Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 21 Sep 05 08:36
Our next guest is journalist Jacques Leslie, whose latest book, "Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment," has earned enthusiastic praise from The Columbia Journalism Review and On Earth Magazine, and garnered the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. Jacques's journalism career began at age 24, when the Los Angeles Times sent him to Vietnam to cover the war. While on assignment there he exposed the horrifying conditions for prisoners in South Vietnam's notorious "tiger cages," the profiteering of South Vietnam military officers, and the disparity between the U.S. Embassy's public utterances and its internal reporting. His book about his experiences -- "The Mark: A War Correspondent's Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia" -- was published in 1995. He has also covered the fall of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia, Indira Gandhi's conviction on election malpractice charges in India, and the deaths of Spain's Francisco Franco and China's Mao Tse-tung. Leading the conversation is Ted Newcomb. Ted has three Master's degrees -- in religion, theology and most recently philosophy. His vocational life has spanned a variety of careers, 4 years doing oceanography with NOAA, a stint with the Federal Reserve, 12 years in youth, singles and divorced ministries, 14 years in the hotel and resort industry and two years as a live-in caregiver for a family member with Parkinson's disease. A first-time grandfather, he has recently relocated to Phoenix to properly spoil his granddaughter and is presently managing a resort hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona. Welcome to Inkwell, Jacques and Ted!
It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Wed 21 Sep 05 11:10
Great to be here Cynthia, Jacques it is a privilege. Jacques, the genius of your book is in personalizing the subject which tends to be overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem, the 400 page reports, the various United Nations committees, the World Bank, the NGO's, etc. How were you drawn to the water crisis, dams in particular, and how and why did you structure your book in the way that you did?
Jacques Leslie (jacques) Wed 21 Sep 05 13:05
Thanks for having me, Cynthia, and for taking this on, Ted. I'm grateful to both of you. The book arose out of the research I did starting in mid-1999 for a Harper's Magazine piece that ended up being titled "Running Dry: What Happens When the World No Longer Has Enough Freshwater?" That led to the discovery that dams seemed to occupy the very heart of the debate over water, or, to put it another way, that of the various subjects associated with water scarcity, it is dams that provoke the most argument, conflict, and passion. As a writer, I saw lots of potential there. Then, when I started researching dams, I learned that an institution called the World Commission on Dams was in the midst of its deliberations. The WCD was created out of the World Bank's frustrations in building dams. By about 1995, it had grown extremely frustrated by the capacity of meagerly financed but dedicated nongovernmental organizations led by the International Rivers Network in Berkeley to tie up huge projects in long delays and controversy until project investors grew impatient and abandoned the project. The Bank found its projects so snarled by these controversies that it reluctantly agreed to a proposal made by dam opponents to create an independent international commission that would review the impacts and performance of Bank dams and issue recommendations on how they should be built in the future. The Bank complacently assumed that such a commission would generally validate dams, but it made one interesting caveat: instead of agreeing to a commission that would study Bank dams, it called for a commission that would study _all_ 45,000 large dams (dams, that is, at least 15 meters, or 50 feet tall), apparently so attention would be diverted from the Bank's numerous dam fiascos. The Bank then teamed up with a semi-official NGO called the World Conservation Union (or IUCN, after its French initials) to create the commission. Nominees for its twelve commissioners were placed in three categories-- prodam, mixed, and anti-dam-- and four commissioners were drawn from each category. The commission first met in 1997, worked hard and seriously, and contrary to the predictions of many observers who thought it could never produce a unanimous report, issued precisely that in November 2000. It was so critical of dams' performance and contained so many guidelines for future construction-- 26 of them-- t hat the Bank turned its back on its creation, and has since embraced a policy of wholeheartedly building as many huge dams as it can. At first I thought I'd write a history of the commission, and nearly signed a contract to do that. Thank goodness I was divertedâ-- that would have been a nearly impossible task, requiring interviews with a hundred-plus people spread all over the world and visits to dozens of remote dam sites. Instead, at the last minute Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the nation's leading literary publisher and a champion of narrative nonfiction, entered the picture, and asked for a narrative nonfiction book on water. I immediately saw that I could choose the most interesting person from each of the WCD's three commissioner categories, and write a book consisting of profiles of the three of them. That's what I did. In some ways the book was modeled after another tripartite work of narrative nonfiction, John McPhee's _Encounters With the Archdruid_, and it helped that all 27 of McPhee's books have been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. My editor, Paul Elie, knows McPhee, and knows what's involved in narrative nonfiction. Paul's guidance benefited the book enormously.
It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Wed 21 Sep 05 15:42
It's amazing that a commission comprised of such diverse viewpoints could reach any consensus at all. Once you determined the approach you wanted to take, what was your bias going into all of this and did it change over the three years you spent with your research and the people involved? Were you surprised at all?
Jacques Leslie (jacques) Fri 23 Sep 05 11:35
To be sure, the antidam side got a number of breaks after the commission was formed. One was that the person expected to be the most stridently prodam member, a past president of the dam engineers' association called the International Commission on Large Dams, or ICOLD, resigned soon after the commission began meeting. He complained that his honorariums weren't big enough, but I suspect he also took a look at the composition of the commission and decided he didn't want to spend the next couple of years defending his views. He was replaced by another ICOLD past president, Jan Veltrop, also an engineer, whose transformation during the WCD's proceedings is commonly credited with its success. He seemed to be genuinely startled by the social impacts of dams that he hadn't known about before, and so his prodam position softened a little. For endorsing the WCD report, he earned the vilification of many of his fellow engineers. On the other hand, Kader Asmal, the South African water minister (now education minister) who chaired the commission, singled Veltrop out for his courage after the report was published. Finally, yet another prodam commissioner, Goran Lindahl, was CEO of ABB, Ltd., a huge conglomerate that got out of the dam business during the Commission's existence, so Lindahl had less at stake in the argument. However, all that said, I think it was the mass off evidence that the Commission accumulated in its many studies that chiefly dictated its conclusions about dams' performance. I started the project with a more accepting view both of the World Bank and dams in general than I finished with. The Bank's historical disregard for people displaced by dams, even as it called itself "the anti-poverty organization," even as it calls itself "the anti-poverty organization," was telling for me. And though I still can see that dams have increased agricultural production and eased water shortages in many places, it became clearer to me that the increases ususally favor the wealthy, and that the longterm negative impacts will in any case eventually override them. It seems to me imperative to shift some of the money now invested in dams to conservation and technologies that are much less damaging.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 23 Sep 05 11:52
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Sharon Brogan (sbmontana) Fri 23 Sep 05 12:21
I had planned, of course, to have finished the book before the conversation began. Instead I have been distracted by hurricanes and only began reading last night; so I will be reading the book and the conversation simultaneously. I look forward to both.
It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Fri 23 Sep 05 12:58
Your book begs the question if there is such a thing as a 'good' dam. Many of us would think the Hoover Dam would fit that description. Would you talk a bit about the Hoover Dam and its impact?
Rip Van Winkle (keta) Fri 23 Sep 05 13:36
Speaking of hurricanes, I just read a line in a Rita news update that said, "in addition, environmentalists are warning of possible oil spills..." It struck me, why do the "environmentalists" always get stuck with the warning? Why not, "engineers are warning..." or "refinery operators warned..."? Or even, "reasonable people are aware..."? Did any of the people picked for the anti-dam side change/evolve their positions while working on the commission?
Jacques Leslie (jacques) Fri 23 Sep 05 17:47
#7 The prologue describes the benefits and detriments of Hoover in some detail. What seems fair to add now is that it stands as a kind of symbol of its generation, when its bounty of electricity and water was understood but its monumental environmental damage was not. It's my fervent hope that we are now on the edge of a new era, in which we find ways to coexist with our natural surroundings rather than "conquer" them. If conquest remains the goal, it's obvious to me that nature will be the conqueror. #8 Your point about hanging these conclusions on environmentalists is a good one. The problem is, in many cases it _is_ only environmentalists who issue warnings like these. For example, refinery operators surely understand the risk of spills in the Gulf, but they probably don't want to talk about it. The question about changes of position on the antidam side of the Commission is an interesting one. The antidam commissioners made changes, but they were usually tactical ones, not changes of heart or changes arising out of some revelation or other. For some time during the negotiations over the final report, for instance, they supported a recommendation that all displaced people should have the right of "free, prior and informed consent" to a project and its resettlement program. But other commissioners refused to support that, and the final report ended up recommending informed consent only for indigenous peoples, who have comprised perhaps 30 or 40% of the 40-80 million people displaced by dams. Throughout the commission process, the antidam commissioners and their NGO allies outmaneuvered the prodam people. Whenever the commission met, the antidam people held meeting after meeting to figure out a common strategy, while the prodam people never organized, and sometimes even made fun of the antidam people's meetings. The prodam people made numerous misjudgments, including what I think was the key one, which was to assume that the data being compiled on dams' performance would support their assumptions.
Philippe Habib (phabib) Fri 23 Sep 05 22:44
I am also not quite done with the book yet, but only about 2/3 of the way through. As I read the book I found that I was not reading as much about dams and their technical effects as I had thought I would and more about the dams and their societal effects and the people impacted by them. Having read the first 2 sections, I still don't see a strong anti dam case so much as I see a very strong case for the better treatment of those displaced and the need to solve all of our problems with more appropriate technology rather than the large expensive projects that only benefit the richest companies from the richest countries. This leads me to think that a large dam is not the solution every time but I still can't imagine life without the benefits of power and stable water supply that large dams provide. Have I missed the intent of the book? What has your research led you to conclude about dams as a whole?
Jacques Leslie (jacques) Fri 23 Sep 05 23:10
phabib, the book's third section deals chiefly with environmental effects. I'd prefer that you read it before I answer your question. If you still feel the same way then, I'd be glad to respond.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Sat 24 Sep 05 07:36
"der alex" writes from off-Well: You said you`d prefer to invest more money in technologies that are less damaging than dams. Knowing all the environmental and personal tragedies it`s a fine idea, but which realistic alternatives do you see that can displace dams and their tasks in agriculture, energy and drinking water production, and which options have the anti-dam lobby (if one exists) to realize these alternatives against the pro-dam lobbyists?
It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Sat 24 Sep 05 10:28
It would seem from your book that we have the World Bank ignoring its own Commission and pursuing the building of large dams, we have a Commission that actually produced a well-thought out report, and we have the politics involved in the individual countries that need both the water resources available from building these dams and the financing from the World Bank. And we do not as yet have new technologies or the willingness to pursue them. Is that a fair overview? And if so, what are some practical strategies for working through this quagmire?
It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Sat 24 Sep 05 10:35
DEEP WATER also brings together two great themes that seem to be in the background of our modern consciousness, technology and globablization. We seem to have this 'faith' that somehow these two forces are now coming together and all will be well. Obviously, that is not the case, would you speak to that a bit?
Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sat 24 Sep 05 10:36
I'm not sure what question the last clause is asking, but as for "realistic alternatives," there's a substantial list that includes both traditional and new technologies, including rainwater harvesting, water recycling, drip irrigation, desalination (for water supply) and solar, wind, fuel cells, and pump and turbine redesign (for energy). In the Indian state of Rajasthan, a fellow named Rajendra (my spelling may be off) won the Magsaysay Prize (a kind of Nobel Prize for the developing world) by developing a system of ponds and rainwater harvesting that recharged groundwaer, revived streams, and rejuvenated villages in an arid area. I hope to write about this work some day. At the other end of the technology spectrum, the price of desal has dropped so much recently that urban water managers now look on it as a preferable alternative to dams, among other reasons because the water it delivers is more reliable (i.e., not subject to drought). Remember, too, that 70% of the water humans use is for agriculture, and the amount of water wasted in agriculture is vast. The biggest gains can be achieved by simple conservation, and we could get started on that path by charging farmers something approaching the real cost of the water they use. In California, San Joaquin Valley farmers pay a tiny fraction of the real cost of water, which they then use wastefully, among other ways by growing water-guzzling crops such as rice, which is absurd. All that said, I'm not sure that even with the smartest and most innovative technologies, the planet can sustain its current population level, let alone the 8 or 9 billion people projected to live on it by mid-century. Ecosystems all over the world are already threatened or crashing. We have to take seriously the idea that our rate of use of resources including water cannot be sustainedâned. To me, that's the starting point of resource "realism."
Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sat 24 Sep 05 10:38
Slippage. My #15 is in response to #12.
Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sat 24 Sep 05 11:02
Re #13, The biggest obstacle to embracing reasonable policies and technologies is political, I think. The Bank exists to loan large sums of money, which it believes churn the levers of development. It doesn't have the staff to administer small programs, and in any case isn't disposed to support them. Instead, it provides large loans as part of vast programs, which central governments love because of the huge sums funneling through their treasuries. These top-down projects tend to enrich both governments and wealthy entrepreneurs, but they often hurt the poor, the very people they're supposed to help. The development projects I've seen that are successful tend to be much smaller in scale and start at the village level. But the Bank and central governments generally don't show much interest in that sort of work. Re #14, I think globalization as we understand it is headed for disaster, because it is rapidly consuming what's left of the world's natural resources and leaving devastated ecosystems in its wake. It's bad enough that the U.S. provides a terrible model for the rest of the world with its monstrous consumption patterns. Now countries like China and India are doing their best to emulate us. In greenhouse gas emissions alone, the combination will be devastating. Even putting aside global warming, what seems to have happened until recently is that developed countries exported their pollution; now developing countries like China themselves devastate part of their terrain so that a fraction of the population lives in wealth. China's water situation, for instance, is an absolute mess-- a statistic I gleaned in the water scarcity piece I did for Harper's back in 2000 is that 80% of the length of China's rivers are too polluted for fish, and I'm fairly certain that that number is even higher now. China is making last-ditch efforts to rescue its water crisis (such as its current plan to build vast aqueducts to transfer water from the Yangtze River to the north), but they're stopgap measures that provide only temporary solutions and in any case are depleting their treasuries. In Deep Water, one small example this is the increasing frequency of toxic blue-green algae in the River Murray as a result of the diversion of so much river water. When the outbreaks occur, everybody loses: fishing and river recreation stop, and wine grapes get contaminated. The only way to support all of the activities the river makes possible is to maintain the river at a healthy level. Globalization puts all the emphasis on production and economic growth, and that will lead to disaster, I think.
It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Sat 24 Sep 05 11:56
That's very sobering. We've spent almost 40 years in this country trying to raise environmental consciousness only to result in Kyoto-lite. To think that China and India are now embarking on the same eco-unfriendly curve is staggering. Do you think this is going to be one of those situations where a disaster is going to have to take place before the world gives these problems serious attention, and is there any coming back from the kind of harm we are doing to the planet; are we heading in a direction that will reach a critical mass?
Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sat 24 Sep 05 13:30
I certainly don't have any definitive answer, but my impression, formed out of conversations with water scientists, reading, and gut instinct, is that we've either passed over the line or are close. As perverse as it sounds (and the world is brim-full of such perversity at the moment), Katrina has actually brought a tiny bit of hope, in the sense that more people now understand that the environment cannot be ignored. But whether the right lessons will be learned, or even if they are, whether habits and politics have enough flexibility in them to change, is very much an open question. And overriding all of this is the quite well-founded fear that disasters will bring more chaos than enlightenment.
Christian De Leon-Horton (echodog) Sun 25 Sep 05 01:10
What strikes me most about the book is the clear indication that massive dams are, by and large, a very poor idea. Even if the social justice issues are ignored, the environmental effects are staggering, and one has to wonder if a full cost-benefit analysis has ever been carried out on the ecological services of ecosystems that end up submerged. These affects are alluded to time and again, but I have yet to see anyone put a price tag on it. Of course, the social justice issues cannot be ignored. Ignoring the plight of impoverished peoples in the path of rising waters is not only unjust, it is also impractical. Despite the increasing evidence that large dams are actually driving more people into poverty, we are still not taking a serious look at the consequences of displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Displaced, impoverished populations are likely to be reservoirs for dangerous diseases, sources of social unrest, and stressors on the ecology wherever they go. We'd probably be better off leaving the rivers and the people be and developing smaller, more decentralized technologies to provide irrigation, drinking water, and electricity. Given the amount of evidence against massive dams, it's hard to imagine how anyone is seriously arguing that they are necessary for lifting people out of poverty.
Rip Van Winkle (keta) Sun 25 Sep 05 07:04
Re the Katrina effect: I just discovered that the October 2004 issue of National Geographic has an article about Louisana wetlands. It starts off with a scenario for a hurricane hitting NO, and word-for-word, EVERYTHING in the scenario happened just about exactly as written. Including the profile of who would be left behind. The only discrepancies are that somewhat fewer people than predicted appear to have died, and the waters stopped a little short of the French Quarter. The article also reports that a "group of strange bedfellows" - environmentalists, business leaders, Army Corps - had completed a 30-year Louisiana wetlands restoration plan in 2003. Do you think the bit of hope Katrina brings is more a short "window" or more a reminder/image that will work slowly for a long time? What would have to happen in the realm of dams to produce a similarly revealing collective experience?
Low and popular (rik) Sun 25 Sep 05 09:06
I'm getting double Jacques this morning. I'm watching him on C-SPAN2's Book TV and reading this at the same time. You speak well, sir, and this is a fascinating, if disturbing, discussion.
Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sun 25 Sep 05 10:47
<Do you think the bit of hope Katrina brings is more a short "window" or more a reminder/image that will work slowly for a long time? I'm reminded of Don Blackmore's interpetation of Australia's drought as an opportunity to get environmental flow policy going. He figured he had a couple of years before Australians forgot about water policy, and then he'd have to wait until the next drought. Of course, if Katrina is followed by other related catastrophes, it could work as a longer-lasting "reminder/image." Sacramento, for example, is every bit as vulnerable as New Orleans to flooding. And in the realm of dams, the collapse of a highly visible massive dam would have vast repercussions. Glen Canyon showed signs of being that dam in 1987 (I think that's the correct year), when it rumbled ominously but didn't quite fail. A couple of dams in China succumbed to a typhoon in the early 1970s, and a couple of hundred thousand people died in the ensuing flood, famine and outbreak of disease, but few people outside the region ever knew about it. Many of China's dams-- and China has built 22,000 of the world's 45,000 large dams-- remain vulnerable, because they were built during or just after the Cultural Revolution with engineering standards so poor that the dams are now referred to as having been built with "beancurd construction. " The C-SPAN taping came as a surprise. I walked into the bookstore in Santa Rosa a few minutes before the scheduled reading, then learned that C-SPAN was there. I had a couple of minutes to think about whether I'd change my presentation to focus it more towards Katrina, and opted for arranging to make it the first question. Then I started the reading. Apparently the Farrar, Straus & Giroux publicist never got an email telling her that the taping was on.
It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Sun 25 Sep 05 11:51
The UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) recognized, in November 2002, for the first time, that water is a fundamental human right. Would you talk about the practicalities of how that actually takes place; the politics involved and the whole issue of privitization?
Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sun 25 Sep 05 11:55
Let me just add one scheduling note to what I said above about C-SPAN. My taped reading will show one more time today on C-SPAN2, at 1 p.m. Pacific time-- in case anybody's interested.
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