The control of nature promised a world transformed for the benefit of humans, but have gigantic dams drowned such hopes?
The landscape vanishes, and with it ancient ruins, sacred sites and valuable farmland. Homes also sink beneath the flood, homes of animals and humans, which are both displaced – often in great numbers. The dam stands implacable in the face of this devastation and guards behind its wall the now drowned world, which will moulder at the bottom of its artificial lake for who knows how long. Fish swim through doorways, eels down rabbit holes, and mussels crust the columns of the temples. Weeds curl around the silenced clappers of church bells.
In contrast to the silence at the bottom of the water-filled valley, the other side of the buttressed wall echoes with the deafening sound of the cataract rushing through its sluices. The churning of this water echoes once more in our stomachs, even if seen only in a photograph. This sensation is the sublime; not that of nature, however, but of the works of man. The industrial sublime, first depicted in paintings such as Loutherbourg’s 1801 Coalbrookdale By Night, today takes the gargantuan scale of Burtynsky’s photos of the Three Gorges Dam: a cosmic sublimity inspired by the possibility of planetary destruction. Looking down through the still surface of the lake to the submerged world below gives us a premonition of that future.
Edward burtynsky three gorges dam1
But the dam was not always a salutation of destruction; it once bespoke mastery of chaos. Canute couldn’t stem the tide but Lenin tamed the Dnieper. And before him, indeed millennia before Canute, dams were shaping nature in the Middle East, Egypt, China and India – the so-called hydraulic empires, where power was enmeshed with the management of water. Dams were a crucial element of these systems, allowing the cultivation of arid lands and protection from the capricious elements, but also the control of populations.
Margaret bourke white russias dnieper river dam the worlds largest during the beginning phase of its construction 1931
The Romans brought their new invention, concrete, to bear on the problem, as well as advances in form; Diocletian’s arched concrete dam outside the city of Homs is still working 1,700 years after it was constructed. Until then, ‘gravity dams’ had been the rule, that is, dams that worked by accumulating huge quantities of matter. By contrast, arches could be less hefty since they deflect the force of the water into the dam’s abutments. Such innovations permitted the development of large permanent reservoirs feeding cities otherwise lacking in water. Dams were thus a civilising – and colonising – technology.
The type retained this significance for centuries. During the Industrial Revolution, scientific engineering allowed the creation of dams on an unprecedented scale. Patrick McCully’s book Silenced Rivers describes this process. In 1900, about 600 big dams existed, over half of them in Britain and its empire. Canada, Australia and India were all colonised with the help of dams. The Aswan Dam, completed by the British in Egypt in 1902, was the first large dam – a category of dams taller than 15m. Its 2km of buttressed masonry regulated the Nile, the dilation and contraction of which had defined ancient Egyptian cosmology. Now the seasons themselves were subject to human control.
Roman cornalvo dam, extremadura, spain. pic 01
‘Now the seasons themselves were subject to human control’
Thirty large dams were being built per year in 1900; by 1950, the number had risen to 250. This was the golden age of the type, with the world’s major powers defining themselves with mega dam projects. The first stage of the dam race culminated in the construction of the Dneprostroi Dam on the Dnieper River in 1927-32, and the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in 1931-36. The former was designed by Vesnin and Kolli with the assistance of American engineers, and was intended to stimulate industrialisation in accordance with Lenin’s slogan ‘Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country!’ Dneprostroi’s completion was hailed as a significant step towards the realisation of this aim, and the dam became the subject of posters, novels, songs, symphonies and films. Nevertheless, the Red Army dynamited the structure while retreating from the Nazis in 1941, killing thousands of civilians.
Dams are often fatal for those who make them, too. More than 100 workers were killed during the construction of the Hoover Dam; by a macabre coincidence, the last to die was the son of the first. In contrast to the Constructivist rectilinearity of Dneprostroi’s turbine hall, the arched concrete Hoover Dam was finished with Art Deco flourishes by Gordon B Kaufmann. The project was approved by Congress in 1928, but the Colorado River had been earmarked for damming long before to irrigate the desert, control the waters and generate electricity. The latter became feasible following the opening of the world’s first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara in 1881; by 1920, 40 per cent of the USA’s power came from water. Today, however, falling water levels mean that the Hoover Dam plant is rarely active, and new turbines are being installed to cope with the enfeebled river.
After the Second World War, decolonisation sent new nations in search of control over their own resources, and a new wave of mega dams began to be built. India allocated 15 per cent of its national expenditure to such projects up to 1980, and China built around 600 dams per year for 30 years after the revolution. It now has more than 22,000 large dams, half the world’s total; by comparison, the USA has around 7,000.
This activity was also stimulated by the ideological struggle of the Cold War, in the guise of international development agencies which strongly favoured loans for dams. After the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, for instance, the Aswan High Dam became a priority of the new regime, and was constructed between 1960 and ’70 with finance and technology from the USSR after much diplomatic manoeuvring between the superpowers. Several ancient sites had to be rescued from the coming deluge, including the temple of Abu Simbel, dramatically craned to higher ground by a team of international archaeologists.
In response to this diplomatic triumph for the Eastern Bloc, the World Bank took a more active interest in dam building; indeed, the first loan it made outside Europe was for a dam project in Chile. Since then it has lent over $60 billion for dams. But from the ’70s dam building slowed, and was reduced to a trickle by the ’90s. Already in ’58, Khrushchev and Nehru independently questioned the value of such projects, which were beginning to be seen as of dubious benefit to national economies. Their enormous construction costs alone are prohibitive: Itaipu in Brazil cost $20 billion, the Three Gorges Dam, $37 billion, according to official figures.
‘The huge sums funnelled through dam projects go not to locals but to multinational corporations and politicians, corrupting on an enormous scale’
More significant, however, was the rise of resistance against dams. The destruction of ecosystems, submersion of land and relocation of populations elicited both indigenous protest and the growing attention of international conservationist bodies. When these groups came together, the results were decisive. A pivotal case was the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat, India, from which the World Bank withdrew support in 1993 after concerted action by a coalition of local and international actors.
Campaigners argue that large dams’ destructiveness is not compensated for by the power they produce, which is usually allocated to big industry rather than to populations. Furthermore, the huge sums funnelled through dam projects go not to locals but to multinational corporations and politicians, corrupting on an enormous scale.
In response to this opposition, the World Bank and other bodies established a World Commission on Dams in 1997. This bi-partisan body found that 40-80 million people had been displaced by dams, that dams’ productiveness is systematically overestimated, and that they emit surprising amounts of greenhouse gas for a supposedly green energy source, thanks to the matter rotting in their reservoirs.
Nevertheless, big dams are currently experiencing a resurgence. This is partly due to the cachet of renewables, despite the questionable environmental credentials of dams. And it must be admitted that, to enable countries like China and India to rescue millions from poverty, dams are more appealing an energy source than coal. (However, solar and wind are less destructive.) It seems possible that the Chinese, who are spurring on the global dam boom, are partly emboldened by their own relative avoidance of the battles that have plagued such projects. In response, Western proxies like the World Bank are also ramping up investment.
Hundreds of big dams are now on the drawing board, with several nearing completion. The Inga 3 will stem the Congo and supposedly provide 40 per cent of Africa’s energy, while displacing 35,000 people, and Belo Monte dammed the Xingu in Brazil, flooding huge swathes of rainforest. However, another Amazonian project, the São Luiz do Tapajós Dam, has been halted by indigenous peoples asserting their right to the land.
Dam building is thus caught in what Adorno and Horkheimer called the dialectic of the Enlightenment: ‘under existing conditions the gifts of fortune themselves become elements of misfortune’. And the so-called primitive people of the world stand at the forefront of resistance against its drowning by numbers. This is no Heideggerian lament, however: the technology itself is not malign, but only a truly transformed world would permit transfiguration to the benefit of the people in it.
Stanley Consultants, Lake Delhi Dam, Iowa, USA, 2016
While big dams are environmentally destructive, smaller projects can bring great benefits to local areas. Lake Delhi in Iowa was first dammed in the 1920s in order to power a small hydroelectric plant. Since the ’70s, however, the reservoir has had a purely recreational function, which is nevertheless of vital importance to the community. So when the dam was breached in 2010, leading to the evacuation of 8,000 people and the emptying of the lake, the economic consequences were calamitous. In response, local residents joined together to fund a new dam. The resulting structure, recipient of a national engineering award, employs a zigzag ‘labyrinth’ spillway, which effectively triples the ability of the dam to shed excess water without the need for mechanical gates. It has already proven effective: weeks after the dam reopened in 2016, the fifth-largest recorded flood to hit the lake was dealt with successfully by the structure.
06 lake delhi
Lake delhi dam
Manthey Kula Architects, Pålsbu Hydro-Power Station, Buskerud, Norway, 2014
The unique geography of Norway makes hydropower an appealing source of energy, and indeed, 99 per cent of the nation’s electricity derives from this source. Nevertheless, new dams are as controversial here as anywhere else, with the Alta conflict in the 1970s and ’80s a pivotal moment in the nation’s history of hydropower, when the proposed relocation of the Sami people from their ancient territory was opposed by a huge mass movement. Although the Alta Dam was eventually built, subsequently opportunities to exploit existing structures have been eagerly grasped. One such project has been undertaken at the extant Pålsbufjorden Dam, to which a new power plant has been added by Manthey Kula Architects. The turbine hall takes the form of a cogged concrete drum, expressing the motion of the water within.
Becker Architekten, Hydroelectric Power Station, Kempten Germany, 2010
In the 1950s, the River Iller was dammed where it passes through the ancient city of Kempten in Bavaria in order to provide electricity to the local area. Recently, a new, more efficient plant was commissioned, but the historic context of the site – including a former textile mill – demanded a more sophisticated architectural treatment than is usually accorded such projects, isolated as they are from urban settlements. In response, the architects developed a scheme that expresses the dynamic flow of the water in board-formed concrete. The low-lying structure, which ducks out of the way of the older buildings, also incorporates an extant steel bridge across the river.