Dam, dam, dam, dam…

In the musical My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins introduces one the show’s most popular tunes – I’ve grown accustomed to her face – with this phrase (slightly different spelling!). He belatedly realizes how he’s grown to love Eliza Doolittle.

Our world of seven billion people, in the same way, have grown accustomed to dams themselves. Dams appeal because they seem to offer solutions to multiple challenges. Need electricity? Few sources are cheaper or cleaner than hydropower. Ravaged by floods? A network of dams along watersheds provides a measure of human control. Require water for irrigation at the right times of year? Dams provide reservoirs that can be tapped to meet seasonal demands of agriculture which may differ from nature’s fluctuations. Dams look to be a panacea.

Here in the United States, the enthusiasm for dams dates back a century, and we’ve had time to see some of their unintended consequences. Unsurprisingly, some of these are negative. Networks of dams are a little rough on anadramous species of fish, such as salmon, that spend part of their life cycle in fresh water, and part in saltwater. Dams can fail, endangering the people and communities downstream. Dams stem the flow of silt from soil runoff in the continental interior toward fertile river deltas that depend upon that silt for their preservation. The result? Coastal erosion. As that same silt settles behind dams, it degrades their utility over time. And so on. In addition? Dams create winners and losers among economic sectors, ethnic communities, and states that distort markets, trigger litigation, and foster conflict.

But in Asia, dam construction is proceeding vigorously. Hundreds of water management projects, large and small, are underway. The motives for the dam construction highlight the ways in a 21st century world that energy, agriculture, and water issues have intertwined even as they’ve separately grown more complex and urgent. Population growth, seasonal and inter-annual extremes of nature, and climate change enter into the equation. Much of the rain in this part of the world is monsoonal; flooding last year and this, from Pakistan to Thailand remind us that public safety is at stake. [So is public health; last year the medical journal Lancet reported that as many as 77 million Bangladeshis had suffered arsenic poisoning as a result of pumping up water from deep aquifers.] And because the rivers cross national borders, not just state lines, in an edgy, fidgety part of the world, national aspirations and national security are also brought into play. Forget sabre rattling. That’s the rosy scenario! The word “nuclear” gets cavalierly tossed about.

That’s why an article in the November 19-25 issue of The Economist, entitled Unquenchable Thirst, which looks at South Asia’s water, deserves your careful study. Invest fifteen minutes to half an hour and gain a feel for the issue and the stakes in that part of the world. Extrapolate to problems and challenges closer to home. Still got a little time? Want to learn more? Check out the May 20 2010 post, Too big to Fail? Transboundary water conflicts and the links therein.

Grown accustomed to dams? Maybe, like Henry Higgins, we even love ‘em. Or hate ‘em.

Readers of this blog should take note, for two reasons. First, all of this activity cries out for more Earth observations, science, and services, as policymakers puzzle through the opportunities and risks posed by water management projects. They (and the peoples and publics they represent) hunger for useful knowledge – natural and social science that can guide decision making and action.

But science and knowledge, however fundamental, won’t suffice. Which brings us to the second point…

…those international conflicts. Some of these are being arbitrated at the Hague. Beats going to war, but at best a slow process and one that prolongs agony, allows resentments and distrust to build, etc.  Far better for neighboring countries to find some way to work things out bilaterally. Truth is, as individuals and as nations, in marriages and families and at work and in politics and across international boundaries, we’re all of us underinvesting in the practice and wisdom of looking to the interests of others and avoiding unnecessary conflict.  Until further notice, this skill is going to be the most important tool in the world’s tool kit. It behooves us to grow more adept at its use.

We might revisit that age-old advice: “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam [dam? there’s that word again]; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.” (Proverbs 17:14).

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4 Responses to Dam, dam, dam, dam…

  1. Bill:
    “They (and the peoples and publics they represent) hunger for useful knowledge…” I can’t believe you didn’t say they are thirsting for useful knowledge!

  2. James Henderson says:

    While the affect was not totally caused by a dam but by water diversions for agriculture exceeding input, the almost complete disappearance of the Aral Sea has been called “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters. The huge floods and devastation on the Missouri River flood plain this year are another example of mismanagement. You points are timely.

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