As the number of dams particular ageing dams has increased greatly there is increasing worldwide concern regarding the safety of dams and the serious risks that go with it. However this concern will result in most useful action only if this is extended to include the safety and viability of under construction and under consideration dam projects.

After all, if we are concerned about  the risks we face today from dams constructed in the past, we should be equally concerned about the risks we may leave behind for future generations from the dams that are being  commissioned or approved today. If the risks we face arose from the less than adequate pre-construction careful evaluation of all aspects,  then should we not strive to obtain much better, more credible pre-construction evaluation now to ensure better protection in future years and for future generations?

But the problem in several countries including India is precisely this that while the knowledge base on several adverse aspects of dam  construction has certainly increased and improved, the conditions in which decisions on dams are taken and the overall political economy of dam construction is such as to render it likely that the adverse social, ecological and safety aspects will get the due attention and acknowledgment and a comprehensive, unbiased evaluation will take place. In the conditions obtaining today in too  many cases there is in an inevitable, implicit bias in favor of going ahead with the projects regardless of the adverse impacts involved.

In many cases approval is granted even as a controversy razes, ignoring also the protests of displaced or other adversely affected people, and after a few years  the fact that so much money has already been spent becomes an additional argument for going ahead further. Some high risk projects, such as the highly controversial Tehri dam project, have been completed in the middle of such repeated protests, adverse criticism by reputed experts and even very serious objections raised by officially constituted committees.

These issues become more complex in the context of projects with impacts extending to more than one country, particularly when the countries have not enjoyed  friendly relations in the past. The projects being implemented by  China in the Tibet reach of Brahmaputra river are widely believed to have very adverse consequences downstream for India and Bangladesh, but will China give the due attention to the concerns of these countries? Will India and Bangladesh  be given access to all the data and information which China has in this context? These concerns would be there even in conditions of  normal times, but what will happen in conditions if hostility increases? While concerns exist even if dam operation involves no hostility, concerns can increase manifold if dam management assumes hostile forms.

On the other hand, we can also visualize an entirely different situation in  which all the involved countries give up such controversial and high risk projects and instead increase cooperation with each other for improving energy, irrigation, local livelihoods, water conservation and disaster prevention and management in ways which are to the benefit of all the countries , and also protect river ecology.

Above all improved, comprehensive and unbiased evaluation of dam projects will contribute much to avoiding high risk and wasteful projects, preventing avoidable displacement and environmental harm and ensuring better use of limited resources.

Bharat Dogra is a senior journalist and author. His latest books include Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna—Chipko Movement and the Struggle Against Tehri Dam Project.


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