Gigantic Dams as a Symbol of Power
9 December 2014
Dams and dikes offer only short-term protection from flooding, but can lead to serious social and ecological problems in the long term. This is the conclusion of geographer Dr. Ravi Baghel, a member of the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” of Heidelberg University conducting research on how people prevent floods. According to Baghel, whereas alternative flood control methods are on the rise in Germany and other regions in Europe, politicians especially in Asia continue to build more and more gigantic dams and dikes that stretch for thousands of kilometres. Baghel has published the results of his investigations, based mainly on field research in India, in a specialist book. He is conducting a workshop on 13 and 14 December 2014 on dealing with water in Asia.
“Dams are an expression of power, modernity and humankind’s dominance of nature,” explains Dr. Baghel. According to his research, there are now more than 45,000 large dams in the world. In India alone nearly 30 million people have been relocated, rivers have been straightened and countless dikes erected, as Baghel says. One example from his field research is the river Kosi, which originates in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal and once wound its way through the Bihar region. Today the river, which is only 260 kilometres long, cuts a straight path through one of the poorest states in India, severely hemmed in on both sides by dikes with a total length of 387 kilometres.
“The effects on those who live directly at the riverside, within the protective walls, are especially dramatic,” explains Dr. Baghel. In the case of the Kosi river, that is 1.2 million people. Living primarily from fishing and agriculture, they were prepared for the river’s annual widening from a few hundred metres to several kilometres. Thus, the inhabitants traditionally built their homes on stilts and lived in other regions from July to September. Now the dikes hold in the water, causing its velocity and concomitant erosion to increase. Ravi Baghel reports that every year nearly 19 million tons of sediment are deposited in the narrowed river basin. The water level therefore rises from one year to the next. “To save their livelihood, the people affected even blast holes in the dikes,” says Dr. Baghel. “The politicians then berate them as ‘antisocial elements’, revealing the social fault lines and the intensity of the dispute”.
Even those who live outside of the protective walls face major problems, according to the researcher. The rainy season is especially dangerous. The dikes not only hold the river in, but also keep the rainwater from draining into it. ”So even these residents repeatedly attempt to break through the walls,” says the geographer. “The only ones who gain are those who live further away from the dikes and can build solid houses. Mostly for their protection, the politicians raise the dikes every few years and then pat themselves on the back for their strong commitment to flood protection,” criticises the researcher. “Flood protection requires planning for much longer terms.”
“There are alternatives to previous approaches and they are being used more widely, like in Germany,” explains Dr. Baghel. Flood plains can be created and dikes dismantled, for example. “But in other regions of the world, these new insights have not yet prevailed over the accustomed practices.” The geographer is organising a workshop to be held at the Karl Jaspers Centre of Heidelberg University on 13 and 14 December titled “Epistemologies of Water in Asia”. Experts from around the world are expected to attend.
Ravi Baghel is a postdoctoral researcher at the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” of Heidelberg University. He was a major contributor to the “Large Dams” project under the direction of Prof. Dr. Marcus Nüsser. His book, “River Control in India”, was recently published by the Springer publishing house. He is now working on a new research project on Himalayan glaciers. He is also a member of two international projects studying how humans are transforming the earth and the need to consider the longer-term consequences of these actions.
Ravi Baghel: River Control in India, Springer, 2014, doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-04432-3