This spotlight on mega-dams of note, profiled by International Rivers’ Peter Bosshard for The Guardian, lists more banes than boons with a quest Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, famously described as the “disease of gigantism.”
Dams illustrate the brilliance and arrogance of human ingenuity. They generate one-sixth of the world’s electricity and irrigate one-seventh of our food crops. They have flooded land areas the size of California, displaced a population the size of Germany’s, and turned freshwater into the ecosystem most threatened by species extinction. Below are 12 of the 57,000 large dams that have changed the face of our planet:
Hoover: the dam that gave us Las Vegas
The Hoover Dam was the world’s highest and most powerful dam when it was completed in 1936. It spurred the agricultural and industrial development of the US southwest, and destroyed the Colorado river’s rich downstream fisheries. Climate change is greatly affecting the dam’s capacity to supply water and generate power.
Kariba: the dam that ended poverty in Southern Africa (or did it?)
The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi was built in the 1950s to power Zambia’s copper belt, as the first large dam funded by the World Bank. Kariba was considered the symbol of a “brave new world”, in which controlling nature would bring quick economic development. Yet the 57,000 people who were displaced by the dam suffered famine and are still impoverished.
Bhakra: the temple of modern India
In the 1960s, the Bhakra Dam became the symbol of India’s green revolution, and was hailed by the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru as a “Temple of Modern India”. Yet in India and beyond, badly managed irrigation schemes have resulted in waterlogged, saline soils and diminishing harvests. Nehru soon came to deplore the “disease of giganticism” in dam building.
Chixoy: the grave on the Rio Negro
Dam-affected communities have often suffered repression and human rights abuses. In 1982, more than 400 indigenous men, women and children were massacred to make way for the World Bank’s Chixoy Dam in Guatemala. In a historic breakthrough, the country’s government in 2014 signed a $154m reparations agreement with the affected communities.
Banqiao: the dam that washed away
When dams are not properly built or maintained, they can break. In the world’s biggest dam disaster, the failure of China’s Banqiao Dam killed an estimated 171,000 people in 1975. In more than 100 cases, scientists have also linked dam building to earthquakes. Strong evidence suggests that China’s Sichuan earthquake, which killed 80,000 people in 2008, may have been triggered by the Zipingpu Dam.
Yacyretá: the monument to corruption
Large dams are often pet projects of dictators. Lacking accountability leads to massive corruption and cost overruns. On average, large dams experience cost overruns of 96% and are not economic. The cost of Argentina’s Yacyretá Dam has mushroomed from $2.5bn to $15bn. A former president called Yacyretá “a monument to corruption”.
Nagymaros: the dam that started people power in eastern Europe
In 1988, 40,000 Hungarians protested against the proposed Nagymaros Dam on the Danube in the first open defiance of a communist government in decades. The following year, the project was stopped and people power took root throughout eastern Europe. Protests against destructive dams also started democratic processes in Burma and other countries.
Sardar Sarovar: the dam that defeated the World Bank
The Sardar Sarovar Dam on India’s Narmada river has displaced more than 250,000 mainly indigenous people. The World Bank had to withdraw from the project in 1994 after an independent review found systematic violations of its social and environmental policies. After this humiliating experience, the bank stayed out of mega-dams for more than a decade.
Three Gorges: Mao’s dream come true
China’s Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest hydropower project and was completed in 2008. It generates as much power as eight large nuclear power plants, displaced more than 1.2 million people, and ravaged the ecosystem of the Yangtze River. The Chinese government has acknowledged the problems of the project, but continues to export its technology overseas.
Merowe: when Chinese dam builders went global
In 2003, the Chinese government decided to fund the Merowe Dam in Sudan as its first big overseas hydropower project. The dam displaced more than 50,000 people and caused serious human rights violations. Chinese banks and companies are by now involved in some 330 dams in 74 countries, leading an unprecedented global dam building boom.
Peter Bosshard is the policy director at International Rivers. He tweets at @PeterBosshard.