Like it or not, dams define the West. This is the birthplace of big dams — Hoover, Glen Canyon, Grand Coulee — and to a large extent, these monuments have written the history of our cities and our agriculture. These days, Westerners talk more about taking down big dams than about building new ones. But in the West, as in many other parts of the world, large dams are still very much with us.
In Deep Water: The
Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the
Environment, journalist Jacques Leslie profiles three
people intimately involved in the modern battles over big dams.
First is Medha Patkar, a grassroots activist fighting a series of
huge dams on India’s Narmada River. By demonstrating with her
allies, staging hunger strikes, and even trying to drown herself in
the dammed waters, Patkar has gained international recognition for
Leslie then travels to southern Africa with
Thayer Scudder, an anthropologist who believes that people driven
out of their homes by huge reservoirs can be humanely "resettled."
So far, Scudder’s efforts to reduce the human and
environmental costs of dams have ended mostly in shocking failures;
his fervent search for "one good dam" is, in its own way, almost as
heartbreaking as Patkar’s mortal struggle.
dramatic, but still instructive, is Leslie’s profile of Don
Blackmore, an Australian water engineer who works to bring some
semblance of natural flows back to the Murray River, the largest
river in his country.
Leslie deftly analyzes the
strategies and internal contradictions of each of his subjects, but
if he picks a winner, it’s nature itself. "All dams will
die," he concludes, whether they are decommissioned, fill with
silt, or simply crumble with age: "They’ll be relics of the
twentieth century, like Stalinism and gasoline-powered cars,
symbols of the allure of technology and its transience."
Big dams, big battles
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