I first learned about hydroelectric power in primary school, when along with solar and wind it seemed like our best answer to the energy needs of the future. My school books didn’t tell me about the human costs.
In the United States, the dams of the Penobscot River fouled waters that the Penobscot Nation had fished and fed from for millennia.
In India, the government’s civil engineers spent years plotting to displace 30-50 million people, most of them too poor to draw popular sympathy or consideration.
“If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country,” Jawaharlal Nehru once told his base. In the Christian gospels, the high priest Caiaphas makes a similar rationalization: “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Someone always pays and they’re always the Other.
A huge percentage of the displaced are Adivasis (57.6 percent in the case of the Sardar Darovar dam).. Include Dalits and the figure becomes obscene… The ethnic otherness of [the dam’s] takes some of the pressure off the nation-builders. It’s like having an expense account. Someone else pays the bills. People from another country. Another world. India’s poorest people are subsidizing the lifestyles of her richest.” —Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy’s account of the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat is an account of the wealthy few sacrificing the homes and lives of millions.
The government’s impact assessments were based on flawed estimates of the amount of water and power the dam would yield. The engineers flooded twice as much land as initially planned. The World Bank was massively invested in seeing the project through despite its many weaknesses. And the justifications for it weren’t even consistent.
As Roy explains, “irrigation uses up the water you need to produce power. Flood control requires you to keep the reservoir empty during the monsoon months to deal with an anticipated surfeit of water. And if there is no surfeit, you’re left with an empty dam. It’s like the conundrum of trying to ford a river with a fox, a chicken, and a bag of grain.”
This is how the system eats people: with a network of politicians, businessmen, consultants, and technicians “doing their job” for the promise of wealth, and defining the people in their way as incidental phenomena.
Roy’s essay on the Sardar Sarovar dam was first published in 1999. The dam became operational in 2006.