Humanity and the water cycle

Development Policy28 Nov 2013Casper Rutting

Water is fundamental to life. As a consequence, it is the ultimate renewable resource on Earth. However, the way we manage it seems inappropriate to satisfy both current and future demands. In his latest book, The Hydropolitics of Dams: Engineering or Ecosystems?, ecosystems scientist Mark Everard makes a compelling case for the necessity of a more sustainable relationship between humanity and the water cycle.

In his new book, Everard stresses the need for an integrated approach to water management, which takes account of the many habitats and livelihoods that are heavily dependent on catchment areas. He concludes that both heavy engineering (such as large dams) and ecosystem-based solutions (such as tank systems) are required to achieve sustainable water management.

Everard has published extensively on topics related to environmental and sustainable development, and has been part of many advisory boards and expert groups in the UK, trying to integrate the systems approach into decision-making and policy formation. He strives to contribute to cleaner water for all in a sustainable world, a mission that relates directly to the purpose of his new book, which serves as a practical guide for those who ‘use it to improve the lot of people from all strata of society who drink from our common yet finite well’.

Thinking at catchment scale

Charting the evolution of large dams throughout history and highlighting the different beneficial and adverse effects they cause, Everard concludes that dams have played a major role in development, but too often at huge economic, social and environmental costs. Moreover, the benefits accrue mostly to privileged sectors of society. This, he asserts, is due to the prevalent underlying utilitarian worldview, in which river systems – and ecosystems more generally – are seen as more or less boundless resources to be exploited in the name of progress. One of the examples Everard mentions is the Nagarjunasagar Dam in India, which was completed in 1969. This project was explicitly linked to Indian nation-building and seen as the solution to poverty. However, it only partly lived up to the expectations.

Although there is widespread recognition of the adverse effects of dams nowadays, Everard shows, by means of clear case studies, that a lot more needs to be done to minimize these downsides and incorporate all stakeholders in decision-making. He considers South Africa as one the most promising countries in this regard. In the post-apartheid era, the new government has enacted legislation requiring stakeholder engagement in the early stages of dam planning. However, in the planning of dams such as the Skuifraam Dam, consideration of alternative options seems to have been limited owing to a presumption already in favor of the dam. In countries such as India and China, the momentum behind dam building is as strong as ever. Indeed, in both countries, plans are being made to go even further. Everard refers to Chinese plans for diverting water from the south to the arid north, the ‘breadbasket and industrial heartland’ of China. He regards it as an example of the dominance of short-term economic thinking.

Therefore, the way we think about water has to change radically. Everard puts forward the ecosystem services approach as a useful framework for understanding the ways in which diverse sectors of society benefit from, or suffer by interventions in the environment. Seen from this perspective, heavy engineering solutions such as large dams boost selected ecosystem services of rivers (e.g. water supply and energy generation) with the unintended consequence of degrading ignored services (e.g. soil formation and pre-existing fisheries). Everard gives different examples of ecosystem-based approaches to water management, including landscape-scale management, catchment production and storage, and water consumption and use. These approaches focus on working with natural processes in ways that are less intrusive and account for the many benefits catchment systems provide. One of the examples Everard elaborates upon is the restoration of tank systems – johads – in India. The project ran counter to the government’s rush towards industrialization, and was not without its opponents. However, with extensive collaboration of local communities, it did succeed in improving the hydrological landscape.

‘Dammed if we do, damned if we don’t’

Even though Everard, as an ecosystems scientist, favors ecosystem-centered approaches over heavy engineering solutions such as large dams, he admits that both will be necessary to water management in our heavily populated and resource-stressed world. According to Everard, the question is how to combine these two approaches in ways that are sustainable, equitable and efficient.

The Hydropolitics of Dams offers both a useful overview of the topic and a practical guide for decision-making in water management. His argument is convincing, as it is based on a variety of sources and illustrated by clear case studies. It is evident that Everard emphasizes the adverse consequences of large dams. However, he does not become too idealistic while admitting that in some cases heavy engineering solutions will be needed. The practical value of his argument is also underlined by the sources he uses. Most of his statements are supported by international conventions – such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – or international initiatives such as the World Commission on Dams (WCD), which are supported by most nations.

Furthermore, Everard’s non-alarmist depiction of the current situation corroborates his argument. One the one hand, he claims that there is a ‘yawning lack of awareness of the gravity of our situation’. A lot more needs to be done to integrate the ecosystem services approach into the mainstream of decision-making. On the other hand, he remains optimistic, drawing confidence from the fact that humans are a learning species and that there are signs of improvement. Nonetheless, it is still a long way towards truly sustainable water management. To this end, Everard delivers a practical guide to participatory decision-making. Although this list of sixteen points is a bit long, he claims this is necessary to offer a guide for ‘real world practitioners’.

An uncomfortable reality

All in all, The Hydropolitics of Dams offers a comprehensive and highly accessible guide to water management, which builds upon the debate on the role of large dams in development which started in the 1990s. It could not be timelier: On July 16, the World Bank announced its new energy strategy, in which it considers hydropower as crucial to resolve the tension between economic development and the drive to tame the emission of greenhouse gases. Everard’s view should be a reminder of the problematic aspects of the conception of large dams as a means of deliverance from hunger and poverty. At the same time, something rather discomforting remains about his proposal to participatory democracy. It remains to be seen whether Everard’s sixteen points will be applicable in the political context of some of the world’s staunchest proponents of large dams such as China. Let alone if stakeholders of more than one country are concerned. Nonetheless, he pictures the right way forward and, hopefully, it will trigger a profound debate on our unsustainable relationship with one of the world’s most important resources.