Chief Omar Abdalla Hama was pleading with us to help save his people from starving.
My colleagues from The Nature Conservancy and I were visiting Ozi Village along the Tana River in southeastern Kenya. We were exploring opportunities to work with local communities, government officials, and other researchers on a sustainable development plan for the river and its delta.
We knew that the river’s health had been declining. But Omar’s pleas struck us like arrows in the heart.
For nearly thirty years, Omar has been watching his community members struggle to catch or grow food. For many generations the Tana River had given them plenty of fish and a fertile floodplain for growing crops.
But then five large dams were built upstream in the late 1970s and early 80s.
Those dams capture the rainy season floods, turning the water into much-needed hydropower electricity and drinking water for the capital city of Nairobi. A river that once supported hundreds of thousands of Pokomo people like Omar, and provided nutritious forage for cattle and camels herded by the nomadic Orma, is now being harnessed to benefit others in a faraway city.
In their free-flowing form, large rivers like the Tana are among the most productive, life-giving ecosystems on the planet. These natural supermarkets continue to feed hundreds of millions of very poor people each and every day.
Many fish species wait for floods to swim out onto a river’s floodplain, where they spawn prolifically. When a fish spawns on a floodplain, its offspring will have many advantages over other fish born in the river itself. The water spilling onto a floodplain during floods is enriched with nutrients, helping young fish to grow. The drowned vegetation of the floodplain harbors a bounty of insects to feed upon, and provides places where newborn fish can hide from bigger fish and other predators. Rivers with large numbers of floodplain-spawning fish produce far more fish for people to eat than those without floods and floodplains.
River and floodplain fisheries are a critical source of food and income for at least a billion people in the developing world, particularly the rural poor. For example, Mekong River fish are the primary source of protein for 60 million people.
But growing fish isn’t the only way that rivers feed people.
When a river floods onto its floodplain, it leaves behind a free subsidy of water, fresh soil, and nutrients that make for good farming. Over thousands of years, river cultures have learned to plant an amazing variety of crops on floodplains including rice, sorghum, millet, bananas, mangos and other food and medicinal plants. Using knowledge passed down from generation to generation, floodplain farmers have learned to match their crops to the diverse mosaic of soil and water conditions left by the floods each year.
I’ve Seen the Rivers and the Damage Done
If floods are the heartbeat of a large river, then a large dam can be as damaging as cardiac arrest to the people and diversity of life supported by the river.
I’ve seen what starvation looks like when a dammed river can no longer feed those whose lives depend upon it. I saw the desperation when walking around Ozi Village with Omar. I saw it in the exposed ribcages of children living along the Zambezi River downstream from Kariba Dam. I saw it in the hollowed eyes of old men and women still trying to catch fish to eat below Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze.
Those experiences turned a lifelong nature conservationist into an angry humanitarian.
Just to be perfectly clear: my anger and frustrations have not yet turned me into a dogmatic anti-dam activist. I fully acknowledge that the majority of dams provide very important benefits to societies and economies, including nearly 20% of electricity globally, helping deliver precious water supplies to farms and cities, and offering flood protection.
But the continuing widespread and callous disregard for those that will not benefit but will instead be harmed – usually very poor people whose voices are never heard – still evident in most dam-development projects is patently immoral. And with some notable exceptions, the response to this humanitarian crisis from development banks and humanitarian foundations has been grossly inadequate.
When I have questioned dam developers and ministers of water and energy about these issues, the uniform justification has been one of political economy: these projects serve the interests of the greater good for our country. In simple terms, if a dam project will benefit a million and only inconvenience a few thousand, then the project should go forward.
I actually agree with this philosophy. It is central to democratic societies. However, when such ‘inconveniences’ place poor people at great risk without adequate compensation or suitable livelihood alternatives, then the exercise of political economy is inequitable and should not be tolerated.
More than 10 years ago, the World Commission on Dams highlighted these social inequities and called for much greater attention. But much evidence suggests that things have only gotten worse and the casualties are growing daily.
The common refrain given by dam advocates is that “those (river-dependent) people need to come into the 21st century,” meaning that they need to adopt more modern agricultural practices or move into the city and get a real job. Even my conservation colleagues have questioned whether I am harboring some romantic mythology of the noble savage living in harmony with nature, whether those lifestyles are truly desirable, and whether by sustaining them we’re simply prolonging a state of poverty.
My reply is simple and straightforward. Even if these river-dependent people aspire to a different life, they are going to need a great deal of help, training, and financial support to assist their transition. Even a bus ticket to Nairobi is beyond their reach. And the inconvenient truth is that all the money in the coffers of the World Bank and the Gates Foundation combined will not be able to support such a livelihood shift for what may very soon total to more than a billion dam-affected people (a big challenge is the fact that we don’t even have decent accounting for the number of river-dependent people because many are nomadic, and networks of trade in river goods are complex and often based on barter systems).
As a result, dam-affected people are, well, damned.
Last year, Sandra Postel of National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative and five other researchers joined me in a study that documented the widespread social and environmental impacts of dams. We conservatively estimated that nearly 500 million people have likely already been impacted by dam-induced changes to river productivity. That number doesn’t include the additional 40-80 million that have been physically displaced by dam construction. As part of our research we created a new global database that includes case study findings from more than 120 rivers in 70+ countries.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
If we cannot effectively help all river-dependent people shift to new livelihoods in the near term then the only responsible thing to do would be to help sustain them where they are.
Abundant, practical guidance and plenty of real-world examples exist to illuminate the way forward.
Dams can be built in places that will have less impact. They can be operated in ways that better sustain river health and river-dependent communities downstream, such as by releasing controlled floods from the dam. We’ve shown how to do this in the Sustainable Rivers Project with the Army Corps of Engineers, and written prescriptions for dam operators based only on traditional ecological knowledge from local river people. Some of the best real-world demonstrations of restoring human livelihoods by releasing controlled floods from dams have been accomplished on the Senegal River in Mauritania and the Logone River in Cameroon.
Tragically, the uptake of these lessons by dam builders has been dismal.
Let’s Create River Parks for People
If the dam industry and governments are not going to help dam-affected people transition to new livelihoods or properly compensate them for the loss of their homes and food security, then we need to stop pretending that sustainable dam development is possible.
Instead, I think it’s time – while preciously little time remains – to go back to what we conservationists do best. We need to create river parks on undammed rivers that are supporting millions of people. We need to take those rivers off the drawing boards of dam developers.
But departing from the history of conservation, this time those parks won’t be designed to protect nature from people. We need them urgently to protect nature for people.