Dams Be Damned?
Given that there are more than 45,000 large dams in place worldwide, the central problem of freshwater climate adaptation for the coming century is the best means of managing water infrastructure like dams, irrigation systems, water treatment plants, and hydroelectric power systems. Even conservation issues in most areas of the world are going to involve carefully managing water resources that (somehow) balance development and the integrity of natural systems.
As a freshwater biologist, I instinctively hate most large types of water infrastructure, particularly dams. They tend to last many decades, and some in Turkey, the Middle East, and Asia have even lasted for millennia. They alter waterways in permanent ways, restrict the free movement of species, and profoundly alter flow regime. They can effectively turn a river into a lake, shifting the mix of species to completely different assemblages.
But one of the odd side-effects of my travels of the past eight months has been to develop a new respect for water infrastructure — to learn that at least there are other frames of reference that need to be adopted to understand and appreciate these structures in their own terms. Dams are deeply appealing to most governments, even a way of saying in the case of very large structures, that We have arrived. Three Gorges in China, for instance, now seems to be regarded even by the Chinese government as a debacle, but the level of national pride invested in the structure suggests that it is likely to be with us for some time. Given such staying power, dams usually win against conservationists. Thus, we need to be able to speak their language a little and to appreciate this other world in order to argue against them more effectively.
Dam by Trevor Turpin (2008, Reaktion Books) is a new and mostly accessible foray into this world. Turpin doesn’t address climate change and he has a very limited and myopic view of the conservation implications of water infrastructure, but he does love dams, their history, and the people who make them. And he has some great stories of the creation of the some of the largest and most significant ones of our time: the Hoover Dam, the Thames tidal barrier, Three Gorges, the Aswan dam.