Dams for the Third Millennium

South Asia needs good dams, not useless debate on big darns or small.

Water has played a central role in ensuring human survival and progress over the 5000 years of South Asian history. The importance attached to water in the economic affairs in ancient times is evident from the fact that Kautilya, the well-known author of several important economic policy documents, operated the earliest known rain gauges in 400 BC. Human survival in South Asia is no less dependent on this critical natural resource today than it was in the era of Mohenjodaro and Harappa.   The lifelines of the Himalayan rivers carry an annual outflow of more than 1500 billion cubic metres (BCM) of water (one cubic metre = 1000 litres), making the Subcontinent the second-most water-rich region in the world, next only to Amazonia. All parts of the Subcontinent, except peninsular India, depend directly on the supply brought down by the Himalayan rivers. The fertile irrigated lands in the lower parts of the Indus and the Ganga-Brahmaputra basins today constitute the all-important bread basket for a staggering population of nearly a billion.

Taking full advantage of this natural gift, the region has expanded irrigation and increased food production with the help of new agricultural technologies. This has been useful in preventing widespread starvation or dependence on large-scale food imports in the years following independence from colonial rule. For example, in the case of India, the irrigation potential available in the immediate aftermath of Independence was about 20 million hectares. By 1995, this figure had gone up to about 90 million hectares – no mean achievement.   However, South Asia has hardly solved the challenges of water utilisation, seen especially against the background of an ever-burgeoning population. Food shortage continues to be a major problem and by the turn of the century the region will have about 300 million people living below the poverty line. The physical quality of life in South Asia obviously must be improved, given its low ranking in the Human Development Index (HDI). (Bhutan ranks 155 globally, Nepal 154, Bangladesh 144, Pakistan 139 and India 138 in the latest HDI.)   Additionally, we must not forget that the regional countries are now developing close links with the global market and the international trading system. Domestic land and water use will be influenced more and more by priorities of export. In water-scarce areas this will surely be in conflict with water allocation for human development. Urban demand may succeed in diverting supply from rural areas, commercial farming may continue to draw on underground aquifers at the cost of drinking water, and the presently low industrial demand for water will become substantial, if the industrial growth rate goes up to 6 to 8 percent, as everyone wants it to.

The growing demand for electricity will also look increasingly northwards to the Himalayan rivers. It is the heretofore abundance of the resource in the Subcontinent which has left us with supply-side management in water, which has in turn encouraged an inefficient and conservation-insensitive consumption culture. This is why a cultural push towards conservation sensitivity all over South Asia is urgent. But, while such objectives are important over the long run, there is no way of ignoring the need to ´augment´ supply through storage reservoirs. In the case of India alone, the annual surface water demand for irrigation is expected to double from 360 BCM to 700 BCM in the 40 years between 1985 to 2025. The actual challenge to water management in South Asia is to ensure such a supply without creating major conflicts and human rights violation.

Questioning dams
It is thanks to the rivers of the Himalaya that the Subcontinent can see fulfilment of this increased demand. The only hitch is that 80 percent of the annual water arrives in 20 percent of time, during the summer monsoon. This makes it very difficult to supply water when it is needed. The answer, in the form of storage dams, was hardly new.   A blind, almost religious, faith in the efficacy of large dam characterised the attitude of South Asian politicians and administrators in the years following independence. Half a century later, the need for storage dams to provide the required fresh water supplies remains unaltered. The popular image of large engineering constructions has, however, transformed over time. A strong campaign against dams and other such developments is the result of a history of unwise decisions based on poor science and ignorance of local management practices.

The days when construction of a dam per se would be considered desirable as ´temples of modernity´, are over. But throughout the South, new dams are being planned or constructed to safeguard food and water security, a need which has not gone away. There are presently 49 dams under construction in China, 99 in Turkey, 81 in Korea, 25 in Iran and 28 in India. Furthermore, many large dams are planned for the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin.

According to estimates for India alone, the total storage capacity in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin may be almost quadrupled from the present 38 BCM to 151 BCM on the basis of projected construction activities. The fact that these projects involve large volumes of water and large-scale engineering interventions need not ipso facto render them as objects of opposition. The water and energy are required for the human development of South Asia, which is the very reason why it is also imperative that the five decades´ experience in building dams, good ones and especially bad ones, be considered.

One of the obvious results of the unscientific and largely anti-people approach taken since colonial times to dam construction has been the demand to altogether stop them. This is an excellent example of the fundamentalism of the construction lobby helping generate the fundamentalism of "no-dam" campaigners. With the World Bank now giving a negative signal on dam construction, however, South Asian countries   have an opportunity to review their policies themselves and take independent decisions. It is now up to South Asians to use their own professional capabilities to critically review their policies on dams and take decisions in the best popular interest.

This might require some courage, too. In fact, some of the critics of dams have shown the way forward for a proper water development policy. For example, the sustained campaign for a comprehensive assessment of the Tehri Dam Project in the Uttar Pradesh hills by the Tehri Baandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti (Tehri Anti-Dam Struggle Committee) led to research activities that generated a wealth of new information on sustainability of big dams in the Himalaya. This, among others, has helped sustain the move for ecologically informed and economically wise assessment of large dams.

Dual fundamentalism
In order to safeguard food and water security of South Asia, availability of larger volumes of water is essential. This needs storage dams. It is high time, the colonial heritage of looking at dams as an end in itself comes to an end, and as much a cultural transformation takes place to ensure that the water is used efficiently.   The serious gap in scientific and economic tools for assessing dams has to be bridged. Only then the process of transparent research and policy reformulation will be able to replace the dual fundamentalism of the influential and arrogant construction lobbies as well as the campaigners for "no dams".

People in South Asia need more water but the region can no longer afford the luxury of economically inefficient investments in massive structures. The economics of large dams has to have incorporated within it values that respect human rights and ecology. The oft-repeated argument that ´some´ people, who live in the submersion area, will have to ´sacrifice´ for the ´larger´ interest of the country needs to be questioned. These ´some´ need not see themselves as sacrificing if the powers that be can actually guarantee more than adequate compensation, something that is well within the ability of the administrations to comprehend. Also, strong legislative changes to protect the economic interests of involuntarily displaced populations would go a long way towards ensuring that people do not necessarily see dams as an evil.   A great opportunity lies ahead for South Asia´s decision-makers, on charting a way to use water for the common good. The destiny of the region, and the security of food and water for more than a billion, is now dependent fully on how the governments and those outside of government can create a new, holistic and human rights-conscious methodology for assessing dam projects. South Asia has good water, what it needs is good dams, whether large or small. Perhaps the 3000-year-old heritage of Kautilya´s multidisciplinary intelligence needs to be employed once again to ensure water availability in the much-talked-about Third Millennium.

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Himal Southasian