Book Shelf, Book 1 - Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People And The Environment

July 15, 2006

Exploring the legacy of dams and human delusions of grandeur

Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, $15.75


A dam may not be forever, even if constructions like the Hoover Dam are expected to survive for a thousand years. A dam's environmental and social impacts, though, are enormous, extensive and essentially irreversible.

As described by Jacques Leslie in his recent book, "Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People and the Environment," dams are arguably "at the core of conflicts throughout the world involving water scarcity, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, development and globalization, social justice, the survival of indigenous peoples, and the growing gap between rich and poor." Each one of those topics could comprise an entire book, but fortunately for his readers, Leslie tackles the challenge in a compelling and impressively integrative way, portraying three protagonists in their interactions with dams.

Thus we meet Medha Patkar, an Indian activist who is literally willing to drown herself in the rising waters of the Narmada River as it backs up behind the Sardar Sarovar dam; Thayer Scudder, an American anthropologist who believes in the development benefits that dams can bring, but whose lasting achievement has been to stop the damming of the Okavango Delta in Botswana; and Don Blackmore, an Australian water resources manager struggling to make the Murray River, Australia's largest, into "a healthy working river" while meeting the agricultural demands of the world's most arid continent.

Leslie, an ex-war correspondent and magazine writer, discovered "Deep Water"'s protagonists by spending a month at the World Commission on Dams, in Cape Town, South Africa, an independent panel of twelve commissioners created by the World Bank in 1997. The commission, now disbanded, was assigned to evaluate all large dam projects (not just ones financed by the World Bank) for both their positive and negative effects, and to provide guidelines for future construction projects. What made the commission unique was that its members represented the "pro-dam," "anti-dam," and "mixed" camps in equal number.

Much to everyone's amazement, this balance of strong opinions didn't stalemate the commission's work; instead, in 2000, the commission issued its opus, "Dams and Development: ANew Framework for Decision-Making," which provided the framework for "Deep Water;" the three main characters are all former commission members representing the three divergent opinions on dam construction.

What results is a richly written view of the protagonists' three worlds and the complexity of dam-building. Leslie has a wonderful eye for telling details that illuminate the larger picture. My favorite is his description of 'Muela, a village in the southern Africa country of Lesotho that has weathered the construction of a nearby dam. He writes:

"Rondavels in sparse arced clusters overlooked the reservoir, and in their neatly trimmed thatched roofs exuded sufficiency. But above them ominously loomed the project's operations building, possessing a scale so unlike anything in its human-sized surroundings as to suggest that it had been deposited there by aliens, which, in a sense, it had. Massive and bland, it announced the arrival in 'Muela of modernity, three stories high and twenty-five horizontal windows per story, as linear as a milk carton…"

In the end, Leslie concludes, history will judge our spate of monumental dambuilding badly. "They'll be relics of the twentieth century, like Stalinism and gasoline- powered cars," he says, "symbols of the allure of technology and its transience, of the top-down, growth-at-all-costs era of development and international banks, of the delusion that humans are exempt from nature's dominion, of greed and indifference to suffering."

Nancy Bazilchuk is a freelance writer and editor in Norway, where hydroelectric power provides the primary source of  electricity and only one major watershed remains dam free..

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer, 2006 issue.