Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2010 > Dams on Rivers: Learning from Overseas Experience

Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 45, October 30, 2010

Dams on Rivers: Learning from Overseas Experience

Saturday 30 October 2010


by Raj Kumar Sen

Economics of River Flows: Lessons from Dam Removals in America by Bharat Jhunjhunwala (ed.); Kalpaz Publications, Delhi; pp. 311; Rs 750.

This book under review attracts the attention of its readers from the pictures on its front and back covers. These are respectively of the Embrey Dam in operation, the Embrey Dam being removed, and the Rappahannock River flowing freely after removal of the dam. In a nutshell these three pictures tell the story of what the book contains between the covers—the costs of dams, what we should do with them, what happens to the river afterwards and the benefits to the society that accrue as a result. The subject is quite new to the Indian readers who are used to hearing only the benefits from the operation of big dams. The removal of dams is quite unknown to them. They consider river flows as wastage of water. The editor has done a yeoman’s service by pointing to the other side of the story and for doing this he has drawn lessons from America.

Unfortunately, it is now a hard reality that in India most major rivers have lost their free flows due to the repeated obstruction by dams for irrigation or hydropower generation and also due to the construction of bridges raised on multiple columns on the riverbed leading to sedimentation around them (which obstructs the river flow and thus reduces the navigability of the river). Naturally whenever we cross the rivers, we find everywhere lots of sand and little water in the river.

The long (36 pages) and quite exhaustive introduction given by the editor at the beginning is a very important guide for the reader. It brings home the point that there should be increasing awareness about the benefits of free flow of rivers. A large number of issues are covered in the articles included in this volume. He has shown why dams are not always economically beneficial. He has also shown that while assessing the benefits of hydropower dams, the economic value of electricity is often over-estimated just as we overestimate the demand for electricity. He has pointed out that hydropower is not always renewable against the common belief in India. The introduction is supplemented by pictures also to add clarity to the discussion. One unique and recommendable feature of the text is the systematic inclusion of the chapter references (not available in other books) to enable the concerned reader to refer to the relevant chapters and learn more details wherever she/he feels interested in a particular issue.

The volume is divided into five parts, each containing a number of articles. As many as 19 articles are included in the book. The different parts are: I. Why are dams being removed in America? 2. Examples of dam removals in America. 3. Cost-benefit analysis of hydropower dams. 4. Environmental impact of hydropower dams. 5. Economic value of free flow of river. Of these, the first two are related to dam removal in America and they can be combined into a single part. Similarly parts 3 and 4 may be combined into one as both of them are related to hydropower dams. The whole book is enriched with a number of pictures, statistical diagrams and tables.

It is striking to observe that while dams are removed in the US in large numbers, they are being constructed in equally large numbers in India. Though the objectives of dams are the same in both the countries, in the US many dams are found uneconomical while in India they are mostly believed to be economical. This happens because in the cost-benefit analysis undertaken in India many costs are ignored and many benefits are overestimated. Some dams are being removed in the US as they have become obsolete. Many dams were made to facilitate the movement of barges over stiff flows of rivers but now this is being replaced by road transport. Examples of several dams given here belong to this category. The change of values in American society has also contributed to the removal of dams. Previously the major focus was on economic development. Nowadays there is more value attached to ecology and environment. In India, however, we are still far from giving more attention to ecology and environment than economic growth.

INDIA may learn a number of lessons from the American experience even though there are differences of approaches between the two countries about the costs and benefits from water, electricity and the non-use values of rivers. Thus there is a need to establish one combined authority as in the US that looks at all aspects (economic and environmental) of a dam. It is also better to construct off-stream reservoir to protect the river flow as was done to establish the free flow of the Rappahannock River by constructing the Motts Run reservoir, Virginia.

The essence of rivers is recognised in New Zealand. Rivers are considered as living deity like the mother not only in our tradition but also in many other cases (for example, the city Moscow has derived its name from river Moskva literally meaning mother’s milk). We can enact an Act on the lines of the Wild and Scenic Act of the USA to preserve free flowing rivers or parts thereof. The non-use and non-quantifiable values of free flowing rivers need to be taken into consideration while constructing dams in India like in America. This can be related to the cultural rights of the tribes as enshrined in our Constitution. The EIA must incorporate all these factors in our decision-making process. Importance should be given to many other neglected aspects like protection of endangered species, assessment of alternatives, cost of removal of sediments, coastal erosion, economic value of river banks etc. while deciding to construct dams.

The main aim of the editor is to emphasise that the objective of economic development is welfare and not economic growth alone. If this approach is adopted, then the assessment of hydropower projects is likely to be very different than at present. This book is quite useful not only for the policy-makers suffering from growth fetishism in India and several other poor and developing countries, but also for the common people at large to change their outlook by learning many hitherto unknown facts. The presentation is quite lucid and reader-friendly barring a few minor printing errors. While the volume has highlighted the distinction between growth and development, at least once these have been used interchangeably (pp. 9 and 21).

Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.