(We got) A Dam Problem

By: Regina Paulose

A “dam” is a “barrier constructed to hold back water and raise its level, the resulting reservoir being used in the generation of electricity or as a water supply.”[1] The construction of this kind of infrastructure has become problematic in the areas of human rights and the environment. While most countries in the world suffer from problems as a result of dams, this article focuses on China, India, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Syria.


China is the world’s top dam builder and currently has the world’s largest dam – Three Gorges.  China stated that the benefit of renewable energy from the Three Gorges would be enormous. China made efforts to flaunt this fact even though many were skeptical and predicted environmental problems would result. Unfortunately, skeptics were correct in their predictions that the dam would be the cause of environmental maladies such as landslides and earthquakes. Aside from this, there has been a tremendous loss to biodiversity and the dam has created water shortages.[2]  Corruption and shoddy work have also plagued the reputation of the Three Gorges and approximately 1.4 million people have been displaced.[3] By its own admission, the Chinese government says the dam has caused a tremendous amount of problems[4] and they have not done enough for the displaced.[5]


In South Asia, there are no success stories to be told. A year ago I explained in Water Politics: Narmada Bachao Andolan vs. Union of India and others the consequences of the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to allow further construction of dams along the Narmada River. Since the Narmada decision in 2000, continued legal action and studies are presented to the Court and yet discussions on raising the height of the dam continue[6] despite glaringly obvious problems with rehabilitation efforts.


Both giants in Asia continue to pursue hydro power projects regardless of these failures. Last year, a great race began between India, China and other countries to “dam up” the Himalayas.[7] Unfortunately, this “water grab” driven by potential water scarcity is not unique to this region of the world.


In Ethiopia “ordinary people are building an extraordinary project.”[8]  The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd) is under construction and is expected to cost an estimated 4.1 billion pounds. A notable purpose of the dam (stop me if you have heard this before) is to create “better living standards and more energy.”[9] Unfortunately Ethiopia’s ambitions are not supported by Egypt who is also dependent on the Blue Nile River. The current water allocation of the Blue Nile is governed by the 1929 Nile Treaty. Egyptian politicians have cited the Gerd as a threat to national security because of the potential water scarcity it could cause. Further, water levels from the Gerd could eliminate farmland in Egypt.[10]


Egypt, the owner of the Aswan Dam, speaks from experience.[11] Other countries are weighing into the debate. Sudan, who stands to benefit from the development of Gerd, has also supported continued construction.[12] The politicization of Gerd has mooted discussions on the environment and human rights. The current estimate is that 20,000 people would be relocated because of the Gerd. The Gerd already has controversy. Allegations have surfaced that Ethiopia secretly started construction without the appropriate impact assessments and have wasted investor money. Ethiopia has abandoned other dam projects because they are pursuing the Gerd. Some Ethiopian citizens state that the Gerd causes some concern because it could be used strategically during a time of war,[13] which is exactly what is happening in the Middle East.


In Iraq, water has become “essential” to the conflict because “control of water supplies gives strategic control over both cities and countryside.”[14] In Iraq the Samarra barrage west of Baghdad and the areas around Mosul Dam are now controlled by Isis. Iraqi troops have a hold on the Haditha Dam because if lost to the hands of Isis they would control the majority of Iraqi electricity.[15] The Iraqi government understands the consequences of losing control over a dam to militants, as they recently experienced this firsthand with the Nuaimiyah Dam.[16]


In Syria, both the Assad government and Isis have battled for control over the Tishrin Dam. The situation proves how these infrastructures quickly become weapons of war. As Nouar Shamout, a Researcher at Chatham House, explains, “Syria’s essential services are on the brink of collapse under the burden of continuous assault on critical water infrastructure. The stranglehold of Isis, neglect by the regime, and an eighth summer of drought may combine to create a water and food crisis which would escalate fatalities and migration rates in the country’s ongoing three-year conflict, The deliberate targeting of water supply networks … is now a daily occurrence in the conflict.”[17]


Those motivated to complete these renewable energy projects are not seeing the “forest for the trees.” Proponents chasing after elusive dreams that dams will create progress and development tend to downplay legitimate concerns regarding human rights and the environment. Proponents utilize a select group of successful dams to support their ambitions. There is no mechanism in place to monitor the monies spent, as every project tends to go over budget by a significant amount. This is probably due to corruption. All of these concerns should cause alarm especially for investors. The World Bank, in particular, owes it to everyone involved in these projects to make sure that appropriate impact assessments are completed and civil society has a significant voice in this process. Perhaps it is time for the World Bank to join the alternate movement which is growing – decommissioning dams.






[1] Standard dictionary definition

[2] Mara Hvistendahl, “China’s Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe?” Scientific American, March 25, 2008, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/chinas-three-gorges-dam-disaster/

[3] Bruce Kennedy, “China’s Three Gorges Dam” CNN, http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/1999/china.50/asian.superpower/three.gorges/

[4] Associated Press, “Three Gorges Dam has caused urgent problems, says China” The guardian, May 19, 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/may/19/china-three-gorges-dam

[5] BBC, “China’s Three Gorges Dam may displace another 100,000” April 18, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-17754256

[6] BBC, “Indian media: Narmada Dam concerns” June 13, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-27828109

[7] John Vidal, “China and India ‘water grab’ dams put ecology of Himalayas in danger” The guardian, August 10, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/aug/10/china-india-water-grab-dams-himalayas-danger

[8] Emeline Wuilbercq, “Ethiopia’s Nile dam project signals its intention to become an African power” The Guardian,  July 14, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jul/14/ethiopia-grand-renaissance-dam-egypt

[9] Idem

[10] Patrick Kingsley, “Nile dam study fails to stem the tide of Egyptian indignation towards Ethiopia” Poverty Matters Blog, The guardian, April 16, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/apr/16/nile-dam-study-egyptian-indignation-ethiopia

[11]  See Asit K Biswas, “Aswan Dam Revisited” http://www.icid.org/aswan_paper.pdf

[12]  See Negash, Hassan, and Muchie, “Misplaced opposition to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” Sudan Tribune, April 30, 2014, http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article50822

[13] Jennifer Veilleiux, “The Human Security Dimensions of Dam Development: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” Global Dialogue Vol 15 No 2, Summer/Autumn 2013, http://www.transboundarywaters.orst.edu/publications/publications/Veilleux_GLOBAL%20DIALOGUE_V15_GERD.pdf

[14] John Vidal, “Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn” The guardian, July 2, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/02/water-key-conflict-iraq-syria-isis

[15] Idem

[16] IRIN, “Threat of disease in Iraq villages flooded by militants” May 27, 2014, http://www.irinnews.org/report/100134/threat-of-disease-in-iraq-villages-flooded-by-militants

[17] John Vidal, “Water supply key to outcome of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, experts warn” The guardian, July 2, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/02/water-key-conflict-iraq-syria-isis