Dam Legacies, Damned Futures

by BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON

This world is clearly in a state of crisis. Unchecked violence and war has forced tens of millions from their homes and into crowded refugee camps. Earthquakes, cyclones and other natural disasters are crippling government ability to meet basic humanitarian needs. Global warming and resulting changes in local weather patterns has placed added stress on an already faltering global food supply. Our air, water, soil, and seas are contaminated with toxins that inhibit and strangle sustainable life. Societies are hit with wave after wave of preventable public health crises and epidemics.

The global numbers of those struggling in misery are truly staggering. One in five humans lack access to water. One half of humanity lives without basic sanitation, and half of these folks lack electricity.  More than one quarter of the world’s children are malnourished.  Half of the world’s population lives in cities, and one third of those urban dwellers live in slums.  Half of the world struggles to live on less than two dollars a day.

With all of these urgent issues and more emerging each day, why should we care about the human environmental impacts of large dam development?

Why should we care? Because, contrary to the popular notion that hydroelectricity fuels societal progress, in fact, large dam development destroys communities and their environs and generates the fuel that feeds our ever-rising global poverty rates.

Since World War II some 54, 000 large dams have been built, generating an estimated 20 percent of the world’s electricity and providing irrigation to fields that produce some 10 percent of the world’s food. These dams have also flooded some of the most productive agricultural lands in the world. They have caused the endangerment or extinction for half of the world’s fresh water fish. Changes in downstream water quality have decimated the fisheries, waterfowl and mammals of the world’s deltas. And, for the tens of millions of people whose lives and livelihood were rooted in the banks and valleys of wild rivers, upstream and down, and for the hundreds of millions who struggle with the degenerative impacts of dead or dying fisheries, dam development has literally destroyed the health, economy, and culture of communities and entire nations.

What has happened to these millions of people? Lacking fertile lands and the means to reproduce a way life, many suffer in horrific poverty in “resettlement” compounds and camps or migrate as “development refugees” from rural to urban settings within their nation and abroad.  Recent estimates suggest that in India, alone, by the year 2000 some 60 million people had been forcefully evicted from their rural homes to make way for water development projects, and the majority of these people did not receive adequate compensation or assistance in rebuilding their lives. Similar numbers have been reportedly displaced in China. Another 40 million people have been forcibly evicted to make way for large dam development in other nations of the world. Each year of this century has seen another 15 million people forcibly displaced by large dam development. Recent reassessments by resettlement experts of the status of dam development refugees worldwide has produced dismal findings: there is not a single case where dam development refugees now experience an equivalent, let alone, improved quality of life.

Who are these displaced people? They are fishers, farmers, pastoralists: people who live off the land and have done so for generations in largely self-sustaining communities. Many are members of ethnic minority or indigenous groups whose society, culture, and way of life differs from the national norm. For example, in India, while 2% of the entire population has been forcibly displaced by dams, at least 40% of the people displaced since 1947 are categorized as “tribals” and other ethnic minorities. This disproportionate burden is not unique. In the nations of our world it is the indigenous, ethnic minorities and other relatively powerless groups who are “in the way of development” because they live in the wild lands where rivers run free, where the undeveloped water resources of a nation are found. And because they lack the political power to significant challenge how development occurs, and for whom the benefits accrue. 

We are just beginning to understand the many and profound intergenerational consequences of this massive uprooting of place-based peoples and ways of life.  For those displaced by dams, development has meant loss of fertile lands with inadequate or nonexistent compensation, and loss of access to the varied resources the previously supported families, communities, and the cultural traditions that sustained them.  In case after case, the end result is best described as an ulcerating mess.

The 57,000 Tongans, for example, forced from their homelands in 1952 by Great Britain and the World Bank to build the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River in Rhodesia, now number some 250,000 people who, lacking any adequate compensation, live in abject poverty.  The post-colonial creation of two states, Zambia and Zimbabwe, split the Tongan nation into two separate refugee communities and their isolation and extreme poverty has had a devastating impact on language, kinship ties, and cultural solidarity. In 2000, following the World Commission on Dams review of their case, Tongan refugees in Zambia began to document their conditions and consequential damages of dam displacement with hopes of negotiating meaningful remedy. While governments and financiers have drafted remedial social and economic development plans, implementation has been timid, haphazard, and ineffective. Today, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the highest levels of unemployment and poverty in Zimbabwe can be found in the Tongan nation. And in Zambia, where most of the population survives as subsistence farmers, the Tongan refugees are among the poorest of the poor.

A similar tale of development-induced poverty can be told by Mayan peoples displaced by Guatemala’s Chixoy Dam. Built during a time of civil war, construction was begun in 1976 without notifying residents or establishing a resettlement plan. When the dam was completed in 1982, villages were emptied at gunpoint, homes and fields burned, and massacres ensued. Survivors were rounded up and placed in a “model village” built with a single access road, and guarded by a military outpost. Years later, a UN-sponsored truth commission determined that the massacres were an example of state-sponsored violence against a civilian population and evidence of genocide. The military continued to openly control the lives of the dam-displaced community until December 2003, when the base was finally decommissioned, many years after other “model villages” had been decommissioned and several months after residents of this and other dam-affected communities began working with national and international advocates to document their experiences. In 2004, after 29 hours of peaceful protest at the hydroelectric facility involving some 1,000 Mayan people displaced by the Chixoy Dam, an agreement that a reparations negotiation process would be established was achieved. Today, with the facilitating involvement of the Organization of American States, the InterAmerican Development Bank, and the World Bank, the Government of Guatemala is working with communities displaced by the Chixoy Dam to shape and implement socioeconomic remedy. After three years of negotiating, conditions on the ground have yet to change, and dam-affected communities continue to struggle with no electricity, no potable water, crumbling homes, inadequate farmland, and extreme food shortages.   

While displaced communities around the world work to document and publicize their plight with the hopes of negotiating some form of remedy, governments and international financiers react in minimalist ways. In the rare case where remedial actions are proposed, the negotiated deal comes with a heavy price. For example, in Guatemala, while the Government works with affected communities to fashion a plan to repair the socioeconomic damages from the first Chixoy Dam, it is at the same time soliciting financing in support of a new hydroelectric development upstream on the Chixoy that will forcibly displace thousands more Mayan families. Energy from the first Chixoy Dam sustains the capitol city and is exported to foreign markets. Many displaced communities still lack electricity. Similarly, the new dam is expected to generate energy to feed a grid that flows up to the United States, and to power the extractive industry in rural Guatemala (gold, silver, uranium, nickel mines and natural gas development). Where communities have been consulted, they voted to reject expansion of extractive industry. Community preferences, however, have been ignored and public protests have been met with violence.

The enduring lesson of dam development is that when it involves forced evictions and resettlement with inadequate compensation, the end result is life-threatening conditions and conflicts that threaten cultural diversity, livelihood, and life itself. This legacy of dam development has been thoroughly documented by affected communities, advocates, independent scientists, financiers, and the World Commission on Dams. To what effect? Not only have we failed to learn from our mistakes, we are now setting out to repeat these mistakes. And this time, the stakes are even higher.

In the past few years, thousands of new large hydroelectric dam projects around the world have been announced or are in the planning and early construction phases. Hydroelectric energy has been adopted by the world’s nations as an appropriate strategy to combat global climate change and offset predicted water shortages. Over a thousand large dam projects have been announced in China. Every river on both sides of the Himalaya will be modified in some way. Turkey has recently proposed its intent to privatize its rivers and lakes, selling the right to develop and control water resources for 49-years to private corporations. And, projects that were formerly proposed and dismissed because of their adverse social and environmental impact, are back again – like the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in the Brazilian Amazon. The World Bank financing for this dam was canceled in 1989 following Amazonian Indian protests. Today, financing is available, and some 15,000 Kayapo and other Amazonian groups are again threatened and they are protesting over the possibility of forced eviction and the inevitable loss of a way of life.

This new boom in dam development is being sold to the public and project financiers as measures that will improve local and national economies, strengthen national security, and combat global warming. Regardless of the validity of these selling points, it is important to note that there are other agendas at work here.

Consider, for example, the Southeast Anatolia project in Turkey, where 22 dams are being built in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins to fuel 19 hydroelectric plants and allow irrigation for intensive export crop production. This development is in the heart of ancient Kurdistan, and the rising waters will do more than drown the ancient cities, they will create a watery barrier between Kurdish populations in Iraq and Syria and forcibly displace many of the remaining Kurdish communities within Turkey. The construction of the Ataturk Dam alone displaced some 11,000 Kurds. The Ilisu Dam project promises the dispossession of another 36,000 or so people. With a countryside already decimated by war, almost half the rural Kurdish villages and hamlets were destroyed by Turkish security forces during the 15-year war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and some 3 million surviving Kurds fled to the cities, the depopulation accompanying dam development appears to be Turkey’s final solution for removing the threat of a Kurdish state.

Here is a scary thought: consider these changes on a global scale.  Map out where dams are planned or being built. Add an overlay of biodiversity hot spots. Add another overlay of cultural diversity, where the worlds remaining indigenous groups and ethnic minorities reside.  And, then, add a final overlay of known and as yet undeveloped mineral and energy reserves. You will see a dismaying convergence. The proposed and planned dams will generate a lot of hydroelectricity allowing the extraction and processing of gold, nickel, copper, silver, uranium, oil shale, and other critical resources, and providing the power to transform the water molecule, thus creating hydrogen fuels for the cars of the future. And it will most assuredly threaten, if not wipe out, a huge portion of the world’s remaining cultural and biodiversity. How will people respond to these threats? In the event that their protests are futile, where will these people go? How will they survive? And what consequences will we see in global rates of poverty, health, misery, and violence, from their collective experiences with dam development and displacement?

We live in a time of immense crisis.  The lessons we learn from examining the legacies of past dam development and addressing ulcerating conditions in meaningful ways – with political processes and actions that repair, make amends, and make peace – these are lessons in the meaning of the term security. Dealing with dam legacy issues and rebuilding a sustainable way of life requires governance and action that prioritizes human and environmental security over profit and power. It’s a legacy we can’t afford to ignore.

BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, and a member of the expert advisory group for UNESCO’s Water and Cultural Diversity Project.  She is the co-author of The Consequential Dangers of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report. Her documentation of dam legacy issues in Guatemala is available in Spanish and English at http://www.centerforpoliticalecology.org/chixoy.html. She can be reached at: bjohnston@igc.org

 

 

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