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Against the Tide

Do Not Foreclose Big Dam Options


THE World Water Forum held in the Hague last month attracted participants from all over the world, including government officials, international bureaucrats, water resource specialists, NGOs and corporate executives. The Indian presence was very visible on the occasion -- and noticeably vocal -- with activists like Medha Patkar and her recently acquired compatriot, Arundhati Roy. It is reported that much heated debate took place between a minister from Gujarat on the one hand and Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy on the other.

Annasaheb Hazare, who has done remarkable work in water harvesting in the village of Ralegaon Siddhi situated in Maharashtra was clearly ill at ease with this discord between India's officialdom and NGO activists, and he gently suggested that these domestic issues need not be brought to an international forum. The Forum itself was not confined to discussion on big dams versus small and solutions involving river waters, but focused on the looming problem of water scarcity in several parts of the world, the deprivation of hundreds of millions of people lacking access to clean drinking water; the coverage included policy as well as technical issues related to water supply and consumption. To that extent a discussion by the Indian participants on the Narmada project in an international forum of this nature, to the exclusion of larger issues of water management, revealed a limited view.

Review on large dams

However, attention on large dams has increased throughout the world in recent years, and it was against this background that the World Bank and the IUCN established the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) in February 1998. The Commission was required to carry out a two-year review of the effectiveness of large dams and develop standards and guidelines for advising nations on future dam-building decisions and an assessment of alternatives. Meanwhile, in March 1999 WWF International published a useful discussion paper entitled A place for dams in the 21st century? This publication was brought out obviously in response to a need for an objective and comprehensive view of large dams in general, and identifying their benefits and costs.

Unfortunately, much of the debate on large dams has become polarised and generalised. Yet, by their very nature the impacts of dams are very location specific, and need to be analysed comprehensively, which is often a very complex exercise. Typically, those responsible for the construction of dams take a narrow and limited view of the quantitative benefits achieved in harnessing large volumes of water for distribution in areas that are deficient and generating electricity often at costs that appear financially attractive. Opponents are not prepared to accept that large dams have any benefits at all. Undoubtedly, these hardened positions have come about as a result of neglect of a wide range of impacts apparent in several projects in the past, heightened greatly by impoverishment and loss of welfare of those displaced.

Interestingly, there are several NGOs in the developed countries who oppose large dams in the developing world, even though the earliest examples of large dams are found predominantly in the developed countries. In the case of India, it should be accepted that only about 12 per cent of the country's hydropower potential has been exploited, as against 52.3 per cent in Canada, 86.8 per cent in Switzerland, 56.3 per cent in Norway, 56.1 per cent in the US and 68 per cent in Japan.

Negative Impacts

There are several negative impacts of dams which require rigorous assessment. According to the WWF international, India lost an estimated 4,79,000 hectares of forest land to various river valley projects between 1950 and 1975. Dams can also lead to changes in chemical water quality, sedimentation, erosion and unfavourable effects on fish production, because they block migration of fish resulting in overall loss of quantities of fish as well as their diversity. Other impacts often noticed include landslides, seismic activities, changes in groundwater level, changes in flow and impact on downstream hydrology in a river. Perhaps, in a highly populated country like India the most serious and certainly the most visible negative effect of dams lies in the displacement of people.

All of this may suggest that we are at the end of the big dam era. Yet, it may be a mistake to foreclose the option of constructing big dams for all time to come. Even if one excludes the potential of generating power from hydro projects, in several cases the irrigation benefits themselves could make a compelling case for dams as possible solutions. If demand for food is to double by the year 2030, water will have to be used far more efficiently for agriculture, but this may not eliminate the need for larger areas under irrigation.

However, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that the growth rate of irrigated land in developing countries would slow down from the peak of an annual increase of 2.2 per cent in the 1970s to 0.8 per cent in the future. But larger irrigation can also lead to unfavourable impacts on agriculture. Salinisation and water logging are common problems which have negative impacts not only on agriculture but on soil quality in general. In future, therefore, the impact of specific projects on natural resources such as soil, biodiversity and forests would have to be considered explicitly. For too long the economics of dams has been confined only to a very narrow assessment of project accounting and an optimistic assessment of benefits.

Humane Dimensions

The WWF document comes out with a set of conclusions and recommendations which are not revolutionary in nature, but reinforce the common sense that has been developed by those concerned with development strategies, which are consistent with environmental protection. In essence, the approach to be followed in future dam-building activity in India would have to deal with a number of issues that have emerged from past experience. Dams have serious environmental impacts which need to be systematically evaluated. However, these impacts are neither uniform nor equal. Hence, a single strategy is not desirable.

In essence, a flexible and open approach has to be adopted in assessing future projects, and in a country like India the human dimensions of this challenge need serious and sensitive handling. A clear policy should be adopted both by the Centre and the states in assessing environmental risks associated with dams as well as in the resettlement and rehabilitation of those who are displaced as a result. But despite the seriousness of problems that have already occurred with several dams, it would be shortsighted to adopt a policy that places a complete ban on the construction of new large dam.

The Economic Times


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