Thursday, August 24, 2006

Big Dams Good or Evil?

Are big dams like the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada good or bad?

To all the environmentalists I would ask "Is a 2000MW coal plant good for the environment"? Large dams control floods and provide water during scarcity. Examples of large dams that have changed the country they belong to are:

The Hoover dam (U.S.A.), it is the dam that provided the electricity (appx. 1300MW) needed to get Las Vegas started. It finally reigned in the mighty Colorado River that had carved out the Grand Canyon. This and other dams on the Colorado River have nearly completely stopped the river from reaching the sea. The water provided helped turn a desert into a fruit basket.

The other dam is the Aswan High Dam on the Nile. The Nile is considered as the life blood of Egypt that feeds the country, but truly it is this Dam that helped develop Egypt to its present status. It generates appx. 2100MW of electricity. Although the flooding of the Nile is a boon, the flooding was unpredictable ( one of the reasons why ancient Egyptians studied the night sky and also were able to say that a year was 356 days long was to try and predict the river), what astronomy could not do the dam did, leading to economic prosperity.

"July 1995, floods described as being of a “once in a hundred years” severity, and caused by the melting of usually permanent snow in the Yangzi's mountain headwaters, caused more than 1,200 deaths. Just three years later torrential rain caused the worst floods in over 40 years. The death toll for the flooding, which lasted the three months from June to August, was over 3,000 people."

It was partly to address the problem of flooding, as well as China's deficiency in electricity generation, that led the Chinese authorities to begin building the massive, and hugely controversial, Three Gorges Dam. Situated at Sandouping, the dam, scheduled for completion by 2009, will be 185 m (606 ft) high, holding a reservoir 1,084 sq km (419 sq mi) in area. Twenty-six generators at the dam will produce a total of 18,200 megawatts of electricity, the largest hydroelectric facility in the world. When complete it is estimated that this single dam will meet 10 per cent of China's electricity needs. It is also claimed by the Chinese government that it will reduce flooding on the Yangzi, which regularly causes considerable loss of life and devastation to property.

Now 18000MW of electricity is a lot. Ask the environmentalists how many coal plants would be required to generate that!

But there is one disadvantage of large dams that I acknowledge and consider the main reason why such dams should not be built (Kind of a shock isn’t it , here is a guy writes all that much stuff praising large dams and then says they should not be built!). It is the displacement of humans.

To understand this point put yourself in the situation, a dam coming up and you have to leave. To most of us consider the relocation of people due to a dam as like a transfer, difficult but not so bad. But we are wrong to consider that. Think of it as being terminated from service, like receiving the pink slip. Now how does that feel? Ok now you are thinking well I will get another job I am capable enough and thousands of people apply for jobs and get them. OR Well I have hunted for and found jobs before and will do it again. Wait. It is not only you who is job hunting now, there are about 1-2 million additional job hunters in the field now. Well now what do you think are your chances of finding a job that pays as much as your current one?

Oh wait! There is more! Put yourself in the shoes of a man running your neighbourhood store. He would have spent years if not decades cultivating his regular customers and all of a sudden he has to deal with setting up shop in a new neighbourhood (remember that his business depends on the people, his customers. So he has to start of all over again).

Of course if the dam is in such a location that not many people have to be displaced then it ‘OK’ to build it.

But remember that Humans should never be unduly displaced, we should think of our fellow beings to set us apart from animals.

Why I disagree with Medha Patkar

She has recently said that the flood situation has worsened due to the Sardar Sarovar Dam (Source The Hindu, weblink :

OR ).

But I would like to tell her that she has not allowed the dam to be completed and that any dam is built such that it is fully operational and serves its purpose only when completed. It is not just a question of height. Also if the dam had been built to its full height the water could have been diverted to the Kutch region hence less water would have been released down the river’s natural course.

Now regarding the worsening of flood situation; Nobody can bring more water than nature has provided. So any water released from the dam will be like the river flowing if there was no dam. So there is no question of worsening except due to natural increase in rain in the catchment area. Another problem especially in India is that when a dam is built, during the dry season the river downstream is very narrow people come and build houses illegally in the natural drainage area of the river which would obviously flood in the rainy season. Why should the government bother about these people who disregard warnings and come and stay in the path of the river?

Also when the dam’s construction began there were 5000 families to be rehabilitated now there are 30,000 families! Why should the government compensate for those extra families? The Narmada Bachao Andholan should compensate for them.

Remember that when the Three Gorges Dam in China will be complete it will provide 18000MW of electricity equivalent to 10% of China’s electricity requirements!

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