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The Environmental and Social

Impacts of Large Scale Dams

Tony Devencenzi
Race, Poverty and the Environment
Professor Raquel R. Pinderhughes
Urban Studies Program
San Francisco State University
Spring 2003

The public has permission to use the material herein, but

only if author, course, university and professor are credited

Image from: http://www.photo.net/photo/pcd2882/hoover-dam-aerial-91

Massive dams are much more than

simply machines to generate electricity
and store water. They are concrete, rock
and earth expressions of the dominant
ideology of the technological age: icons
of economic development and scientific
progress to match nuclear bombs and
motor cars.
~ Patrick McCully ~

This presentation focuses on the negative impacts
of large scale irrigation and hydroelectric dams
from both an environmental and a social
perspective. It is designed to describe how dams
effect their surrounding physical environment, as
well as their social impact on local people and
their cultures. To do this, it focuses on the
lifecycle of freshwater extraction at it largest scale:
through the use of gigantic concrete mega-dams.

Life on this planet has evolved around the

availability, movement, and quality of water. Like
every other living being on this planet, water is
essential for human survival. Because of this,
civilization has traditionally been structured around
the natural spatial arrangement and flow of water
systems. From nomadic trade routes that travel
from oasis to oasis, to large modern port cities and
blooming desert metropolises, humanity is
inseparably linked to water.

Dam Uses
Direct Water Usage:

Private / Domestic - Household purposes, Drinking water and

landscape irrigation
Commercial - Restaurants, hotels, golf courses, etc.
Irrigation Crop use. Water needs at the scale that large dams
provide most often feed industrial farming practices.
Livestock Use for animal raising as well as other on-farm needs
Industrial Cooling water (power generation, refineries, chemical
plants), processing water (manufacturing; pulp and paper, food, high
tech, etc.)
Mining hydraulic mining, various processes, settling ponds
General public supply Firefighting, public parks, municipal office

Dam Uses
Indirect Uses:

Hydroelectric Power Power generation is one of the most

common purposes for the construction of large dams. It is promoted
as a totally clean form of electricity.

Flood Control Dams even out the peaks and lows of a rivers
natural flow cycle by calming seasonal flooding, then storing that
water for gradual release year round.

Transportation Dam locks are used to move ships past large

dams. This in conjunction with flood control make transportation
feasible on rivers that were traditionally wild.

Distribution of Water Resources

Global distribution of water resources varies greatly by region.
Climate, topography, geology, hydrology, upstream water usage, and
historic water usage all come into play in determining the availability of
water in any given region.

From: http://www.unep.org/vitalwater/a2.htm

Distribution of Water Resources

This is not to say that everyone in these water rich areas has consistent,
affordable, quality water that is assured to them.

Peru, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Myanmar are

examples of this
From: http://www.worldwater.org/

Hmm . . . Those
But with
of large
have a lot of water, why
of large
to fixclean
Everyone would benefit, it
would be fabulous!

Well, you see Chuck, Its not

Oh boy . . . I think we better
quite that simple.
start at the beginning . . .

Types of Large Dams

Large dams are built using several

different methods. For the purpose of this

project I will investigate the three main
types of dams that can be built at extreme
scales. These types are:

Gravity dams
Arch dams
Buttress dams

Gravity Dams

Gravity Dams use their triangular shape and the

sheer weight of their rock and concrete structure
to hold back the water in the reservoir.

From: http://www.dur.ac.uk/~des0www4/cal/dams/conc/gappu.htm

Gravity Dams
Gravity dams are the most common type of
large dam in the world because they are
easy and cheap to build. They can also
be built across long distances over
relatively flat terrain. This makes them
very applicable in non-mountainous
regions. The largest gravity dam in the
world is the Aswan Dam in Egypt. (24)

Arch Dams

Arch Dams utilize the strength of an arch to

displace the load of water behind it onto the rock
walls that it is built into.

From: http://www.photo.net/photo/pcd2882/hoover-dam-aerial-91

From: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/buildingbig/dam/arch_forces.html

Arch Dams
Arch dams can only be built where the walls of a

canyon are of unquestionable stability. They must

also be impervious to seepage around the dam,
as this could be a source of dam falure in the
future. (24)
Because of these factors, Arch dams can only be
built in very limited locations.
Arch dams use less materials than gravity dams,
but are more expensive to construct due to the
extensive amount of expertise required to build
one. (25)

Buttress Dams

Buttress Dams use multiple reinforced columns

to support a dam that has a relatively thin
structure. Because of this, these dams often use
half as much concrete as gravity dams

From: http://www.dur.ac.uk/~des0www4/cal/dams/conc/buttress.htm

Composite Dams
Composite dams are combinations of one or
more dam types. Most often a large section
of a dam will be either an embankment or
gravity dam, with the section responsible for
power generation being a buttress or arch.

The Bloemhof Dam on the Orange River

of South Africa is an excellent example of
a gravity/buttress dam.
Buttress Dam
Gravity Dam

From: http://www.dwaf.gov.za/orange/images/web176l.jpg

Wow! Thats great, now youve

shown me all the amazing
techniques that I need to bring fresh
water to those people!!
Lets Go!

Hold on there Buckaroo!

You see, there are quite a few
environmental and social
problems associated with
these here dams . . . Lets start
with the materials that theyre
made of


Large amounts of soil, sand, stone and aggregate

and concrete are need for dam construction.
If available, these materials will be collected as
near to the site of the dam as possible.
The extraction of these materials requires large
amounts of fossil fuels to operate the machinery.
Air and water pollution result from the dust and
mud that is created from this process

Materials continued: Concrete

Concrete is the primary ingredient in any large scale dam.

Concrete is basically a mixture of two components: aggregates and
paste. The paste is usually composed of Portland cement and
water, and it binds together the fine and coarse aggregates. (20)
A typical mix is about 10 to 15% cement, 60 to 75% sand/
aggregate, 10 to 20% water and 5 to 8% air. (20)
Producing one ton of cement results in the emission of
approximately one ton of CO2, created by fuel combustion and the
calcination of raw materials (21)

Physical Impacts of Large Dams

The physical impacts of large scale dams

fall into several categories

Global Scale

Physical Impacts: Upstream

Loss of Land

Destruction of peoples property in the reservoir zone. Loss of possible

agricultural, range or forest lands.

Stagnant Water Table:

Water from unnatural reservoirs seeps down into the water table. This excess
water can overload the natural watertable, slowing down its flow, so that it
ultimately may go stale. This can be damaging to surrounding flora, and has
the potential to harm the well water of surrounding peoples.

Habitat Destruction :
The area that is covered by the reservoir is destroyed, killing whatever habitat
existed there beforehand.
Habitat destruction also happens far upstream from a dam. Migratory fish
can no longer travel upstream past large dams in order to reach their
spawning grounds.

Physical Impacts: On-site

Change in Water Characteristics

Temperature Large reservoir of water heat up as more water is

exposed to the sun for longer periods of time. Aquatic life that is
sensitive to temperature cannot adjust to this change in their
aquatic climate.
Salinity The rise in a rivers salinity due an unnatural reservoir
is due to increased evaporation rates.
Sediment Load Sediments that wash down the river settle into
large reservoirs. In rivers that have high sediment loads this
usually determines the life
Nutrient content Natural nutrients build up in reservoirs,
causing eutrophication.
O2 content each of these elements results in a lower oxygen
content, further harming aquatic life.

Physical Impacts: On-site

Dust, Noise pollution from Construction

Water Pollution

Industrial and residential pollutants, as well as agricultural runnoff

(including high nitrate loads, fertilizers and pesticides). On lake
sources such as boats and jet skis add oil and other chemical
pollutants to waste water.
These chemicals build up to toxic levels in reservoirs, especially
during dry seasons when little water leaves.

Habitat Destruction

Loss of local ecosystem covered by the reservoir.

Damage caused by improved access to humans: roads,
transmission lines, increased migration

Physical Impacts: On-site

Exotic species introduction

Aggressive, non-native species of fish are often introduced to

reservoirs for farming and sport fishing.


Vector borne diseases increase in tropical areas due to the

creation of large areas of still water. This encourages mosquito
breeding, the main vector for the transmission of malaria and
Schistostomaiasis is a water borne disease that comes from
snails that breed on the upstream side of dams.

On-Site Impacts:
Reservoir-Induced Seismicity

There is a correlation between the creation of a large reservoir, and

an increase in seismic activity in an area
The physical weight of unnatural reservoirs can cause seismic
activity. While not the direct cause of earthquakes, the weight of
reservoirs can act as a trigger for seismic activity.
Although not much direct research is available on the subject, the
proposed explanation is that when the pressure of the water in the
rocks increases, it acts to lubricate faults which are already under
tectonic strain, but have been prevented from slipping by the friction
of the rock surfaces.
As of now, it is not accurately possible to predict which large dams
will produce RIS or how much activity will be produced. Earthquakes
that are produced as the result of dams are not usually major, but
they still pose a major threat to dam stability and the safety of
people living downstream.

Physical Impacts: Downstream

Flow Reduction:

The downstream impacts of the net flow reduction due to

extraction upstream can be extensive. They include habitat
destruction far downstream at the mouth of the river, natural
water table reduction.

Change in water characteristics:

The changes in water characteristics that are mentioned above

continues in the water that is discharged downstream. The
cumulative effect of many dams on a single river magnifies each
of these factors.

In Central Asia the Aral Sea shrank by half of its original volume after
the Soviets began diverting water for electrical generation, as well as
for cotton and other crops. Although this may be one of the most
visible example, overextraction of water resources and the resulting
drops in local water tables are happening worldwide.
From: http://www.unep.org/vitalwater/resources.htm

Physical Impacts: Downstream

Change in natural flood patterns:

Natural floods inundate downstream regions with

nutrient rich sediments. Traditional farming systems
in countries like Egypt (the Nile) and Bangladesh (the
Ganges) were dependant upon seasonal floods to
wash nutrient rich sediment upon the lower shores of
the river.
They also seasonally clear out blocked waterways,
which prevents larger floods from causing massive

From: http://www.unep.org/vitalwater/23.htm


Named Chinas Sorrow for its history of ruinous floods, the Yellow
River now barely trickles in its lower reaches and in recent years has
gone dry due largely to heavy irrigation upstream. Its not alone: The
once mighty Nile, Ganges, and Colorado Rivers barely reach the sea in
dry seasons.

Social Impacts: Access to Water

From: http://www.unesco.org


Water flows past these squatters in gigantic pipes on

its way to high paying customers in Delhi. Where they
can, they get water from leaks in the pipe. Otherwise
they retrieve it from the Ganges River (in the
background). This water is often of substandard
quality, and seasonal floods pose the threat of
washing out this entire settlement. (10)

Matamoros, Mexico

With no public funds left for waste-water treatment

plants, Matamoros canal system is filled with raw
sewage and industrial pollution. In 2001, the
overused Rio Grande dropped below the citys water
intake pipes, leaving the city with no municipal fresh
water for almost a month. (10)

Social Impacts: Price of Water

From: http://www.city.ames.ia.us/waterweb/images/money_1.jpg

Mexico City

A drained aquifer, an inadequate water supply system in its outer

regions, and massive amounts of poverty have left Mexico City as
one of the most water impoverished metropolitan areas in the
world. People are forced to pay almost 200% of what wealthy
residents with existing water connections are charged. As shown
in this picture, the water is often stored in old barrels that had
previous industrial uses. (10)

Social Impacts: Quality of Water

From: http://www.culliganlaredo.com/water_glass_d.jpg

Santiago, Chile

By reducing the need for new water sources, wastewater

treatment plants offer a solution to building large dams, for
those who can afford it. Worldwide, 2/3 of municipal
wastewater doesnt get treated, much less recycled. Most of it
returns to the river system, where many people fish, drink,
swim and bathe. An exception to this case is Santiago, Chile,
which plans to treat all of its wastewater by 2009. (10)


When dams are constructed in populated areas, many people

are forced to relocate.
Established communities are dispersed and often destroyed.
The communities that are forced to absorb the influx of displaced
people are strained to their maximum capacity.
The mass majority of people that are displaced by dam
construction are poor.
The cost of moving is often placed upon the people being
uprooted. This is extremely hard for poor, marginalized people
to accomplish, and often leaves them poorer than before. This
is especially true for small agricultural communities that, now
forced into the urban settlements and its subsequent
infrastructure, have no viable job skills in order to provide a living
wage for themselves.


Because of limits to space and resources, people are often

forced to move long distances from their original homes. This,
coupled with the hard transition into urban areas, often destroys
traditional cultures.
Because of limits to space and resources, people are often
forced to move long distances from their original homes. This,
coupled with the hard transition into urban areas, often destroys
traditional cultures.

Displacement: India and China

The problems of displacement are very acute in countries such as

the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and India that are already
heavily populated, and have been aggressively building dams since
post WWII.
An estimated 12.2 million people have been displaced over the last
fifty years due to the PRCs dam building projects (9: a,b).
Although the number of new dams being built in these countries has
decreased, the size and scale of the projects have been increasing.
1.1 to 1.3 million people are expected to be displaced by the Three
Gorges project (9a). With the price tag of the project at an
estimated $24.65 billion for the project alone, billions more are going
to be spent on resettlement(26).

From: http://www.visionengineer.com/env/dam.jpg

Social Impacts: International

International water conflicts occur in regions where rivers

cross the borders of one or more nations.

Violent conflict has the possibility to occur when one

country overdraws its share of the water, causing
detrimental effects in the downstream countries

Rivers that have ongoing conflicts:

The Nile
The Ganges
The River Jordan
The Colorado
The Parana

Types of Development

Developing countries have restructured their economic systems to

pay their debt and export their way to prosperity.

To do this they are developing their water resources in the direction

of rapid industrialization. In this mindset, massive hydroelectric
dams are an absolute necessary in order to provide the water and
electricity that industries need.

In otherwise resource poor countries, this is seen as the only

answer to achieve modernization, and to escape their cycle of debt.

Once that problem has been met, then issues of water access and
quality will be answered, because the country will have moved up to
at least a 2nd world status.

Financial Issues

The finance that is needed for the construction of large dams

causes many problems around the world; especially in poor,
underdeveloped countries that are currently trapped in a painfully
binding cycle of debt.

Since large scale dams require massive amounts of capital

investment, dam construction is one of the primary reasons that
countries take out loans from international lending associations.

Countries often take out loans to build large hydroelectric dams in

order to improve their industrial infastructure. The hope is that by
boosting their industrial sector, that they will boost their economy
into economic prosperity.

Debt and International Lending


Depending on the site and the scale of the project, prices for each
project varies greatly. Average costs for large projects are usually in
the area of billions of dollars (US).

For smaller or less developed countries this cost is often more than
their annual GDP, and is absolutely insurmountable without the help of
outside financing.

The World Bank is the greatest single source of funds for large dam
construction, having provided more than US$50 billion (1992 dollars)
for construction of more than 500 large dams in 92 countries (27)

Water Privatization and


The goal (of water invested corporations) is to render water a private

commodity, sold and traded on the open market, and guaranteed for use by
private capital through global trade and investment agreements. These
companies do not view water as a social resource necessary for all life, but
an economic resource to be managed by market forces-like any other
commodity. (12)

Corporate shareholders have a legal responsibility to maintain consistently

increasing profits and are not concerned about sustainability or equity of
water delivery.

The concentration of power in the hands of a single corporation and the

inability of governments to reclaim management of water services allows
corporations to impose their interests on government, thereby reducing the
democratic power of citizens.

The Commodification of Water

Water promises to be to the 21st Century what oil was to the 20th
Century: The precious commodity that determines the wealth of
~ Forbes Magazine, May 2000 ~ (22)

From: http://www.city.ames.ia.us/waterweb/images/money_1.jpg

Major Water Companies of the


Suez image: http://fete.jeux-mathematiques.org/2000/

Nestle Image: http://www.specdoc.co.uk/port01.htm
Vivendi Image: http://www.inapg.inra.fr/etudiants/site/contenu/evenements/Forum%20Vitae/entreprises_2002.htm
Saur image: http://www.saur.fr/fr/index_fr.html
Thames Image: http://www.uwi.com.au/images/main_occ_parent_logotw.gif
Bechtel Image: http://www.anomalies.net/area51/images/general/organizations/bechtel/

Municipal Water Control

Some of the largest corporations dealing with the development and

management of water infrastructures are Vivendi Universal, Suez,
Bouygues-SAUR, RWE-Thames, Bechtel-United Utilites, and Nestle
At either the request of the government or the insistence of the
World Bank, these corporations take over municipal water provision
The poorer, underdeveloped outlying areas of cities and countries
are often neglected. If the country requires that services be
provided to these areas, the companies often raise prices to ensure
that full cost recovery for their expenses is recovered (6).
Once these companies are in control of water systems, water
provision becomes commodified. The water is then provided on an
ability-to-pay basis.

So . . .

What should be done?

Using aggressive conservation approaches is one of the easiest and most
cost effective ways to eliminating the need for new dams. Replacing old,
leaking infrastructures is costly on the front end, and most municipalities in
poor countries lack the funds to do it.
Different conservation techniques and technologies can be applied to all areas
of water use, from industry to agriculture. What lacks in most countries is an
incentive to conserve. With state subsidized water flowing to areas of
industrialization, it is more costly for companies to conserve water than to
waste it. The answer proposed by the neoliberal train of thought is the
commercialization of water markets. By being forced to pay for their own
water, people turn to conservation to reduce costs. This may work well for
certain parts of the industrial and commercial sector, but local people can ill
afford to pay for water to be delivered to their homes, let alone improve the
leaking pipes in their homes.

Irrigation Techniques

Irrigated agriculture uses up to 70% of freshwater in some countries.

Nontraditional, Industrial methods often flood fields, loosing much of that
water to evaporation.

Irrigation Techniques
Or this.

Correctly used, drip irrigation places the exact amount of water where it
is needed, when it is needed. This can reduce the amount of water
needed for irrigation anywhere from 30% to 70%

Water Integration and Management

Instead of providing people with an endless tap, demand side water
management provides people with water when they need it in preplanned quantities. This encourages conservation without raising costs
or encouraging commodification. (8)
Water Integration refers to integrating water management policies
into all levels of society, public and private. This leads to a separation
who has power over water utilities, and can serve as a system of
checks and balances. (5)

Stop Building Large Dams

The negative social and ecological effects

of large scale dam building far outweighs

the positive attributes that they bring to
Instead, small dams should be built, where
needed, in the control of those who should
have it: the people.

Local Control

Local control of water systems is essential for feasible, equitable,

and sustainable water resource development.
All decisions about water must be based on ecosystem and
watershed-based management. Only through this method will the
ecological limitations of watersheds and the damages that dams
create be realized.
These decisions must be local in origin, as they directly effect the
people that live in the watershed and the people that are receiving
the water.
Having no vested interest in these local concerns, transnational
corporations are instrumentally detrimental to the quality, cost and
availability of water.

Alternatives and Conclusions

We may now be facing the greatest challenge of our time. As water is the very
centerpiece of life, the fight against the globalization and commodification of
water is the centerpiece in the fight for global, universal justice and equity.

No partial, conservation oriented solution is going to prevent the collapse of

whole societies and ecosystems. A radical rethinking of our values, priorities,
and political systems is urgent.

There are many ways to assist the developing world in this crisis, the major
among these is the cancellation of the Third World debt. Without the crushing
load of debt, countries would be able to control their own resources, and would
not be forced into models of development that are not right or natural for their

Water must be declared a basic human right. This might sound elemental, but at
the World Water Forum in The Hague, it was the subject of heated debate, with
the World Bank and the water companies seeking to have it declared a human
need. This is not semantic. If water is a human need, it can be serviced by the
private sector. You cannot sell a human right. (12)

We, as human beings, must change our behaviors. We must emphasize

identifying the capacity of our watersheds and, as communities, identify
the limits we can place upon them. The world must accept conservation
as the only model for survival, and we must all teach ourselves to live
within our environment's capacity. The insidious problem with pricing and
conservation by commodification is that it actually undermines
environmental science and activism, as well as governments'
responsibility to protect their citizens and the environment by buying into
the argument that the market will fix everything.
At stake is the whole notion of "the commons," the idea that through our
public institutions we recognize a shared human and natural heritage to
be preserved for future generations. Citizens in communities around the
world must be the "keepers" of our waterways and establish community
organizations to oversee the wise and conservative use of this precious
resource. Never has there been such an urgent need to come to terms
with this seminal issue.

~ Maude Barlow ~


Blue Gold: the Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the Worlds Water . M. Barlow, T. Clarke.
The New Press, New York, 2002.


The California Water Atlas. Karl, William L. ed. State of California Office of Planning and
Research, Sacramento. 1978


Water and Water Policy in World Food Supplies . Articles presented at Texas A&M University
on May 26-30, 1985. Texas A&M University Press, College Station, TX. 1987


Cadillac Desert. Mark Reisner. Penguin Books, New York, 1993


Justice and Natural Resources: Concepts, Strategies, and Applications . K. Mutz, G. Bryner &
D. Kenney. Island Press, Washington, 2002


Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams . Patrick McCully, Zed Books,
London, 1996


The Water Manifesto: Arguments for a World Water Contract . Petrella, Riccardo. Zed Books,
London, 2001


Integrated Approach for Efficient Water Use Case Study: Israel Saul Arlosoroff, The World
Food Prize International Symposium: From the Middle East to the Middle West: Managing
Freshwater Shortages and Regional Water Security, Des Moines ,Iowa, USA October 24-25,


http://www.dams.org The World Commission on Dams homepage



Country Review Paper: Experience with Dams in Water And Energy Resource Development In The
Peoples Republic of China
Case Study: Large Dams: Indias Experience

10) Montaigne, Fen. Challenges for Humanity: Water Pressure. National

Sept. 2002 (pictures by Peter Essick)
11) http://www.irn.org The International Rivers Network
12) http://www.foodfirst.org/pubs/backgrdrs/2001/s01v7n3.html
13) http://water.usgs.gov/. Official page of the United States Geological Survey
14) http://toxics.usgs.gov/. USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program
15) http://www.epa.gov/water/ The official website of the United States
Protection Agencys Office of Water.
16) http://www.epa.gov/305b/2000report/ EPA Water Quality Inventory Report,
17) http://www.worldbank.org/ The World Banks official home page.

18) http://www.wef.org/. The Water Environment Federation homepage.

19) http://www.thewaterpage.com/ The Water Page
20) http://www.aci-int.org/general/home.asp The American Concrete Institute
21) http://www.ecosmart.ca/resources/environmental/net_imp.asp
22) http://www.fortune.com/fortune/investing/articles/0,15114,368262,00.html
23) http://www.chinaonline.com/refer/ministry_profiles/threegorgesdam.asp
24) http://www.dur.ac.uk/~des0www4/cal/dams/geol/topo.htm#gravity The
of Durham, UK
25) http://www.ies.wisc.edu/research/wrm00/educ.htm The Nelson Institute for
Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin
26) http://www.cnn.com/EARTH/9711/08/china.3gorges/ CNN Report on the
Gorges Dam
27) http://www.whirledbank.org/environment/dams.html
28) http://www.pbs.org/now/science/bolivia.html