The struggle for control over water is “one of the great looming subjects of the twenty-first century.”
So suggests journalist Leslie (The Mark, 1995), who documents attempts to persuade water to behave like any other resource and submit to damming. In the early 1970s, Leslie writes, large dams rose at the rate of 1,000 a year, but far fewer are now going up, in part because the best places to locate dams have been used, in part because engineers know more about the destructive effects of dams, in part because local activists have been successful in thwarting efforts to build them. Leslie focuses on three individuals involved in one way or another in ongoing dam-building projects. One is an Indian activist who has long been battling the Indian government’s program to build a huge dam, one of the world’s largest, on the Narmada River; the dam, Sardar Sarovar, is “a block so massive that its construction would be noteworthy even if it weren’t bisecting a riverbed, holding back a seasonally torrential river,” and though China’s Three Gorges Dam has earned much more publicity, Sardar Sarovar is likely to be as life-altering for those who will be displaced by it. The second of Leslie’s subjects is a developmental anthropologist who has been tracking just those dislocating effects on the peoples of southern Africa, while the third is an Australian water-project manager whose vexing task has been to balance conflicting demands to convert the Murray River into an engine of economic growth and to keep the river healthy. Each subject, and each river, has much to say, but the more compelling parts of Leslie’s story are broader-reaching observations offered without much elaboration: for instance, that 70 percent of the dams built in recent years should not have gone up, and that once a dam has gone up it’s difficult to get it down, particularly if “its sediment is laced with pesticides, fertilizer, or tailings; release that stuff, and watch the river wither.”
Valuable, even provocative reading for environmental activists and students of international development.