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Construction Of Big Dams: IS MASSIVE EXPENDITURE JUSTIFIED? by Dhurjati Mukherjee,10 May 2006 Print E-mail


New Delhi, 10 May 2006

Construction Of Big Dams


By Dhurjati Mukherjee

Much controversy has generated in recent times not just in India but also globally about the efficacy of big0 dams. Delving into history, it is a well-known fact that dams and canals were the basis of the growth of civilization.  In recent times, of the 50,000 large dams in the world, 90 per cent were built in the 20th century and half of those are in China.  Experts believe that at least one-third of those dams should not have been built, taking into consideration the benefits as also the problems.

While many people benefit from the water and hydroelectricity provided by dams and diversion projects, the negative aspects far outweigh the positive ones. Towns and farms have been starved by huge dams and diversions.  Fishing and wildlife enthusiasts and others mourn the loss of rivers drowned in reservoirs or dried up by diversion projects.  These projects have also been criticized for using public funds to increase the value of privately-held farmland of a small segment of the population, whereas other uses may have been more appropriate.

Most important effect of dam construction in Third World countries has been the tremendous amount of displacement that it causes.  Apart from the huge costs of construction, in most cases there is no proper rehabilitation of those displaced, leaving them in a precarious position.  But the outcry against dams is not only because of this factor as hydrologists believe that river diversion has grave negative effects.

It has been found and generally agreed that though hydroelectric power is beneficial, the construction of dams involve high ecological, social and cultural trade-offs.  These include: the reservoir behind the dam inevitably drowns farmland or wildlife habitats and perhaps towns or land; dams impede or prevent migration of fish, even when fish ladders are provided and changing from a cold-flowing river to a warm water reservoir can have unforeseen ecological consequences.

Also,  since the flow of water is regulated according to the needs for power, dams play havoc downstream – water may go from near flood levels to virtual dryness and back to flood levels in a single day.  There is disruption in the natural pattern of erosion and sedimentation, but above and below dams.

During the last few decades, several hundred thousand people worldwide have been killed by dam failures. These resulted from inadequate geologic investigation or poor engineering during construction.  One may mention here the infamous Vaiont dam disaster in Italy in 1963 when, due to heavy rains, 10.5 billion cubic feet of limestone tore loose from the south slope and roared as one intact block downward into the reservoir, wiping out villages and causing considerable loss to life and property.

In 1992, a national survey in the United States classified almost one-third of the country’s 75,000 dams as hazardous, 10,000 as having high hazard potential and another 13,500 as having significant hazard potential. Similarly, in India according to a Government assessment, many damaged and distressed are in Orissa, Bihar, Karnataka and Gujarat.

Around 188 dams all over the country have been identified as distressed with different kinds of weaknesses including leakages, leading to seepage and in need of concrete grouting or more serious problems.   In others, a flaw in the design has been detected, especially after the dam was given additional capacity. About 7.56 million hectares are affected every year on an average, a little less than half being cropped land

The Sardar Sarovar dam, which has generated tremendous controversy in the country, is also being constructed with high hopes of providing water in dry areas and facilitating power projects.  The massive displacement that is due to take place, specially now because of the increase in the height of the dam (from 110.64 metres to 121.92 metres) reportedly to irrigate an additional .6 lakh hectares and generate up to 1450 MW power has evoked massive protests from all sections of people and Medha Patkar was recently on a hunger strike. 

A certain section of well-informed people believe that apart from the displacement, the huge costs involved in constructing the dam may far outweigh the possible benefits that it may bring about. Questions Medha Patkar, the leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), and quite rightly, are all the families affected, at dam height 80 to 111 metres rehabilitated as per the law, so that the ongoing dam construction continues?

As is well known, Narmada originates in Amarkantaka in Madhya Pradesh and travels over 1300 km before emptying into the Arabian Sea at Bharuch.  Nearly 90 per cent of the water falls in the State, which is why displacement is maximum here.  Of the 245 villages that will be displaced by the dam, 177 are in MP.  It is also losing 3700 hectares of forest cover in the submergence. Rehabilitation  has till now been done for only a small segment of the displaced population and if total rehabilitation is to take place finding suitable alternative land (apart from the costs involved) is indeed a big problem.  Keeping all this into consideration, there is widespread belief that the benefits of such huge expenses may not really be worth it.

In China also, controversies have erupted between environmentalists and dam-building interests over the construction of the Three Gorges Dam across the scenic stretch of the Yangtze River.  The project is the centerpiece of the Chinese Government’s effort to industrialize.  When completed in 2009, the dam is expected to be the largest in the world, generating 18,000 MW of electricity and provide control over disastrous flooding of the river that has already taken 300,000 lives in the 20th century.  More than 1.2 million people, including entire cities, farms, homes and factories, will be displaced to make way for the 370-mile long (600 km) reservoir.

Critics have pointed out the enormous human, ecological and aesthetic costs of the dam and are of the view that harnessing alternative sources of electricity would have been cheaper. An international campaign to stop the dam has prevented funding agencies, like the World Bank, from getting involved but (unlike India) Chinese officials have effectively stifled internal criticism and are proceeding with work on the dam.

Thus from these two projects one can easily conclude that massive dams have come in for criticism the world over, specially for populous countries which are resource scarce.  Obviously the reasons are not difficult to find. Even if all criticisms are not adhered too, one thing clearly stands out, that  proper rehabilitation has to be found, which means not just providing alternative shelter to the displaced but also avenues of livelihood for these people so that their normal life is not hampered.  Development and better life for the people cannot be done by sacrificing the interests of the poor and downtrodden.---INFA

 (Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)





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