Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How not to manage rivers

The great challenge for this generation is to figure out a way to reverse the downward corkscrew of our rivers before we reach a point where there is nothing left to save.

Dictatorships are loathed the world over for the fatalities it commits on people but rarely have democracies been reprimanded for desiccating the living rivers. Within the rubric of peoples’ republics, it is the people who have been distanced from the rivers they have grown up with. Isn’t it a fact that an acclaimed republic, the USA, has led the world in inflicting grievous damage on its rivers, with hardly any river reaching the sea?

It indeed is! In its two centuries of experience in manhandling rivers, the U.S Army Corps of Engineer has dammed, diverted and dried up nearly all its rivers. It never occurred to this elite force that moving water could also be a resource; pouring concrete to impound or divert flows has been euphemism for water development instead.  With an attitude termed ‘water hubris’ guiding river management, some 3.3 million small and big dams have converted free-flowing rivers into a series of interconnected reservoirs in the U.S. None of these projects have lived up to the promise of being self-sustaining though; annual maintenance expenditure alone has tossed the cost-benefit calculus haywire. 

Political currency of dam building and river engineering sustains itself; water projects are viewed as instruments of power, prestige and political gamesmanship. To get a sense of how water hubris has been nurtured, Daniel McCool, Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah provides bio-sketches of two leading agencies: the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S Bureau of Reclamation. Through their relentless pursuit to ‘curb the sinful rivers’, these two agencies could turn water hubris mentality into a moral right for the society, almost in religious terms, to conquer rivers. No wonder, calls for new water projects are always accompanied by dire projections of an impending ‘water crises’. That the actual crisis is that of water management gets subsumed under the din. Discomforting similarity can be found in the current river/water policy scenario in India.   

Including other ecological concerns, the collapse of the Teton Dam on the World Environment Day in 1976 may have been the tipping point for a change that is currently sweeping America. From a 27 km long reservoir, 80 billion gallons of water swept through the 305 feet high earth-filled dam killing about a dozen people in Rexburg, Idaho. Ironically, the Machhu Dam disintegration in Gujarat in 1979, which killed as many as 25,000, hasn’t had any impact on the prevailing water hubris in India. Apathetic attitude is indeed appalling!

The Teton dam has long perished but it has been officially recognized that there are 15,237 dams in the US with high hazard potential. Under the ire of public outrage as many as 890 of these dams have been dismantled till date; water hubris is slowly giving way to new water ethics in the U.S. Inspiring account of citizen’s triumph against the institutionalized annihilation of rivers is worth emulating. 

Profiling such individuals as ‘instigators’, McCool confirms that not only has status quo been challenged but that rivers are returning to their free-flowing condition by their efforts in the U.S. River instigators are working their way through a maze of corrupt system lathered with special-interest money in turning river restoration into something of a cottage industry. There are as many as 2,500 non-profit river groups partnering with the agencies which were earlier building dams in restoring rivers to their pristine status. The process is transformative!

River Republic is an authoritative exposé on political economy of river tempering; lucrative principles of such an economy appeal to vested interests everywhere. However, McCool stresses that the great challenge for this generation is to figure out a way to reverse the downward corkscrew of our rivers before we reach a point where there is nothing left to save. 

Personal anecdotes and insightful analysis make it an important book. A must-read for all those who are seeking answers that help keep rivers flow freely. River Republic has essential lessons for entrenched water bureaucracy. 

River Republic: The Fall and Rise of American Rivers
by Daniel McCool
Columbia University Press, USA
Extent: 408, Price: US$ 26

This review has also appeared on Anthem EnviroExperts Review, coordinated by Prof. Larry Susskind of MIT  

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