12 dams that changed the world

By Peter Bosshard
Guardian environment blog, Monday 12 January 2015

12 dams that changed the world


From the iconic Hoover Dam of US to Mao’s Three Gorges Dam in China and India’s Sardar Sarovar, here is a selection of 12 mega dams of the world – but are they a boon or bane?

Hoover Dam, and behind it Lake Mead, which is at its lowest level since it was filled in 1937, is pictured near Boulder City, Nevada, USA, 24 July 2014. Built in the 1930s, Hoover Dam turned the newly-created Lake Mead into the largest reservoir in the United States. Yet a severe drought in the American Southwest has left the lake at just 39 percent capacity, with water levels at 1082 feet (330 meters), down from a high of 1225 feet (373 meters) in 1983.

The Hoover Dam, and behind it Lake Mead, which was at its lowest level since it was filled in 1937, near Boulder City, Nevada, US, on 24 July 2014. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Dams illustrate the brilliance and arrogance of human ingenuity. They generateone-sixth of the world’s electricity and irrigate one-seventh of our food crops. They have flooded land areas the size of California, displaced a population the size of Germany’s, and turned freshwater into the ecosystem most threatened by species extinction. Below are 12 of the 57,000 large dams that have changed the face of our planet:

Hoover: the dam that gave us Las Vegas

The Hoover Dam was the world’s highest and most powerful dam when it was completed in 1936. It spurred the agricultural and industrial development of the US southwest, and destroyed the Colorado river’s rich downstream fisheries. Climate change is greatly affecting the dam’s capacity to supply water and generate power.

Kariba: the dam that ended poverty in Southern Africa (or did it?)

The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi was built in the 1950s to power Zambia’s copper belt, as the first large dam funded by the World Bank. Kariba was considered thesymbol of a “brave new world”, in which controlling nature would bring quick economic development. Yet the 57,000 people who were displaced by the dam suffered famine and are still impoverished.

A view of the Kariba Dam.
 A view of the Kariba Dam. Photograph: James Burke/Getty Images

Bhakra: the temple of modern India

In the 1960s, the Bhakra Dam became the symbol of India’s green revolution, and was hailed by the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru as a “Temple of Modern India”. Yet in India and beyond, badly managed irrigation schemes have resulted in waterlogged, saline soils and diminishing harvests. Nehru soon came to deplore the “disease of giganticism” in dam building.

Chixoy: the grave on the Rio Negro

Dam-affected communities have often suffered repression and human rights abuses. In 1982, more than 400 indigenous men, women and children were massacred to make way for the World Bank’s Chixoy Dam in Guatemala. In a historic breakthrough, the country’s government in 2014 signed a $154mreparations agreement with the affected communities.

Banqiao: the dam that washed away

When dams are not properly built or maintained, they can break. In the world’s biggest dam disaster, the failure of China’s Banqiao Dam killed an estimated 171,000 people in 1975. In more than 100 cases, scientists have also linked dam building to earthquakes. Strong evidence suggests that China’s Sichuan earthquake, which killed 80,000 people in 2008, may have been triggered by the Zipingpu Dam.

A picture dated 30 Abril 2004 shows hYdroelectric power station Yacireta dam, in the Parana River between the province of Corrientes of Argentina and the Paraguayan city of Ayolas. The project generated controversy and criticism during its planning and construction and earning it a reputation as a 'monument to corruption'.

Yacyretá Dam, on the Parana river between the province of Corrientes of Argentina and the Paraguayan city of Ayolas. The project generated controversy and criticism during its planning and construction, and is often referred to as a ‘monument to corruption’. Photograph: Leonardo Zavattaro/CorbisYacyretá: the monument to corruption

Large dams are often pet projects of dictators. Lacking accountability leads to massive corruption and cost overruns. On average, large dams experience cost overruns of 96% and are not economic. The cost of Argentina’s Yacyretá Dam has mushroomed from $2.5bn to $15bn. A former president called Yacyretá “a monument to corruption”.

Nagymaros: the dam that started people power in eastern Europe

In 1988, 40,000 Hungarians protested against the proposed Nagymaros Dam on the Danube in the first open defiance of a communist government in decades. The following year, the project was stopped and people power took root throughout eastern Europe. Protests against destructive dams also started democratic processes in Burma and other countries.

In an unusual way of protesting, some 51 affected villagers under the banner of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)   stand  in chin-deep water demanding land to replace lost land which was submerged after the water level in Omkareshwar dam and Indira Sagar dam was raised, according to reports,  in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, India, 4 September 2012.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activists – villagers affected principally by Sardar Sarovar Dam and also other dams on the river Narmada in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh in India – stand in chin-deep water demanding land to replace land which was submerged after the water level in Omkareshwar and Indira Sagar dams was raised. Photograph: Sanjeev Gupta/EPASardar Sarovar: the dam that defeated the World Bank

The Sardar Sarovar Dam on India’s Narmada river has displaced more than 250,000 mainly indigenous people. The World Bank had to withdraw from the project in 1994 after an independent review found systematic violations of its social and environmental policies. After this humiliating experience, the bank stayed out of mega-dams for more than a decade.

Three Gorges: Mao’s dream come true

China’s Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest hydropower project and was completed in 2008. It generates as much power as eight large nuclear power plants, displaced more than 1.2 million people, and ravaged the ecosystem of the Yangtze River. The Chinese government has acknowledged the problems of the project, but continues to export its technology overseas.

Merowe: when Chinese dam builders went global

In 2003, the Chinese government decided to fund the Merowe Dam in Sudan as its first big overseas hydropower project. The dam displaced more than 50,000 people and caused serious human rights violations. Chinese banks and companies are by now involved in some 330 dams in 74 countries, leading an unprecedented global dam building boom.

Hundreds of Sudanese holding banners supporting their President Omar Al-Bashir during the inauguration of the massive hydro-electric dam in Merowe, north of Khartoum, on 3 March 2009.

Hundreds of Sudanese people hold banners supporting President Omar Al-Bashir during the inauguration of the massive hydro-electric dam in Merowe, north of Khartoum, on 3 March 2009. Photograph: Philip Dhill/EPAInga 3: Africa’s next white elephant?

With the Inga 3 Project on the Congo river, the World Bank returned to building mega-dams in 2014. Even though the bank has failed to complete much smaller projects on the Congo, Inga 3 is only the first phase of the world’s biggest hydropower scheme. The project will have limited local impacts, will bypass poor consumers and benefit mining companies instead.

Glines Canyon: the dam that came down

Dams have serious environmental impacts, and their benefits dwindle as they age. Since the 1930s, the United States has removed more than 1,150 dams to restore river ecosystems and particularly fish habitats. In 2014, the 64 meters high Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River in the Pacific northwest was breached in the world’s biggest dam removal so far.

Elwha River Restoration, Glines Canyon Dam removal, Lake Mills reservoir being drawn down, March 16, 2012,

Elwha river restoration: Glines Canyon Dam removal on Lake Mills reservoir. Photograph: Joel Rogers/CorbisPatagonia: the dams that were never built

In recent years, solar and wind energy have seen their commercial breakthrough. These renewable energy sources are cleaner than coal or hydropower and can be built were people need electricity, even far away from the electric grid. In 2014, Chile cancelled five dams in the Patagonia region under strong public pressure and approved 700 megawatts of new solar and wind farms.

What you can do

Renewable energy rather than mega dams and fossil fuels is the right choice for the 21st century. Even so, numerous destructive dams continue to be proposed and built on the Mekong, in the Amazon, throughout Africa, in China, theHimalayas and other parts of the world. Find out what you can do to stop destructive dams and protect the arteries of our planet!

Peter Bosshard is the policy director at International Rivers. He tweets at @PeterBosshard


Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.