Big dams, big battles

  • Deep Water

  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 her cause.

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.

Far less 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."