Putting plankton before people

Eco-warriors who campaign against the building of dams are damning the poor to live at nature’s mercy.

Nick Thorne

Topics Science & Tech

For environmentalists, it often seems that big is bad. And things don’t get much bigger – or badder – than dams.

A good example of the ‘case against big dams’ was presented in a recent article for Al-Jazeera by Lori Pottinger of California-based NGO International Rivers, which campaigns against large dams and to promote ‘living rivers’. She wrote that ‘large dams have wiped out species; flooded huge areas of wetlands, forests and farmlands; displaced tens of millions of people, and affected close to half a billion people living downstream’. So if big dams have such damaging consequences for the planet’s inhabitants and its flora and fauna, how could anyone be in favour of them?

Well, Pottinger’s argument is simply flawed, with her outlook being typical of the worst kind of misanthropy. She begins with an emotive but meaningless extended metaphor: ‘Rivers act as the planet’s circulatory system. Like our body’s circulation system, the planetary one doesn’t work very well when it’s clogged. If a river’s flow is its heartbeat, then we humans are the heart disease.’ Comparing the planet to the human body makes no sense. A dam, while altering the flow of a river, lets water through; a blood clot does not. More importantly, referring to the human population as a ‘disease’ betrays the disdain Pottinger has for those she is ostensibly trying to help.

Pottinger goes on to offer a textbook example of the strategy of modern environmentalism: if in doubt, relate your chosen problem to climate change, and keep that reference as vague as possible. So, she writes, ‘scientists have discovered that major rivers play a surprisingly large role in helping tropical oceans absorb carbon’ and that researchers ‘predict that damming the Amazon, the Congo, the Mekong and other high-flow rivers in warm ocean areas could reduce their ability to mitigate climate change’.

In fact, debates around big dams expose greens for the self-contradictory people they are: they tend to oppose dams on the basis of their damage to biodiversity, but advocate dams when asked for examples of renewable energy sources that actually work. Big dams appear on the list of both the good and the bad.

While changing a river’s flow will inevitably alter natural habitats and negatively affect some species, in many cases dams replace coal and gas-fired power stations, which produce large amounts of greenhouse gases. If the mainstream view of climate change is correct, dams should therefore do less harm to the environment than the fossil-fuel alternatives. Indeed, it often seems that there is practically no form of energy production that is immune to environmentalist complaints – and often this opposition is perverse. Here in the UK, for example, the Green Party’s opposition to the building of the Severn barrage to generate tidal power simply strengthens our dependence on oil, coal and gas.

Next, Pottinger seems accidentally to reveal a fundamental point in a throwaway line. ‘Because almost all dams reduce normal flooding, they also fragment ecosystems by isolating the river from its floodplain.’ In a sentence slating big dams, she also admits that they reduce flooding. For millions of people living along rivers – particularly in the developing world – whose livelihoods are threatened by floods, this is a matter of life and death. But Pottinger talks about the ‘benefits of natural flooding’ and even argues that ‘we all win when rivers are allowed to run freely’.

This is just preposterous. Who is the ‘we’ in that sentence? Clearly not those who live in flood-prone regions. Instead, that ‘we’ consists of a privileged clique who live far away from the risks of flooding and drowning, and who are perfectly happy to advocate a way of life and mode of development that they have no intention of ever taking on themselves. And it is up to this clique to enlighten those living in the poorer parts of the world. ‘We must move to help the developing world adopt clean energy and water-supply systems that preserve riverine lifelines’, Pottinger writes.

But the Pottingers of this world seem to put more or less the same value on human life as they do on phytoplankton. They oppose big dams on the grounds that they are not sustainable, but then the danger posed to impoverished communities affected by annual flooding, which could be prevented by dams, is seen to be perfectly sustainable.

Pottinger claims that big dams are an ineffective way of addressing the needs of the poor, and that small projects are a much better solution. Apparently, there are nearly always better options, and she even wants to remove the ‘worst’ dams to restore river flows. This approach seems heartless. For example, in Ethiopia, it is not uncommon for hundreds of thousands of people to be negatively affected by seasonal floods. Dams are not always the best option, but in the case of the Gibe III dam currently under construction in Ethiopia, they can both produce hydroelectric power and regulate flooding with benefits both for people on the flood plain and for the wider economy of the country.

The naive notions that nature knows best, that humans are some form of blight on the planet, and that it is best not to interfere with river flows are both dangerous and misguided – all notions at the heart of anti-dam campaigns. Natural cycles are often highly destructive and, in many cases, rivers have to be interfered with in order to prevent catastrophe. If, in the process, we can gain the benefits of cheap, clean electricity, so much the better. That is why it is far smarter to adopt policies that embrace innovation, growth and development, and find long-term solutions – such as big dams.

Nick Thorne is a former intern at spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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