Large dams, larger issues

Anger in anti-dam writings often act as mental blocks.

Some time ago, the editor of Himal invited me to write a piece giving my reactions to the articles, reports and reviews published in the journal on matters connected with water resources, and outlining my own thinking on the issues involved. Let me begin by saying that I find myself in agreement with many of the things that have been said in those articles and reports. However, there are some aspects and features which trouble me. In what follows I propose to draw attention to certain general attitudes and intellectual tendencies, and refrain from trying to correct scattered instances of errors of fact or perception or understanding on specific matters.

(i) Many of the writers tend to believe that while their own motivations in opposing large dams are the purest and noblest, those of the supporters of dams must be suspect. There is a tendency to look for hidden motivations, sinister influences, dubious funding sources, and so on. On the other hand, those who support dams speak of the "anti-dam lobby", question the bona fides of the NGOs concerned, and hint darkly at foreign funding. Some of the accusations on both sides may well be – probably are – true. However, there are honourable bureaucrats, engineers, and politicians (and even honourable World Bank officials!) who genuinely believe that they are trying to promote the cause of development as they see it. Equally, there are wholly honourable anti-dam activists who are fighting what they consider to be an evil. Not everyone belongs to a ´lobby´; and when all lobbies have been discounted, a sharp division in opinion still remains. It is this division which needs to be dealt with.

(ii) There is often a tendency to exalt the ´political economy´ aspects over all others; but assuming that we are able to improve the processes of decision-making, eliminate corruption and collusion, ensure that the people´s voices are heard, correct inequities in the distribution of water, neutralise the political power of the head-reach farmers, and so on, will large-dam projects become benign? If not, it needs to be recognised that the heart of the matter lies not in ´political economy´ but elsewhere.

(iii) In many of the writings from Nepal, the anti-dam stance tends to get mixed up with latent anti-India feelings. The thesis sometimes put forward is that Indians (a combination of bureaucrats, engineers, politicians, potential consultants and contractors) are pushing for large projects and trying to persuade Nepal to undertake them; that the Nepalis are easily taken in; and that the Indians get their own way.   In Nepal, there is the view, shared at the official level, that projects such as Pancheswar and Karnali are good for Nepal as they will bring in massive revenues for the country from the sale of electricity to India. This also happens to be the view that prevails at the official level in the Government of India, though there are other views in India.   There is, of course, another view in Kathmandu: that the country should not go in for large, technology-driven, unsustainable projects based on exports to India, but should plan small, people-centred, environmentally benign ones with reference to Nepal´s own needs. This is an internal debate in Nepal, and it is for Nepal to decide on the route it wants to take. If Nepal decides against large projects in the Himalaya, India cannot force it to undertake them. Those who wish to argue against large projects and in favour of alternatives should try and convert the dominant opinion in Nepal to their way of thinking, rather than portray India as the evil genius.

(iv) This kind of prejudice also colours the view that some of the writers take of non-official efforts at promoting inter-country cooperation. The Centre for Policy Research, Delhi; the Institute for Integrated Development Studies, Kathmandu; and the Bangladesh Unnayan Parishad, Dhaka, have been collaborating since 1990 on a Three-Country Study of the possibilities of utilisation of the waters of the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna for the common benefit of all the three countries. Even these efforts are suspect in the eyes of some commentators in Nepal.

There are two kinds of suspicion: one is to regard these efforts as a continuation of the pursuit of governmental objectives under a ´non-official´ front; the other is to believe that the essential objective is to promote big projects. One reviewer, for example, states bluntly of the Three-Country Study (Himal, July-August 1995), "Big Brother comes out the winner as his is the only voice that is well articulated." Whatever the justification for the use of that expression in the context of inter-governmental talks, it is wholly inappropriate in the context of a collaborative study undertaken by three non-government academic institutions. CPR, BUP and iids worked as equal partners in this enterprise; there was no Big Brother or Small Brother among them. No one institution set the agenda or directed the studies; there were consultations at every stage. Nor were we acting under governmental influence.   I cannot speak for BUP in Dhaka or IIDS in Kathmandu, but in so far as the Delhi-based CPR is concerned, we kept a careful distance from the Government of India, and often expressed views and made suggestions which were quite different from the official line. Far from being under government influence, the intention was in fact to change governmental thinking.

As regards the promotion of big projects, that was not one of the driving forces behind the Three-Country Study. Those involved were primarily concerned to bring home to the three countries the folly of conflict and the wisdom of cooperation. In urging cooperation, we naturally had to deal with matters already under inter-governmental discussion, such as water-sharing on the Ganga (India/Bangladesh), and Pancheshwar, Karnali (India/Nepal). At that juncture we did not want to complicate matters by entering into the large-dam debate; our project was about inter-country cooperation and not about alternative paths to development. Nevertheless, we showed our awareness of that controversy by including chapters on the large-dam question as well as on the seismicity problems in the CPR book Harnessing the Eastern Himalayan Rivers. However, since the governments were already talking about certain projects, we strongly urged a quick resolution of differences and a commencement of actual cooperation. (I may add that we did try, with varying degrees of success, to get diverse shades of opinion into our seminars and conferences, and that divergent views on large projects and on environmental issues were indeed heard.)

(v) The movement against large dams has associations with other related movements ("empowerment" of the people by restoring their control over community resources which have been appropriated by the State; reviving traditional and environmentally harmonious technologies; and so on). These movements are often accompanied by strong anti-establishment, anti-bureaucracy, anti-elite and anti-urban feelings. Elements of these are to be found scattered in the water-related writings published in Himal.   There is a degree of force and validity in some of these points of view; but the anger and indignation accompanying -them can often act as mental blocks which prevent clear thinking and render communication difficult. However, this is a complex and difficult subject, which cannot be gone into adequately here.

Merging opposites
Having set forth in very broad outline some of the tendencies which hinder a constructive debate, let me now juxtapose the two conflicting positions on the large-dam controversy.

  • There are those who believe that the projected future water and energy needs of a growing humanity are such that some ´mega´ irrigation and hydro-electric projects are inescapable: that humanity must harness natural resources with the aid of science and technology; that the adverse impact of large-dam projects can be mitigated; that for the problems created by technolgy, answers will be provided by technology it-self; that environmental concerns are important and must be taken care of but must not be over-stressed or allowed to come in the way of development; and that, on the whole, large dams are necessary and good.
  • There are others who believe that large-dam projects do more harm than good; that the proximate and ultimate consequences of this kind of intervention with nature cannot even be fully foreseen, much less mitigated; that such projects represent a technological hubris and a totally wrong and unsustainable kind of relationship with nature, which cannot escape eventual nemesis; that projections of future needs of water and energy should first be reassessed in the light of saner notions of development, and then met through a whole range of measures not involving ´mega´ projects; and that large-dam projects are neither necessary nor good.

That is the debate that needs to be pursued. It cannot be said that the various pieces which have appeared in Himal undertake a proper examination of this central issue. Most writings in the journal and elsewhere tend to assert a particular view strongly, and sometimes elaborately; but one rarely comes across a comprehensive and rigorous examination of both propositions, leading to a firm and definitive conclusion.   Lest I should be accused of straddling the fence, let me declare my position on the controversy. I have gradually changed from a ´balanced´ position (carefully set forth in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly of 30 September, 1989) to one of profound disquiet over the kind of relationship with nature that such projects and the underlying religion of Science and Technology represent, as well as over the other evils that accompany these projects such as collusion, corruption, inequity, etc.   However, there are two questions to which I have not so far seen complete answers. The first is whether the ´alternative´ means (economy in water use, local water conservation, micro-watershed development, traditional systems of water-harvesting and water-management, etc, in the case of water; and demand management, energy-saving, getting more out of existing capacities, extensive decentralised generation, non-conventional energy-sources, etc, in the case of energy) can adequately meet the needs of the projected magnitudes of future populations. I have seen assertions that they can, but not a definitive establishment of the proposition.   The second question is whether a ruling out of large dams alone will work without a radical turning away from all other forms of technological hubris and depredations on nature which together constitute our ´civilisation´; and whether humanity is capable of that kind of dramatic change in ways of living or is on an irreversible march towards doom. I can only pose these questions: I have no answers to give.

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