets. Flood barriers are an increasing source of anger to people living beside rivers. Just as water-supply dams often actually deprive the poorest of water, so many flood-protection measures create new flood perils.

The hydrological lesson is that rivers need to flood across their natural floodplain. Barricade them and they become more, not less, dangerous. In the past 150 years, German engineers have straightened the main branch of the Rhine by 130 kilometres and separated it from its floodplain. As a result spring rains and melting snow from the Alps rush to the sea in half the time that it once took, concentrating rather than dissipating flood surges in cities such as Cologne as well as the delta regions of the Netherlands.

German and Dutch activists from the World Wide Fund for Nature have for several years been arguing that the Rhine and its tributaries should be reconnected with its floodplain to encourage nature habitats and to reduce flood risks. When the river burst its banks early in 1995 they found the Dutch Environment Ministry backing them. The forced evacuation of 250,000 people prompted Ministry officials to call for less, not more, engineering. They blamed the floods on ‘ill-advised efforts to contain rivers in their straitjackets by river-architects and dam-builders.’

The majority of the world’s rivers are now engineered in some way by humans. The range of social and environmental side-effects of these vast experiments are only gradually becoming apparent. And as the story unravels it takes a new twist: it is the environmentalists who emerge on the side of science, while the engineers find themselves cast not only as anti-people but also as anti-scientific.

Fred Pearce is author of the book The Dammed and writes frequently for New Scientist magazine.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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