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Dammed Good Questions About the Green New Deal

Here are 10 potential problems with dams.

There are 57,000 large dams in the world and more could be on the way. Thus, it is important that GND advocates clarify whether they support building more dams or endorse a moratorium on their construction.(Photo: usacetulsa/flickr/cc)

There are 57,000 large dams in the world and more could be on the way. Thus, it is important that GND advocates clarify whether they support building more dams or endorse a moratorium on their construction.(Photo: usacetulsa/flickr/cc) 

Hydroelectric power from dams might be the thorniest issue that proponents of the Green New Deal (GND) have to grapple with. Providing more energy than solar and wind combined, dams could well become the key backup “renewable” if it otherwise proves impossible to get off of fossil fuels fast enough.

Rivers and lakes are an integral part of human existence, with virtually all major inland cities being located next to one of them. They provide water for drinking, bathing, food, and medicine. Their sustenance is not just for humans but for untold numbers of tiny organisms, insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. Rivers integrate plant and animal life forms and connect human communities to each other.

As capitalism grew, rivers were used to transport huge quantities of lumber from clear cuts, oil from under the ground and coal ripped from mountains. Rivers have been used for trash disposal, as if carrying it somewhere else would make it vanish. Rivers can’t make industrial and agricultural poisons disappear either: they can only carry them to lakes, seas and oceans, where they contribute to huge dead zones. Victors of battles have let rivers float human bodies to remind those living downstream of their military prowess.

The advent of electricity meant that those seeking to dominate nature found an extraordinary tool at their disposal – hydro-electric power from dams. There are 57,000 large dams in the world and more could be on the way. Thus, it is important that GND advocates clarify whether they support building more dams or endorse a moratorium on their construction.

Dams were an integral part of economic expansion under Franklin Roosevelt’s original New Deal. Building new dams continued after FDR, providing about a third of US electrical power in the 1950s. That proportion has declined in the 21st century, mainly because of expanded fossil fuel use. The greatest wave of global dam-building has been since World War II and 80% of their current use is for hydro-power.

Dams have fragmented over two-thirds of the planet’s long rivers. One of the most infamous is Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River. First planned in 1975, it would be the second largest dam system in Brazil and the fourth largest in the world; but opposition stalled it. It was revived during the presidency of Lula da Silva, and tension over its construction mounted under Dilma Rousseff’s government. In May 2016 the first turbine went online; 16 main turbines were functioning in September 2019, and completion is scheduled for 2020.

Mongolia hopes to use dams as part of a strategy to move away from fossil fuels. Its action plan is called the “Green Development Policy,” which seems to echo the “Green New Deal” proposals of western countries. The Selenge River, a transnational body of water originating in Mongolia, contributes over half the water to Russia’s Lake Baikal, which is so huge that it contains about one-fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water. Other lakes in the area are already shrinking due to water withdrawal, and Lital Khaikin of Toward Freedom tells us that “encroachment of heavy industry threatens the fragile balance of the Baikal and the river-systems that are connected to it.”

With many calling for expansion of large dams, it is necessary to consider what this would mean for river life forms, for people living next to or downstream from dams, and for climate change, and what the social and economic costs would be. Here are 10 potential problems with dams.

1. Dams destroy species and disrupt balances between species that make up ecosystems.

According to International Rivers, “The number-one cause of species extinction is habitat loss.” Due to the assault on rivers, freshwater ecosystems are likely experiencing the highest loss in biodiversity – higher even than those on land.

The decline of a species often has ripple effects on other species. When salmon reproduction is interrupted on the lower Snake River Dams in the Pacific Northwest, orcas may starve because so few salmon reach the ocean. The first dolphin species made extinct by humans was the river dolphin of the Yangtze, caused by the construction of China’s Three Gorges Dam. Less well-known examples abound. The Kihansi Spray Toad of Tanzania – whose habitat was a small area in the spray zone of the Kihansi River waterfall – became extinct in the wild because the Kihansi Dam reduced the spray zone by 90%, dooming the toad.

Plants are likewise threatened by dams. Rowan Jacobsen’s 2019 Scientific American article describes how the Falls-of-the-Ohio scurfpea, whose habitat was limited to a few Ohio River islets, became extinct in the 1920s due to dam construction. Another 2019 Scientific American article explains that 85% of insects along the Colorado River lay eggs on its banks. As water levels go up and down according to power needs, the insect eggs often get too dry to survive. This is particularly unnerving because a 2017 paper in the journal PLOS ONE documented a decline of more than 75% in flying insect mass in Germany.

The plants and animals mentioned here are a small cross-section of known species rendered extinct by dams. The key phrase is “known species”: it is impossible to know how many undiscovered species of reptiles, amphibians, insects, microorganisms and even birds and mammals no longer exist due to dams. It is also unclear how these extinctions affect broader ecosystems.

Why do dams have such devastating consequences for life forms? They block fish migration and sometimes completely separate spawning habitats from rearing habitats. Still water in a dam’s reservoir is a profoundly different environment than flowing water in a river to which species have adapted over millennia. Sediments are critical for maintaining river life downstream but instead accumulate at the bottom of the reservoir. As the NGO International Rivers explains, “Changes in temperature, chemical composition, dissolved oxygen levels and the physical properties of a reservoir are often not suitable to the aquatic plants and animals that evolved with a given river system.” Industrial and agricultural chemicals that settle and concentrate in the reservoir are not healthy for fish and other living things.

2. Dams drive people from their homes.

Those of us who grew up watching American TV in the 1950s and 60s had a steady diet of troops driving Indians off the landscape of the country’s West. In more recent times, dam-building has done the same thing. The US government, for example, took reservation land from Yuma Indians to build the Hoover Dam in 1933. By the early 1940s, 22 dams were planned for North Dakota, which required evacuating 20,000 people, including many Native Americans.

In Mexico, the building of 4,000 dams from 1936 to 2006 involved the removal of 185,000 people. As Brazil built Belo Monte, the government claimed that only 16,000 people were displaced. But those affected indicated that a more realistic number was 40,000. As dam-building has expanded, an estimated 80 million people have been pushed out of their homes worldwide.

3. Dams undermine indigenous cultures.

Cultural traditions are often closely connected to specific plants, animals, landmarks and bodies of water. When building the New Deal’s Grand Coulee Dam robbed land from Native Americans, it broke their connection to salmon. Little known in the western world are efforts by Mongolia to expand dam construction in its northern provinces on the Selenge River and its tributary Eg River. The proposed Shuren Dam on the Selenge would have flooded sacred heregsuurs (graveyards) and archaeological sites in neighboring areas. The Egiin Gol Dam on the Eg would have caused extensive displacement of Mongolian herder communities whose link to Omul, a local species of whitefish, would have been severed. Though opposition led to the canceling of both projects in 2017, what remains is Mongolia’s hopes to attract foreign investment from multinational corporations seeking resource extraction and hydro-electricity to power mining operations. Similar projects are reaching their tentacles across the planet.

Re-emergence of stagnant plans is exactly what happened with Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam, which was resurrected after being stalled by intense opposition. When it was being massively opposed, a coalition formed between the Munduruku and other Amazonian tribes of Juruna, Kayapo, Xipaya, Kuruaya, Asurini, Parakana, and Arara who occupied the main construction site of the $14 billion undertaking. In June 2013, Munduruku leaders released a letter (translated by Glenn H. Shepard) which included the following:

“We know how the law of nature works through the teachings of the ancients … animals teach us things that we don’t know, and we can interpret the messages … The animals warn us of dangers that are about to happen… Non-Indians say these are just superstitions but it is for real… You should not play with nature: for us, this is very dangerous… All animals have have mother-spirits, whether fish, or forest animals, birds, plants, fire, earth, wind, waters, even spirit beings, they all have lives… We have sacred places along our Tapajós river and we, the Munduruku, do not disturb these places… What government is this that is speaking against us? And declaring war to finish us off in order to then give our lands to the big landowners, agribusiness, hydro-electric dams and mining companies?”

4. Dams affect far more people than they displace.

People do not have to be pushed out of their homes or watch the flooding of sacred places to be affected by dams. An estimated 400-800 million people in the world who live downstream from dams lose access to clean water, are poisoned by industrial development, and watch resources such as fish shrink along with the quantity of water flowing through rivers. Those living in tropical areas can experience an increase in diseases such as malaria, filariasis, yellow fever, dengue, and schistosomiasis.

5. Conflicts over dams result in the arrest and killing of earth protectors.

Since 2009, the massive growth of dams in Mexico led to the arrest of over 250 people and at least 8 deaths. Global Witness claims that “dams and other water resources” were the third leading industry (behind mining and agribusiness) to be associated with deaths of environmentalists in 2018.

Dams have also been linked to imprisonment and/or killings in many countries, including Burma, China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Sudan. The greatest number of indigenous people massacred was when 440 were killed to make way for Guatemala’s Chixoy Dam in 1982. Extreme civil rights violations will undoubtedly rise in proportion to efforts to expand hydro-electric power.

6. Dams can increase the likelihood of wars over water resources.

Any time a river runs through two or more countries, there is a potential conflict over dam-building, especially if hostile relationships already exist. In 1948 – less than a year after Pakistan was created – India began taking water from canals that went into Pakistan. The following month, the Dominion Accord required Pakistan to pay India in return for removing water. But a permanent solution was stalled until 1960 when Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Mohammad Ayub Khan of Pakistan signed the Indus Water Treaty. Many disputes were settled via the Permanent Indus Commission. But in 2017 India built the Kishanganga Dam in Kashmir and developed the Ratle hydro-power station in the Chenab River despite objections from Pakistan. With Narendra Modi’s siege of Kashmir, dams are likely to intensify hostilities between the two countries.

Access to water is central to tensions in the Middle East. The Tigris-Euphrates basin, which includes Turkey, Syria, Iraq and western Iran, is rapidly losing water. Conn Hallihan writes “For Syria and Iraq, the problem is Turkey and Ankara’s mania for dam building. Since 1975, Turkish dams have reduced the flow of water to Syria by 40% — and to Iraq by 80%… Israel also takes 87% of the West Bank aquifers, leaving the Palestinians only 13%.” Water conflicts will get worse over time: by 2030, 4 out of every 10 people in the world may not have access to water.

Rivers cross international borders of 145 countries, not all of whom get along well. Rivers crossing 9 to 11 countries include the Congo, Nile, Rhine and Niger. Like nuclear power plants, dams would be easy targets during a no-holds-barred war, especially for a country deprived of water due to its opponent’s dam.

7. Dams contribute to climate change.

It would be a tragic irony if dams were used to combat climate change, because they are a huge source of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Currently, rivers remove about 200 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually, both by carbon absorption and by carrying silt to the sea where it feeds plankton. Yet dams interfere with rivers’ ability to act as carbon sinks, and increase their functioning as a carbon sources.

Building the giant Hoover Dam required 6.6 million tons of concrete. The larger Grand Coulee Dam required 24.3 million tons. Since enormous heat must be used to manufacture concrete, each ton produced releases one ton of CO2 into the atmosphere. In addition, producing steel to reinforce the concrete and build other dam components requires enormous heat, resulting in additional CO2 releases. Of the tens of thousands of large dams in the world, Hoover and Grand Coulee added 30.9 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. just for the concrete.

In addition to CO2 released during the manufacture of building materials for dams, organic matter rots in their reservoirs and produces the potent GHG methane. Far from being a minor source of carbon, this methane is estimated to “account for 4% of all human-made climate change, equivalent to the climate impact of aviation.”

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Third, dams interfere with rivers’ transporting silt and nutrients downstream, which impairs the ability of downstream ecosystems to remove carbon. The result is that some hydro-electric projects can create higher GHG emissions than coal-powered plants producing an equivalent quantity of electricity. In other words, dams are hardly a clean, green, carbon-free energy machine.

8. Dams increase the gap between rich and poor.

Approval for dam-building often begins with investors’ enlisting politicians to act as a link between them and the population. Politicians promise that the project will bring wealth to all. By the time it becomes clear that this is not happening, the politician is out of office or distracting people with another big promise.

In 1933, construction of the New Deal’s Hoover Dam meant pushing the Yumas off their reservation land so that a boom in energy production could swell corporate profits in the US Southwest. As a sop for losing the reservation, the Yumas received five acres apiece with assurance that they could grow more crops due to new irrigation systems. Meanwhile, land was sold to whites in 40- to 100- acre parcels.

Construction of the Belo Monte Dam reflects a common occurrence. Though thousands of Indians were displaced, the energy created did not benefit them, but went to businesses such as aluminum smelters.

Since they can be constructed in small quantities, wind and solar power are often the best source of energy for sparsely populated areas. By contrast, International Rivers points out that “large hydro-power dams depend on central electric grids, which are not a cost-effective tool to reach rural populations, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Himalayas.”

9. Dams cost much more than promised.

Many factors feed into making dams hyper-expensive. The most obvious is the cost of construction, which has totaled $2 trillion since 1950. A small country persuaded to use hydro-power as its major source of energy can find that the average cost overrun of 96% leaves it more indebted to and controlled by international lenders than it ever anticipated.

Dams lead to more dams. As investors and industrial manufacturers and mine owners reap riches from one dam, they have an incentive to construct more. This contributed to the US Colorado River’s being fragmented by at least 60 dams. Awareness that the Belo Monte Dam would make more upstream dams economically viable was a major source of opposition to it.

A third reason for dams being more expensive than promised is that maintenance is hardly, if ever, fully accounted for. Silt eventually interferes with the dam’s functioning. Turbines malfunction, cracks occur, design flaws appear and maintenance can be insufficient. For a combination of reasons, over 1,000 dams have been removed in the US and the price of removal is rarely mentioned in cost projections.

The fourth and most costly source of expense overruns for dams comes when they fail. When negotiating over a dam’s price, the construction company is highly unlikely to admit its life expectancy. This brings us to the last of the 10 problems with large dams.

10. Dams break.

Unlike the extinction they cause, dams are not forever. And with today’s standards for privatized construction, they can be expected to last for shorter time periods than Roman coliseums and vastly less than Egyptian pyramids. As Donald Worster wrote in Rivers of Empire :

“Steel penstocks [structures that carry water from the forebay tunnel to the power house to run the turbines] and headgates must someday rust and collapse. Concrete, so permanent-seeming in is youth, must turn soft and crumble. Heavy banks of earth, thrown up to trap a flood, must eventually, under the most favorable circumstances, erode away.”

On March 14, 2019, the Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River in Nebraska, which was 90 years old, failed due to heavy rain and flooding. The community was left wondering if a missing person had been drowned.

Americans who are old enough might remember the February 1972 collapse of the Buffalo Creek Dam for coal waste that burst and sent water flowing into nearby mining towns, drowning 125. In June of the same year the Canyon Lake Dam in South Dakota got clogged with debris until it broke: 238 lives were lost in downstream communities around Rapid City.

Failure to learn from these events led to completion of the Teton Dam in southeastern Idaho. Scientists wrote of dangers of putting a large structure in one of the most active earthquake zones in the US, adjacent to cracked and fragile canyon walls. Less than a year after completion it began springing leaks and in June 1976 it collapsed, killing 11 people and 13,000 cattle and washing away homes and a billion tons of topsoil.

The New England Historical Society documented the US’s first major disaster as the Mill River Dam collapse of 1874, which caused 139 deaths. The worst such disaster in the US happened only 15 years later when warnings regarding the South Fork Dam near Johnstown, Pennsylvania were followed by its collapse, which killed 2,209.

Eric Fish penned the disturbing story of the 1975 Banqiao Dam collapse, by far the most deadly the world has experienced to date. As part of the “Harness the Huai River” campaign, the dam in China’s Henan Province was completed in 1952. By the 1970s, thousands of other dams had been built across China. Scientific studies warned that those projects could raise Henan’s water tables over safe levels. More warnings were issued that deforestation and mining could further increase the danger of building still more dams in an earthquake-prone zone already fraught with landslides. Committed to rapid economic growth, the government ignored the warnings.

Cracks appeared almost as soon as the reservoir began filling up. With Soviet help, the structure was reinforced and it was called the “Iron Dam” to assure everyone of its safety. Nevertheless,

“… on Aug 5, 1975, a typhoon collided with a cold front over Henan and dropped the area’s average yearly rainfall in less than 24 hours. The 106 cm of rain that fell that day dwarfed the 30 cm daily limit the dam’s designers had anticipated. Witnesses said that the area was littered with birds that had been pummeled to death by the intense rainfall.

“In an effort to mitigate downstream floods that were already severe, Banqiao was ordered not to fully open its sluice gates early in the storm. Then communication lines were knocked out, leaving operators guessing as to how the situation outside was unfolding. By the time the gates were fully opened, it was too late. Water was rising faster than it could escape.”

A hydrologist had recommended building 12 sluice gates (which let water flow out at the base of a dam), but only 5 went into the final design and they were partially blocked by silt. Collapse of the Banqiao unleashed a 50 km/hour tidal wave down the river that knocked out 62 additional dams. Entire villages were swept away within minutes. One survivor recalled “I didn’t know where I was – just floating around in the water, screams and cries ringing in my ears. Suddenly, all the voices died down, leaving me in deadly silence.”

During the six hours that water poured out of the reservoir, 26,000 lives were lost. Those living downstream soon envied the dead. The same torrent that flooded the reservoirs also washed out roads and knocked out rescue communication systems. When the rescue teams finally arrived, they found people standing on rooftops, holding onto trees or stranded on bits of dry land. They had kept themselves alive by eating tree leaves, floating animal carcasses or scavenged food that was often rotten. Hunger was joined by disease and summer heat. For every person who died after the initial dam collapse, five more died from disease or plague. The total estimated death count was 171,000.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Banqiao is that the same dynamics for economic growth that laid its foundations continue to flourish. In 2011, Zhang Jinxuan, director of the Nujiang National Development and Reform Commission, spoke of China’s growth: “We must proceed. The resources here are too good. Not to develop is not an option.” China has thousands of dams at risk of breach, either because they are wearing out due to age or they are newer with poor construction. Zhou Fangping, with the Water Resources Department of Guangdong Province, has serious worries about the huge quantity. He told China Economic Weekly:

“We have so many rivers to manage and so many irrigation and water conservancy projects. If there’s only one project, we can handle it, but there are so many… either we promise to complete all the projects but we don’t actually meet the targets, or we finish them all but with sub-standard quality.”

China is hardly the only country which refuses to learn from Banqiao. Scientists still make recommendations that are ignored, either from a corporate desire to make more profits or from a bureaucratic state desire to expand its power. In the US, 24 of every 25 US dams are privately owned, with financial incentives to minimize repairs. Across the globe, more and more industrial plants full of toxic chemicals are located next to rivers, increasing potential hazards of flooding. Decision-makers refuse to understand that climate crisis means that the weather events that cause dam disasters are becoming more frequent and more extreme. They continue to build multiple dams on the same river. They seek to assure their citizens that past disasters were due to design problems and that “Generation Next” dams will be safe.

After thousands of years of warnings from philosophers and religious prophets that humanity can live prosperously by having less grandiose desires, political leaders insist that happiness flows from a fountain of possessions, which, in the 21st century, is a fountain of energy. The more power that leaders have over other people, the more power they seek over nature. Instead of trying to work with nature to strengthen local communities, they cling to technocratic ideologies that “bigger and more complicated” is better. If a previous dam broke, they fail to see the problem as the dam’s existence – they insist that if the next dam is bigger, with more concrete and more electrical parts, then the river can be controlled.

Though efforts to subdue rivers have long caused problems, modern capitalism has transformed this pathological view into cultural psychopathy. Psychopathy reflects a lack of guilt or shame over the damage that one causes. A corporation is a social entity which is unable to feel guilt or shame for undermining the survivability of humans and millions of other life forms.

After thousands of years of disrupting natural water flow, which has been exponentially accelerated during recent decades, it is past time for humanity to restore rivers and streams while maintaining a high quality of life. This is why “500 organizations from 85 countries call on governments, financiers and other institutions to keep large hydro-power projects out of their initiatives to address climate change.”

Given the incredibly destructive consequences of efforts to dominate the free flow of water, supporters of the Green New Deal (GND) should end their silence on policies for dams. Do they agree with the 500 organizations that there should be a moratorium on new dam construction? Or, do they want to improve existing dams with structural supports, such as the Soviet Union did with China’s Banqiao Dam? Do GND advocates call for existing dams to be dismantled or partially decommissioned?

An even more critical question addresses what would happen if the goal of eliminating fossil fuels usage within 10 years cannot be accomplished with solar and wind power. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the massive growth of solar/wind technology cannot expand at such an enormous rate in this time period, and, if it were seriously attempted, it would cause disastrous ecological and human health problems. Though every source that provides data on sources of energy assigns different percentages to each sector, a reasonable estimate is that in 2018, global energy was supplied by 85% fossil fuels, 7% hydro-power, 4% nuclear power and 4% solar and wind power. Hydro-electric power from dams and nuclear power are obviously next in line for huge increases in sources of energy if solar/wind cannot replace fossil fuels rapidly enough.

There is another option; but GND plans are silent on it. That option is called “energy conservation.” Meaningful conservation would require systemic change by reducing the overall scale of the economy. This would mean relying on vastly more localized economic activity along with less “free trade,” corporate domination, and consumerist ideology. It would include using vastly less energy by having compact communities that require less transportation, smaller home space that requires less heating and cooling, less production of energy-absorbing gadgets designed to fall apart or go out of style, and a shorter work week via manufacturing fewer but more durable commodities.

GND enthusiasts need to say which road they advocate traveling. Should we build more dams and nuclear plants even if that means sacrificing biodiversity and human health? Or, would it better to abandon the dream of infinite economic growth? Are GND proponents willing to consider the possibility that life would be better for all species, including humans, if corporations and governments are not allowed to increase energy production? Are they willing to eliminate further big-dam construction from plans for our energy future, so that thousands of aquatic ecosystems might actually have a future?

Don Fitz

Don Fitz

Don Fitz has taught Environmental Psychology at Washington University and Fontbonne University in St. Louis. He is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, newsletter editor for the Green Party of St. Louis, and was the Missouri Green Party's 2016 candidate for Governor.

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