Dam It: Part 1

When what was land becomes river.

Dams. The only man-made constructions that can block the flow of the mighty river. They stop the water from flowing where it is, and help the water settle where it isn’t.

On one hand, they help to conserve water for later, allowing it to be diverted when and where it’s needed. On the other, the huge reservoir of water submerges everything underneath it. A lot that was once land becomes part of the river, and a lot that was river turns into dry land. Does that make a difference? Is it for better or for worse?

One one hand, dams can be a source of irrigation, electricity, and a supply of jobs for those who work there. On the other hand, some people lose their land, their space to irrigate, and the place which they lived on for a ‘job’. Do the costs outweigh the benefits? Or do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Different people look at it from different sides. Could they both be correct?

I couldn’t decide either way, because I didn’t know exactly what both sides were. The upsides of a dam are well documented, especially by the government. What about the downsides? Most people seem to have a vague idea that dams can be bad, but the specific details are unclear.

An environmental management lesson coupled with a little bit of research gave me a detailed list of all that could go wrong and has gone wrong that left me with no decision to make. Hopefully this will help you to make yours.

The People

This is the most often documented and most often used argument against dams. The people whose houses, lands, livelihoods become submerged. Often, these people are poor adivasis. Often, all they know is the land. Often, they are force to find other work because the government cannot give them land.

India is the second most populous country in the world. For all the promises the government makes, there simply isn’t enough land to give. There are still people displaced in the dams built during the 1950s who have not been adequately compensated.

And then there are the problems with the lists of people themselves. Several people from affected villages are often left out and the criteria of the government for eligibility for compensation doesn’t include the people who lose land to canals and irrigation systems.

What can these people do? Where can they go?

They cannot read and they cannot write. All they have left to offer is the strength in their arms. (No, they can’t keep swimming.)

Forests and Wildlife

Loss of forests and wildlife habitats may be an obvious drawback. But we usually don’t realise the tremendous scale of it. India’s newest dam, the Sardar Sarovar, at full height submerged 134 square kilometres of federal forest land. Let’s put that figure into perspective: that’s an area larger than that of Jaipur. India’s biggest dam by reservoir area, the Bhakra Nangal, covers an area that roughly equals the city of Ranchi. That’s a lot of forest.

And that’s only two dams. India has over 3200 of them.

That’s a whole lot of forest.

And a lot of animals. Usually, dams are constructed in undulating, hilly areas to contain the water as much as possible. This means that, with every stage, water levels rise a few metres on the surrounding hillsides. Wildlife — already pushed into shrinking spaces — is forced to retreat further and further up the hills, into more isolation. And by the time they become confined to an island in the middle of a lake, it is too late.

Marine Life

Several species of fish, most prominently the salmon, migrate upstream to breed. They cannot and do not breed anywhere else. Fish are equipped to scale waterfalls, rapids and the occasional cliff drop — but not a dam that towers over a hundred feet in height!

As a result, they can’t find their way to their breeding ground and so cannot breed. Several fish populations are on the decline.

The hilsa population has been falling on the Rudraprayag river since the construction of the Farakka barrage in 1976. Similarly, striped bass and shad numbers have also been falling.

At the Dam

Just how effective is a dam? As a river flows, it takes with it several tones of soil. After some time, all dams silt up and reduce their capacity. That’s why dams are constructed with a specific “lifespan” in mind. Usually, this span is about 100 to 150 years.

Along with that soil comes organic matter, not to mention all the acreage that was drowned out. And when organic matter settles, it decomposes. Decomposing organic matter releases methane gas. And guess what? Methane is a major greenhouse gas.

Eventually, the life of the dam will come to an end. It will either go through massive renovation, or stop being used altogether. Even the biggest dam will eventually stop functioning.

But what about those who lost their land and livelihoods to the dam? The people, the animals, the fish, and the forest?

Will they still be waiting?


Dam It: ‘Drowning Valleys’ is the first of a two-part series outlining the downsides of large damming projects. Read the second part here:

https://medium.com/snipette/deserting-rivers-f21a0a1c0974

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