Dams in Development: Perspectives


Original Text by: Prof. Stephen Bocking, Assistant Professor, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Dam construction has been for several decades an active industry, in both the industrialized and the developing world. In northern industrialized countries, such as Canada, the United States, Norway, Sweden, and the former Soviet Union, dams have been developed as important sources of hydroelectricity, as providers of irrigation water, or as instruments of regional economic development. However, it is also recognized that in most of these countries the era of building big dams is over. With increasing costs, and growing opposition to such projects, and the fact that most of the best sites for dams have already been taken, the focus of dam construction has instead shifted to the developing world.

Several colonial powers were active dam builders, with Great Britain in India perhaps the most enthusiastic. In many countries, this activity has continued after independence. For example, between 1949 and 1980, about 15% of India’s total national expenditure was on the construction of more than 1000 large dams and related infrastructure such as irrigation canals. Dam builders have also been active in many countries that do not have a recent colonial past. As many dams have been built in China as in the entire rest of the world; that country is also the site of the Three Gorges dam, now under construction, and planned to be the world’s largest dam. Latin America has also been an active region for dam construction during the last four decades.

Dams are more than just concrete structures, and can generate more than just electricity. They have also used to promote ideologies of national pride and progress, and have served as symbols of national aspirations. Dams therefore provide an entry into a variety of issues concerning national economic and political development, such as concepts and ideologies of development, the significance of international aid, the role of civil society, and the significance of human rights. As our experience with dams demonstrates, development is never a politically or ideologically neutral process.

The development of rivers has been intrinsic to numerous civilizations. As Fred Pearce notes (see: Pearce, The Dammed, pp. 9-40) dams and canals were the basis for extensive irrigation in several ancient societies in which agricultural surpluses enabled the formation of complex social organizations, as in ancient Mesopotamia, and along the Nile in Egypt, the Indus in Pakistan and the Yellow River in China. The importance of water development to these societies led to their controversial characterization by Karl Wittfogel as “hydraulic civilisations” that had developed specifically in order to organize the large labour forces necessary to create the canals and other works. In the Middle East, the Roman world, Renaissance Europe and elsewhere, water works have had a persistent importance, as a basis for agricultural production, economic activity, and the maintenance of state power.

Dams and the Politics of Development

Dams generate a variety of impacts. The reshaping or redirecting of the flow of a river and flooding of its valley has a variety of environmental consequences. In many instances these projects also require the displacement of the inhabitants of a region, or alter established patterns of water or resource use, resulting in various social impacts. Dams are also expensive projects; their construction and operation has a range of economic implications for both the immediate area and, often, the entire province or nation.

Environmental, Social and Economic Impacts

Dams have often been the focus of intense debate, with different sectors and interest groups expressing divergent attitudes towards these projects. While some view them in terms of their role in national economic development, others focus on their implications for the immediate regions in which they are located. Some observers emphasize the environmental implications of these projects, while others draw attention to their economic or social aspects. This diversity illustrates how different attitudes and perspectives can generate very different views concerning the viability of such projects.

Attitudes Towards Dams