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Conversation With A Maverick


with a
Richard Swift interviews the man in the forefront of the defense of the world’s river eco-systems.

Phil Williams is not your usual consulting engineer. Sure he still works as a consultant in hydrological engineering – although the fees aren’t what they might be and the clients don’t all dress in suits. But his passion is less for building things on rivers than for rehabilitating rivers already overbuilt. It is for this reason that he helped set up the International Rivers Network back in 1985.

What was the thinking behind the establishment of the International Rivers Network?
In the early 1980s rainforest issues, ozone depletion, global warming were all getting lots of press. But a major aspect of the global environmental crisis not receiving the attention it deserved was the destruction of the world’s free-flowing rivers and what that meant for our fresh-water resources. The destruction of watersheds, erosion, siltation, agricultural and industrial pollution, channelization and the draining of wetlands were all chronic problems. But the most acute threat comes from the development of mega-dam technology in the last 50 years. We now know what the true ecological, economic and social costs are when you build big dams that transform river eco-systems. Yet these costs were being deliberately ignored by the self-serving dam-building lobby. So the idea of the Network was born out of a group of engineers, activists and scientists who shared this concern.

IRN works with local groups at their request to build coalitions internationally. Now there are some situations where you have dictatorships like that in China where we do work with external critics of the Three Gorges project on the Yangtze. But we are very clear that we are only articulating the criticisms of that project that have been made within China by Chinese scientists and journalists but are now repressed.

You are based here in San Francisco. Was California a model for the kind of mega-engineering of rivers that is now taking place in the Third World?
For sure. We still get groups of foreign engineers taken on tours to see the grandiose construction here in California. They are shown these verdant fields of orange groves and crops grown with irrigated water. But they are not told the truth about what happened here. They never find out the water is being delivered at a small fraction of the cost of what it actually took to build these projects. What you have here is a taxpayer’s subsidy from the rest of the US to Californian agriculture – already one of the wealthiest sectors of the economy. So poor sharecroppers in the Southern US paid taxes to support agribusiness growing cotton in California. Look all around the world and you see the same dynamics at play. It’s politics. Even though such projects do not make economic sense and large numbers of people can be impoverished by them, the power of the lobbies behind big water projects – construction contractors, politicians, agribusiness, the wealthier urban class – is enough to push them through.

Is this public subsidy in California similar to the kinds of debt Third World governments have run up when they get into large-scale dam construction?
Absolutely. In California we are now living in the post water-development era and trying to deal with the economic and ecological fallout. Such projects could never be built in the present political climate – the voters would never stand for the huge subsidies of 30 or 40 years ago. But the same thing is still happening in the Third World. The World Bank comes in and offers to provide the funds for these projects. But the pay-back is from the economy at large. With real economic accountability these projects simply wouldn’t get built. The dam-building era practically stopped dead in the US in 1986 when Congress enacted a modest requirement of cost-sharing by the beneficiaries of water development schemes. But overseas, with funding agencies like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, there is no economic accountability. Even the cursory evaluations they do of narrow cost/benefits show many of these projects are not working. They never evaluate the long-lasting environmental impacts.

Peaceful market day in Sichuan Province: but all this and more will be submerged by the Three Gorges Dam.

Why then do politicians agree to fund such projects?
Stalin used hydro-electric dams as a symbol for transforming his society – hydro-electricity and communism were integrally linked. When the Volga was dammed thousands of people were forced into collective farms or off the land entirely. The idea was the same in the thirties with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) – although the methods were more benign – to transform the economy of one of the most depressed areas of the US. Dams were a panacea that would bring education, public health, better living standards. But no one measured the real costs of uprooting communities or flooding the best valley-bottom land. Recent studies have shown that counties in the TVA service area are economically somewhat behind adjacent counties that were not disrupted by these huge power dams. At least in the US people have some chance to adjust but in the Third World people’s land is everything – you take away that land and you are condemning people to a life of poverty, disruption of culture and lack of choice. The estimates now are that, worldwide, a million ‘reservoir refugees’ a year are being uprooted from their homes. They end up being resettled on marginal land or starting from scratch in the slums of the nearest city.

What has the IRN focused on recently?
The Mekong scheme, the Hidrovia project in Latin America, the Arun III project in Nepal, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, and the Narmada Dam struggle in India. We are still following the Bangladesh Flood Action Plan and the campaign there has really had a substantial impact in slowing up and scaling down that plan. The levees on the Mississippi that provided the model for the Flood Action Plan actually made things worse in the big floods there two years ago. The city of St Louis may actually have been saved from flooding by levee failure upstream. The whole concept of engineering through flood management levees that increased flood levels didn’t seem to make much sense anymore.

One of the IRN strategic targets is the funding for these projects because they don’t make any economic sense and the clearer that argument can be made the easier it is to knock these projects off. This is where funders like the World Bank are most vulnerable. The Bank is the ideological leader in promoting big dams. It is very insular and slow to learn from its mistakes. It is promoting development strategies that impoverish the poor and are ultimately self-defeating for the survival of the Bank as an institution. We publish a newsletter called BankCheck that gets the word out about the Bank and its activities.

At the moment I think the situation on the Mekong is a key battleground. We have just seen a treaty signed between the four Mekong countries (Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) that says all the right things about substantially how to manage a river. And now there is a set of proposals to build a staircase of dams put forward by the Mekong Secretariat that completely ignores all the fine sentiments about sane river management in the treaty. We are trying to put pressure on organizations like the United Nations Development Program to get the Secretariat to live up to the treaty. We need to involve the people who live on the river in planning their own future. We need to respect all the resources of the Mekong and not just sell its hydro potential off to the highest bidder.

Short ferry ride across the Mekong but a long struggle to save the river from the fantasies of hydro-engineers.

Do you think its an exaggeration to say there is a worldwide movement emerging in defense of the world’s river eco-systems?
Oh no! Its absolutely true that this is happening. I think the turning point came in 1989 at Harsud in the Narmada valley. Forty thousand people showed up for a demonstration to protest the World Bank funding of the Sardar Sarovar project. These were local poor people. This demonstrated vividly the hypocrisy behind Bank claims that the criticism of their dam projects was from a bunch of élitist Western environmental groups who didn’t really care about Third World poverty. This local coalition in combination with the international dam-fighting movement actually did force the Bank out of this project. The Indian Government, out of misplaced national pride, has unfortunately taken it over. But the Bank’s retreat emboldened critics around the world to challenge these projects. So despite the fact that Sardar Sarovar is going ahead, the help that the people of the Narmada Valley have given to people all around the world is absolutely immeasurable.

Do you see any role at all for dams or do you see them as a totally outmoded technology?
Theoretically it’s possible to find a role for dams. There are circumstances where a project might be economically justified. It might be worth spending a billion dollars to develop a water supply for a city. Then you have to look at the environmental and social trade-offs. People affected need to have a voice in these types of decisions. But none of the projects we have seen, including those here in the US, have met these standards. The economics have not made sense. They have been shrouded in secrecy. There are huge technical flaws in their planning. They completely disregard long-term environmental damage. I have an open challenge to the World Bank and the International Commission on Large Dams to ‘show me a dam project that I can believe in’.

Who pushes these dams?
Every three years the dam-builders get together as the International Commission on Large Dams – the engineers, the World Bank, turbine manufacturers, construction companies – to slap each other on the back and promote dam technology. Then in 1985 when they met in Zurich Swiss environmentalists showed up. Challenges have been made at their conferences ever since. Dam-builders have been elevated far above what their skills really justify and it kind of goes to their head a little bit. The problem is politicians do not understand that river-systems management is not dam-building. The dam-builders of course are not inclined to tell them. They choose dams as the only way to generate energy rather than looking at alternatives. Hydro-power is one of the most expensive ways to generate electricity. There are plenty of other technologies available that are quicker and more ecologically benign: small gas-turbine energy or micro-dams to name just two. You really need more sophisticated skills when dealing with a river basin than those of the hydraulic engineer: you need to know how the eco-system responds to the river and how the river will respond to changes and how people live with the river.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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