Magazine article New Internationalist

Dam-Busters! Fred Pearce Thinks That Activism and Science Are Coming Together in the South's Struggle to Defend Water against Concrete

Magazine article New Internationalist

Dam-Busters! Fred Pearce Thinks That Activism and Science Are Coming Together in the South's Struggle to Defend Water against Concrete

Article excerpt

THE GORGORAM fishing festival in northern Nigeria, on the fringes of the Sahara, was once a celebration of the miraculous fecundity of even the most inhospitable environment. Gorgoram is in the middle of the Hadejia-Nguru wetland, a giant splash of green in near-desert, in the floodplain of two rivers. Every year, in mid-February, thousands of people gather to collect the last fish from the rivers.

But they all say the festival is not what it was. Catches are well down. The rivers no longer fill with water. And round the village there are other signs of desiccation in a once-green landscape. Hundreds of trees have simply fallen down because the water table has slipped beneath their roots. Local lakes, through which boys still herd their cattle, now dry up weeks earlier than they used to. And floods no longer reach the fields of fertile soils, known as fadamas, which they once irrigated.

Ask the people, and few know why the change has come. But at the offices of the Hadejia-Nguru Wetlands Conservation Project--set up a decade ago by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation--they know all too well. The wetland, a vital resource for tens of thousands of people, is dying because upstream the Government is damming and diverting the water for irrigation and to fill taps in Kano--the capital of northern Nigeria.

The conservationists have contacts with dozens of villages and nomadic cattle herders on the wetland. They help with the management of scarce water--a small dike here, a new fishing boat there, some seeds for a new orchard. But they know that they are fighting against the tide. Three major dams have already been built. And now the German firm Julius Berger is at work again, on the largest dam of all, at Kafin Zaki.

These projects have been undertaken in the name of 'greening' the desert margins. But according to Mahtari Aminu-Kano, director of the Project, the dams have cut flooded wetland area in half. There is less water for fisheries, for forestry, agriculture, cattle herding and drinking.

The water table has fallen by 25 metres in places, and wells have dried up for hundreds of kilometres downstream. Far from halting desertification, the dams are promoting it. Hydrological research for the project has found that, for every hectare of fields irrigated at the Kano irrigation project, two more dry out on the wetland.

All may not be lost. The dams could be made to operate more sustainably, says Aminu-Kano, by releasing water into the wetland in time to irrigate crops and maintain fisheries. The Project is making headway with local officials to encourage management of the projects for all the people--not just those lucky enough to have a plot on a Government irrigation scheme. But in a country where corruption is rife and respect for democracy minimal, they are lone voices.

Nigeria is not the only country to have an irrational love affair with dams. It has been a worldwide phenomenon. For more than a generation, from the 1950s to the 1980s, large dams were seen as a symbol of political independence and economic development. For Egypt's Aswan Dam, which harnessed the Nile floods, or Ghana's Akosombo Dam, which flooded an area of the country the size of Lebanon, they amounted to a fundamental remaking of the geography of the country. India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called his dams 'the new temples of India'. For 50 years the World Bank has spent more money on dams than anything else.

And yet today the tide of opposition to these symbols of modernism is in full flood. Opposition to dams has developed into an assault on all manner of river engineering schemes, such as canalizing river channels and draining their floodplains.

The most potent movement to date has been against a string of dams on one of India's largest and most holy rivers, the Narmada. The declared aim of the dam is to provide water for irrigation in the desert region of Gujarat state. …

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