Dams and Development: A Controversy

Posted: 6 Aug 2012

Date Written: November 20, 2009


The advancement in science and technology in the modern age has opened many avenues to explore nature. But humans have used these mechanisms to exploit nature too. Not only for fulfilling the basic needs and demands of human beings but also for future growth and development. Earlier times humans used nature to fulfill their needs but now nature is exploited for future growth and development. Development has emerged as a new paradigm for the world and its magnitude and intensity have increased immensely. It is seen as a symbol of prosperity for any nation. But much of the development takes place at the cost of environment.

Environment and Development are two terms which are inseparable from each other. Without environment, development is not possible, as our physical surroundings are the storehouses of both renewable and non-renewable natural resources. This forms the base for any kind of development. In other words we can say that environment provides the basic ingredients for development. More the amount of natural resources present in any country higher is the potential for development and so is the rate of extraction and exploitation. For example, if coal would not have been present in our environment then despite human efforts and knowledge it could not have been used as a form of energy.

The range of developmental activities is vast starting from industrial development, construction of roads, initiation of multipurpose projects etc. All this has an immense devastating impact on the environment. It is the human minds which give shape to developmental activities but have completely ignored the fact that environment which supports development, thus it should be taken care of rather than being exploited and extracted unmindfully.

The uncontrolled population growth and resultant exploitation of environment has resulted in the increase in number of natural calamities by manifold. This has forced the community to realize that there exists an intrinsic link between environmental degradation, disaster and development. Thus, has given rise to many controversies and debates by bringing both environment and development at the crossroads.

One such controversial issue which has come to the limelight is concerning “Construction of Dams.” As we all know that even though water is classified as a renewable resource, it is depletable in nature. No guarantee can be provided with respect to the flow of any natural resource due to unprecedented extraction and use. Natural ecosystems have some limited capacity to harvest and store water. For a long period in human history, these natural capacities for storing water, like in aquifers, ponds, etc. had come to the good use for satisfying the needs of human societies. But with the rapid growth in the level of human economic activities, the capacities of such natural storage started to prove inadequate. Due to this Human societies enhanced the availability of water with the help of additional harvesting mechanisms and artificially built storage capacities. Therefore the gradual success of these interventions resulted in the up-scaling of their operational dimensions that finally led to the emergence of “large dams” as instruments of river basin development and management. High dams and storage reservoirs assumed a degree of exalted importance in this respect.

During the last century, much of the world turned to dams to help meet escalating demands for water. Indeed, from the 1930s to the 1970s the construction of large dams became - in the eyes of many - synonymous with development and economic progress. They were viewed as symbols of modernization and humanity's ability to control and use nature's resources. Dam construction saw a dramatic increase. Today nearly half of the world's rivers have at least one large dam.

The large dam projects were accepted as mechanisms for rapid economic advancement and providing food security to a large population of the world. The availability of a large volume of water, and its non-homogenous distribution across space and time, presented the main hope in water management in the world particularly in the developing countries like India and China (Fig.1). Both accounts for about 55% of total dams in the world. Fig 1: World population of dams, by country (Source: A Report On “Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making” World Commission on Dam).

The planners and the visionaries looked upon dams as the magic wand of prosperity and poverty alleviation. In India due to the availability of a large volume of monsoon run-off, it provided great hopes for the country to manage its water resource. Dams were termed as the “Temples of Modern India” by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Thus came a series of large dams on many Indian rivers for maximizing the retention of the seasonal flow of rainwater and for their use in the dry months. Today India ranks among the top few big da' countries with 4291 dams, next only to China and the U.S.

The large dams and multipurpose river valley projects have no doubt, provided a variety of benefits such as expansion of irrigated agriculture, to gain self-sufficiency in food grain production, to manage flood waters, harnessing water as hydropower, to supply water to drink or for industrial needs, or to irrigate fields etc.The last 50 years have also highlighted the social and environmental impact of large dams. They have fragmented and transformed the world's rivers and displaced more than 60 million people globally.

One of the most controversial and talked about issue was the Tehri Dam from the safety point of view which is located in the Tehri District of Uttranchal.Therefore, it becomes very important to conduct a vulnerability assessment study for such dam projects prior to their construction. Since the degree of vulnerability attached to such projects are very high. It is an earth-core rock filled dam which is considered world’s fifth largest dam and is expected to generate 2400 MW of electricity. The dam was proposed by Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC) in 1969. It is located below the old Tehri town and is 1.5 Kms downstream from the confluence point of River Bhilangana and Bhagirathi known as “Gangeshprayag.”

Suggested Citation

Sengupta, Aparna, Dams and Development: A Controversy (November 20, 2009). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2124369

Aparna Sengupta (Contact Author)

Jamia Millia Islamia ( email )

Jamia Nagar
Jamia Millia Islamia (Centre University)
New Delhi, New Delhi 110025

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