New Internationalist Issue 273
Flood of Protest
Richard Swift uncovers the real reasons why people - and beavers - want to mess with rivers. He charts the growing movement in defense of our great waterways.
There is something strangely compelling about a river. It is at the same time comforting and exhilarating. Part of it is the hypnosis of constant movement - like the flames of a fire or waves on a beach. But part of it is that sense that there is something eternal here that will keep on going long after the car engine conks out, the nuclear power station has been decommissioned and we have all turned to dust.
Rivers are much more than flowing water. As Max Finkelstein of Canada's Heritage Rivers Program points out: 'They are the threads that bind the fabric of nature and humanity and define the world's mosaic of cultures and landscapes. Throughout the world, rivers are imprinted on the land, and in the hearts and minds of the people who live along their banks.'
Different rivers 'imprint' in different ways. A lazy stretch of the Mekong or the Amazon is a world away from the violent rapids of the Colorado or the treacherous eddies of the Yangtze. And rivers can be whimsical in their changes of mood; the Mississippi on a lazy late summer's afternoon flowing by New Orleans's Jackson Square is a very different beast from the Mississippi in full flood sweeping away fields, farms and towns in the American Midwest as it did back in the spring of 1993. It is little wonder that when humanity set out to 'conquer nature' the wayward and uncontrolled river was a prime candidate.
The imprint of the river will be different if you spend your time catching the giant Mekong catfish for your food or are the deckhand on a colourful Zaire river barge, or rely on the Amazon to carry you to the nearest market, or are related to a river only as a distant source of water and power. For those of us who live with a river every day, its moods shape our moods. For those who visit to holiday or for religious purposes (as do hundreds of thousands in India) it is vital to the renewal of spirit and body. Then there are people whose livelihoods and prosperity are dependent on conquering the river and bending it to human purpose. It is increasingly difficult for rivers to meet all such competing needs.
There are in fact two cultural strains to indicate how human beings think about rivers. In the oldest the river is taken as circular and self-regulating with flooding cycles and water web accorded an almost spiritual status. This reverence for and modesty about the natural wonder of rivers comes from people whose food and drink are drawn directly from its waters. Indigenous peoples the world over have passed this sensibility down to farmers and fishers and now ecologists have taken up the torch.
A more recent notion of the river is that of a straight line running from point A to point B. This dates from the Roman water-supply aqueducts -the first rivers without curves. It is a notion that concentrates on military and commercial uses and is tied to the fate of states and empires. Here the river is a highway to be shaped for transportation -or latterly something to dam and divert -displacing its natural cycles with ones more convenient to the master designer.
Only one other species treats flowing water in this fashion. It said that North American beavers can't stand the sound of running water. Under laboratory conditions they will almost immediately seek to dam it up. There are lots of Canadian clichés about beavers being 'nature's little engineers'. They are the only other mammal to alter their habitat but unlike human engineers the wetlands they create are of some use to other species. Fish, waterfowl and a profusion of plantlife flourish there. Beavers are like their human engineering counterparts in another way as well -they have a lot of nerve. This point was brought home forcefully to me this summer when a beaver swam right up behind me (stick in mouth) as I tried to free a culvert from its dam of mud and sticks that was overflowing our country road. It was as if the little beast was saying 'you can do what you want but I'm going to dam it right back up as soon as you leave'. And sure enough that's just what happened.
I am generally quite willing to leave nature to its own devices but I find beavers a pain in the butt. I am sure that this is how most other species think about the humans who alternately drown or dry up their natural habitats by damming, diverting and channelling river flows. Increasingly that's also how a great deal of humanity is coming to feel about hydraulic engineers and their political masters - the people who shape the rivers and thus the lives and livelihoods of those who live with them.
Cementing the river
Around the world this process is well advanced. A massive hydrological infra-structure comprised of huge dams, hydro-generating stations, major water diversion canals, thousands of kilometres of dikes and levees and vast irrigation systems has fundamentally altered most of the world's populated river eco-systems. There are now 36,000 large-scale dams and they are still going up at the rate of 170 a year, displacing a million-odd 'reservoir refugees' -mostly in the South where they lack the political clout to resist.
Vast bodies of water like Russia's Aral Sea and Africa's Lake Chad are being systematically dried up. Whole riverine fisheries have been wiped out. Upstream wildlife habitat and some of the most fertile valley-bottom land has drowned. Downstream agriculture is robbed of vital nutrients that used to come from the silt which now clogs up dam reservoirs. There it slowly eats away at electrical potential and reduces storage capacity. Farmers are forced to rely instead on expensive fertilizers and are plagued with problems of waterlogged soil and of course salt - the curse of all civilizations based on large-scale irrigation. In some parts of Sind province in Pakistan more than half of once-productive land irrigated from the heavily-dammed Indus river is now barren and covered with salt. River eco-systems are not only over-engineered but are poisoned by industrial chemicals and agricultural run-off. In the worst cases, such as Poland, three-quarters of river water is unfit even for industrial use.
Giant mega-dams are the largest-ever structures built by humans and as such provide ample opportunities for cost overruns and corruption. A great deal of the Third World's crippling debt load comes from trying to pay off such bills. But financial costs are born by individual taxpayers and entire economies (usually meaning the 'structurally adjusted' poor) while profits tend to accrue to those better-placed to influence decisions. Such projects are not altruistic acts taken in the public interest. Benefits are unevenly distributed. The big growers of California are a classic example. Some of the most extensive riverworks in the world have ended up providing a subsidy that runs as high as two million dollars for a large farm to produce crops that the US already has in surplus. Similarly with the Bangladesh Flood Action Plan where supposed flood protection was transformed into a tool for agricultural 'modernization' which benefited larger commercial farmers. So even fiscal conservatives (at least those who don't stand to gain) these days are becoming quite wary of major river projects.
Large-scale river engineering means the centralization and arrogant use of political power that inevitably goes hand-in-hand with any mega-project. From the beginning of recorded history in the valleys of the Tigres-Euphrates or the Yellow River in Ancient China major riverworks were used by autocratic states to control the labour and crops of previously autonomous villages. To this day decisions as to how and where to build big dams or divert river flows are often hidden from public scrutiny. Remote bureaucratic organizations staffed by ambitious technocrats such as the US Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Mekong Secretariat in South East Asia or the Lake Chad Basin Commission in West Africa shape projects and then look for political sponsors to push them through. Those most affected are often the last to know.
There is of course a credit side to the ledger. Defenders of river engineering point to tens of thousands of kilowatts of electricity generated and thousands of acres of arid land brought into agricultural production. Some of its achievements have verged on the fantastic: concrete rivers criss-crossing deserts from Libya to Arizona to carry water to thirsty crops and consumers, staircases of dams that climb US rivers like the Colorado and the Columbia (and are planned for the Mekong) and the growth of heavily water-dependent crops like cotton in the desert conditions of Egypt and Central Asia. Billions of dollars have been spent and hundreds of thousands of people are now employed either building or maintaining riverworks from the steamy heat of the Volta in Ghana to the frozen tundra of Siberia. Indeed mega-dams and large-scale irrigation are now so important a part of modern industrial infrastructure and the power grid underpinning it that to question them seems an absurdity.
Defending the river
Yet that is precisely what is being done. In an address printed in the May 1993 issue of the slick trade monthly Water Power and Dam Construction W. Pircher, a big cheese at the International Commission of Large Dams, expresses alarm at the growing movement against river engineering. 'Today the resistance to new dams... is more fundamental, better organized, more spectacular... it is a serious counter-movement that has already succeeded in reducing the prestige of dam engineering in the public eye, and it is starting to make work difficult for our profession.' This is not idle propaganda. The defense of river eco-systems has been most pronounced in North America and in Asia where river engineering has remade the geography of countries like the US and India. But it is now finding echoes from the Rhine to the Amazon. The movement typically combines concern for poor people's livelihood and land rights usurped in the name of hydrological progress with issues of long-term environmental impact - the destruction of wetlands, natural habitats and watersheds.
Oddly it was the Left of the political spectrum, back in the salad days of post-war prosperity when growth and progress seemed the same thing, who championed major water works. Everyone from US New Dealers to Soviet Communists encouraged job-creating public works that would modernize for the benefit of all. The autocratic structures and dis-economies of scale such projects demanded are now being rethought by new generations of radicals with a greener, more decentralist outlook. This is the core of the counter movement that so worries the International Commission of Large Dams and its fellow-travellers. And well they should worry. The dam-building era in the industrial North has largely ground to a halt because of the potent alliance of anti-dam activists. In the South the World Bank has been pressured to withdraw from several large but dubious projects on the Indian sub-continent. Both Thailand and Bangladesh have witnessed victories over major river engineering schemes.
A big issue for all these campaigns is waste. Not only are we destroying the beauty and integrity of our great rivers but we are turning renewable resources into non-renewable ones. It is a characteristic of any predatory economy to 'mine' such resources, thus destroying their potential for infinite renewal. The scarcity of good fresh water, mostly drawn from rivers, is a classic example. Modern hydraulic systems lose masses of this water to evaporation from reservoirs and cement diversion canals. Less than 40 per cent of the water that finally gets taken for irrigation actually reaches the roots of plants. Industrial and municipal water is wasted at similarly startling rates. Expensive hydro-generated electricity (rivalling nuclear power in costs) is often in oversupply and is underpriced especially to industrial users. There is so much waste here that there is a consensus amongst energy economists that the best new source of power is conservation. All the best hydro-dam sites have now been used up so new hydro-electricity is likely to become even more costly.
Water scarcity is also beginning to provoke tensions between riverine nation-states over who gets to use what amount of river water. This is being played out from the River Jordan (Israel vs Jordan and Syria) to the River Ganges (India vs Bangladesh). But it is the Turkish plans for mega-engineering on the upper (Kurdish) reaches of the Euphrates that may be the most explosive. Downstream, arid Syria and Iraq have been dependent on its flow for irrigation and drinking water since biblical days. It may be that water rather than oil will be responsible the next time the troops mass at a mid-east border.
Conserving the river
The case for a new approach that respects river ecology will only be convincing if it is accompanied by a vision that allows for a transition to sustainable human use. Major existing river dams are unlikely to be abandoned even then - although their capacity will gradually be reduced with the inevitable build-up of silt in their reservoirs. Appropriate and intermediate technologies are at hand both to generate electricity and use river water in a more ecologically sound fashion. Run-of-the-river dams that do not impede flow have worked for a longtime in Western China and could have an even brighter future if new progress is made in technologies to store electrical power in cells (rather than storing water in reservoirs). There are also the usual cheaper power alternatives of sun, steam and wind that are badly underutilized. Radical conservation could also reduce demand for water to sustainable levels.
The highly water-conscious (some would say water-grabbing) Israelis lead the way here with drip irrigation systems that use a fraction of what waterlogs the soil elsewhere. Most farmers, particularly those in the South, practice irrigation in the informal sector using a variety of micro-dams, rainwater harvesting and low-cost pumps. Despite the millions poured into industrialized diversion of riverwater for irrigation this informal sector remains much more resource-efficient. With proper public sector support and advice these methods could be fine-tuned and extended, reducing the mounting pressure on river flows.
But there can be no question of going back to some pre-industrial utopia of pristine riverbanks and absolutely pure water. While it is crucial to keep some wilderness stretches of riverbank flourishing, far too many people live beside rivers and depend on them for their livelihoods. And the human spirit also needs those precious flows - who can imagine Florence without the Arno, Paris without the Seine or Khartoum without the Nile? The way some cities have dealt with their rivers gives hope that the rivers and large numbers of people can prosper together. A well-used and relatively clean river can centre a city and bring life with walkways, handsome bridges, accessible quays and green spaces. Intelligent use of rivers by avoiding over-engineering or burying their waters under cement can allow a city to breathe - the way that Rome does but Los Angeles doesn't. In a traffic-clogged metropolis like Bangkok travelling by passenger-launch on the Chao Phraya is both more efficient and far more pleasant than sitting for hours bumper-to-bumper. Painters from Caneletto to Pizzaro to Turner have brought city rivers and their bridges to life in their work. There seems to be no equivalent school of hydro-dam painters.
Despite its impressive growth the odds remain long that the movement in defense of rivers will be able to reverse the substantial momentum of hydrological society. Fundamental interests are at stake and it will take a great deal to shake them. Ultimately the fate of our rivers rests on our ability to turn around a predatory economy and the wasteful patterns of consumption that it sustains. A civilization that prizes thirsty golf-courses and cotton crops in the desert over wetlands and clean drinking water simply cannot last. There is, after all, little left of the great riverworks of earlier hydraulic societies. Will aliens visiting our planet a thousand years from now find our only monuments to be silted-over dams that relentless rivers have turned into magnificent waterfalls? T S Eliot had it that: 'I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable.' As the farmers who settled too close to the Mississippi learned at their cost - the river always wins.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995