Give a Dam! Gardner Fellow Works for Water Sustainability

Pantanal Mato Grosso Brasil

In the backyard of my hometown of Ojai brews a two decade battle to remove an obsolete dam. I never thought that I would give a damn until nearly four years ago when the small lake I drove by every time I visited Matilija Canyon looked different. Standing on the road overlooking the water, I realized that the lake was not natural but rather the consequence of a 168-foot concrete wall damming the creek.

Since 1947, this dam has clogged Matilija Creek, cutting off a significant portion of the endangered steelhead trouts’ habitat and entrapping sediment needed to replenish the coastline where the Ventura River meets the Pacific Ocean. Matilija Creek is a tributary of the Ventura River.

This isolated dam introduced me to the sobering and little-known reality that these massive walls — when poorly planned and constructed — impair river flow, destroy environments, disturb species’ life cycles, and even upend lives around the world.

There are around 57,000 large dams regulating over half of the major rivers around the world to provide necessary services, including hydroelectricity generation, year-round supply of irrigation, drinking water, and flood control. In fact, dams generate one-sixth of the world’s electricity and irrigate one-seventh of the globe’s food crops. However, the reservoirs have inundated areas the size of California and cumulatively displaced an estimated 40-80 million people. Often the displaced communities are forcibly removed from their land without adequate compensation.

These shocking figures have inspired research on the social impacts of dam construction; yet the toll remains extremely high, involving whole communities, economies, and cultures. In 1997, the World Commission on Dams was created to evaluate the effectiveness of existing dams and develop standards and guidelines for future ones. Three years later, the Commission produced the 356-page Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making, which called for progressive and inclusive guidelines for dam development, including the active participation and consent of indigenous communities and rigorous social and environmental considerations. The commission no longer exists, and the guidelines in several high-profile cases have been ignored with serious consequences.

Case Study 1: Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China

Completed in 2003, the $37 billion Three Gorges Dam is a 594-foot leviathan erected on the longest river in China. As the world’s largest hydropower dam, it can generate a whopping 22,500 megawatts of energy — eight times the capacity of the U.S.’ Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.

Though sold as a renewable resources project that would help China move away from its coal dependent economy, the construction of the dam submerged whole cities and severely damaged the regional environment. The reservoir flooded out 13 cities, 140 towns, and more than 1,600 villages, totaling a population of 1.3 million people who received minimal compensation.  

If that’s not enough, the gigantic dam and reservoir have caused tremors and landslides, forcing officials to consider relocating whole villages that had already transplanted to make room for the reservoir, wrote Mara Hvistendahl in the Scientific American. The dam and the massive size of the reservoir with a surface area of 419 square miles also threaten the survival of hundreds of species and have already contributed to the decline of the baiji dolphin, which is so rare that it is considered functionally extinct.

Case Study 2: Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River, Brazil

The case study of Belo Monte Dam is complex and very troubling due to immense scale of the project and of the social disruptions. Construction of the Belo Monte Dam in the Brazilian Amazon was initiated in 2011, and controversy and human rights violations ensued. Similarly to the Yangtze, this hydroelectric project was touted as a clean and necessary energy source for the country, generating up to 11,233 megawatts — the third largest hydroelectric generating capacity in the world. Today, the dam has failed to deliver on its full energy capacity while also becoming embroiled in corruption scandals at the highest levels and leaving tens of thousands of people, predominantly indigenous groups, barely surviving after losing their traditional way of life and home.  

When Brazil’s Congress approved Belo Monte Dam in 2005, the affected communities were not consulted, establishing a trend that defined the rest of the dam’s progress to this day. Despite numerous protests and court cases that garnered international attention, between 20,000 and 40,000 people — predominantly those from indigenous and traditional communities - were relocated to urban resettlements that proved incompatible with their way of life. Prior to the dam’s construction, people along the river practiced subsistence, but the new communities to which they’ve been forcibly relocated require money and thus jobs that have proven very difficult to find. This is partly due to the fact that the men who worked on Belo Monte’s construction were laid off and began competing with the relocated populations in a shrinking job market, wrote Zoe Sullivan of MongaBay. The crisis following the dam’s construction has resulted in the  Brazil’s Public Federal Ministry filing a lawsuit against Norte Energia (the consortium that built the Belo Monte mega-dam) and the federal government’s National Indian Foundation with the crime of ethnocide. Ethnocide is the destruction of a culture and way of life.

An Emerging Model - Hope for the Future

In the face of these overwhelming stories, I find hope in an emerging sustainable development model.

As a Gardner Fellow with the World Wildlife Fund’s freshwater team, I have spent the past eight months learning about an effective model for how to protect the world’s largest tropical wetland, the Pantanal, whose peoples and headwaters are threatened by massive hydroelectric dam development.

My main takeaway is that governments must take actions at the highest levels to protect these undeveloped ecosystems and the people who depend on them.

In the vast majority of cases, the communities affected by dam construction lack political representation and are geographically and socially isolated. The Pantanal is no exception.

The Pantanal is a 42 million acre wetland slightly larger than England that sprawls across the border of three countries — Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay. The Pantanal naturally expands and shrinks every year due to the influx of flood waters from the headwaters flowing into this natural inland reservoir. The more than 2 million people living in the Pantanal depend on the natural hydrology and seasonal changes of this system to sustain their way of life, which includes subsistence farming, fishing, and cattle ranching. These populations are predominantly rural, traditional, and indigenous with unique cultures, languages, and lifestyles.

More than 40 hydroelectric dams already exist in the Pantanal’s tributaries with over 101 more planned for the coming years. The impacts of these dams remain understudied, but researchers indicate that “too many dams on the rivers that feed the Pantanal would disrupt the natural rhythm of the wetland.” The countries touching the Pantanal aim to develop, expand their economies, and raise the standard of living for their citizens, which require energy. To mitigate the potential large-scale environmental impacts of hydroelectric development, careful consideration must be given to where dams are placed; what alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, exist; and how much of the energy needs can be met by these alternatives. In addition to examining how to meet energy needs in a way that minimizes the need for new dams, this approach (called system-scale planning) calls for assessing the impacts of a project or series of projects on a basinwide scale early on rather than later in the planning process.

Even though the Pantanal, considered one of the 37 last remaining wilderness areas on Earth, confronts the same development pressures as other ecosystems across the globe, I don’t see the same ending for the Pantanal.

Why? Because the three governments of Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay for the past three years have been taking bold, concrete actions to ensure that the Pantanal and its people are able to thrive, even as the countries develop. On March 22, 2018 at the 8th World Water Forum in Brasilia, ministers from all these countries signed a landmark tri-national declaration for the conservation and sustainable development of the Pantanal that includes specific language that protects the rights of indigenous people and demonstrates a commitment to minimum flows.  

I find hope in the declaration and in the daily work people across sectors and countries are doing to make sure that the Pantanal does not become another Yangtze or Belo Monte!  

I commit myself to this work because I do not want to read about another million plus people who were forcibly displaced by the construction of a massive dam and reservoir that can drown out cities and cause earthquakes.  

Give a Dam! Final Considerations and a Call to Action

The best solution to prevent these grave situations is ensuring that problematic dams are never built. The social impact of dams globally, as well as locally where the consequences of construction play out, must be widely understood and studied. Displaced communities must receive fair compensation for their losses. And that is not just in the form of financial payments or property but a new arrangement that supports the dam-affected communities’ way of life.

Dams must no longer be sold as a clean energy option when they do, in fact, contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, augmenting global warming. The hundreds of thousands of dams that do exist must be reevaluated and considered for demolition where appropriate. For instance, at least half of the roughly 85,000 dams in the United States no longer serve their intended purpose.

Some obsolete dams are even being taken down, allowing rivers to return to their natural state. In fact, 1,384 dams have been removed in the United States since 1912. And the dam removal movement is now sweeping Europe.

But, at the end of the day, not building a problematic dam or at least making sure that the dams that are erected are strategically placed and take into account the social and environmental factors is key.

For those concerned with dam development, there are several ways to get involved:

  1. Sign up for the newsletter of the river keepers and environmental organizations in your area.

  2. Show up to these organizations’ clean-ups and demonstration events. There is strength in numbers!

  3. Familiarize yourself with the work of international environmental organizations working on these issues, including International Rivers, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund.

  4. Donate to these local and international environmental organizations when possible.

  5. Watch documentaries and read literature on these topics. I recommend the documentaries DamNation and After the Flood for starters. Knowledge is the first step toward knowing how to make a difference.

Please, GIVE A DAM!