Not worth a dam

The World Bank had sent in a speaker to argue its well-known case for building more large dams in South Asia, and there were representative from the governments of Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. One would have expected the government of another South Asian nation, and the world's largest democracy, India, to play a key role in this unique affair. But the regional giant stood in isolation as self-defeating, escapist politics dictated that the Government of India would not only not allow any such debate on its own soil (see Himal October 1998), but would also refuse to send any participant to the public hearing.

This was in stark contrast to the Sri Lankan government's attitude. As the WCD hearings opened at the Bandarnaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), it became apparent that the host government had whole-heartedly welcomed the hearings although it did not know what the Commission was likely to say either about large dams or about Sri Lanka's performance on that score.

Sri Lanka's Secretary of the Ministry of Mahaweli Development, T. Ranaviraja, admitted that many of the decisions taken in the past were not based on consultation with communities affected by dam-building.

The big-dam lobby's main argument was that large dams are necessary to augment food production for the increasing populations. It held forth that the food self-sufficiency achieved in post-independence India was due to large dams like Bhakra Nangal.

This view was ably repudiated in two expert presentations. One of them was by Shaheen Rafi Khan of Pakistan, who showed how, if food sufficiency was the issue, the proposed Kalabagh dam in the Northwestern Frontier Province was no solution. The New-Delhi-based Centre for Water Policy presented in detail how the contribution from large surface canal-based projects built after independence contributed less than 12 percent to India's food production today.

The second major justification forwarded in favour of large dams was that hydropower is a clean source of power. But India's Ashish Kothari recounted his experience of being on ! he Ministry of Environment's expert Committee for river valley projects, and said the environmental guidelines or the conditions of the projects are systematically violated. Kothari said that in his experience, environmental safeguards were certainly not implementable in today's scheme of things.

Bikas Pandey of Nepal pointed out that big dams proposed in Nepal's mountains are not necessary for the country's power needs and that they are being pushed solely by international business on speculative, and often unjustified, projections of India's electricity demand. It is significant that the Nepali government presenters seemed to concede Pandey's view.

India's former water resources secretary M.S. Reddy agreed that unless the rehabilitation needs of displaced populations and environmental safeguards are provided for, and these criteria have not been fulfilled to date, no dam can be built in the Himalayan region. Reddy was echoing a statement made by Sripad Dharmadhikary of India's Narmada Bachao Andolan the previous day. Even as the world was celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Dharmadhikary observed that if the governments do not have the will or the capacity to justly resettle displaced people, they have no right to displace anyone in the first place.

The one major argument in favour of large dams, that of control of flood, was forwarded by the representatives of the Bangladesh government. Having just faced the worst floods of the century earlier in the year, they reiterated their long-standing view that large dams in Nepal were necessary to control floods in the Ganga. However, this proposition was contested by Dinesh Kumar Mishra of Bihar's Barh Mukti Abhiyan. Narrating the harrowing experience of damming and embanking the Kosi river in North Bihar (Himal, February 1999), Mishra showed how such projects destroy the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. Dams for flood control not only fail to control floods, but also permanently inundate large areas of land. When the floods do come, and they surely do, dam or not, they are sudden and much more prolonged, thus more destructive, said Mishra.

India's former water resources secretary, Ramaswamy R. Iyer, author of India's 1987 water policy, said that without trying out alternative patterns, it would be blatantly dishonest to say that alternatives to the standard water control and use technologies do not exist. He urged the Commission to give sufficient attention to the issue of alternatives, as dams can, if at all, only be the instruments of last resort. Matters like "demand side management" and local rainwater systems have to be tried out first, he maintained.

One definite lesson that arose out of the Colombo meeting was that large dams have failed more often than they have succeeded. Meanwhile, it was also clear that all of the five South Asian governments to the last one, egged on by international business and aid, continue to push for more, ever more large dams.

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Himal Southasian