The Dammed World

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As we discussed in our last seminar, the construction of dams can be extremely controversial. According to the WWF’s (World Wide Fund for Nature/World Wildlife Fund) Dam facts and figures, there are an estimated 48,000 dams worldwide, half of which are in China. The benefits of dams are monumental. They can boost agriculture, supply drinking water to water deprived regions, provide electricity, and store water needed during droughts. In many instances, they have even helped boost the GDP of countries such as Egypt.

However, sometimes the disadvantages of dam construction far outweigh the benefits. The Economist article on “The ups and downs of dams” describes how they have the potential to create catastrophic environmental damage including flooded valleys, destroyed villages and habitats, drained wetlands, and the reduction of inland seas to mere puddles. They can also create permanent damage to people’s lives. China’s proposed south-north dam scheme alone stands to displace around 250,000 individuals from their homes. And if history is any indicator, one could assume the Chinese government will not adequately reimburse those individuals for their loss and they’ll be left to fend for themselves.

But aside from these pros and cons, dams in general come at a significant cost. Countries spend millions of dollars to construct and maintain them, and often have to look to the World Bank and other financial backers to complete them. It would be worth the investment if the benefits outnumbered the losses, but that is often hard to determine beforehand. And poorer countries don’t often have the finances to “build sewers, drains, dams, reservoirs, flood defences, irrigation canals and barrages” to avoid the many disasters that can occur, putting them at a further disadvantage once they do.

It seems that the construction of a dam needs to be evaluated at length from many different perspectives before money and lives are lost in the aftermath. So as the WWF asks, “to dam or not to dam?” That is the question.

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