Superdams: The Perils of Progress

THE Atlantic FOUNDED IN 1857

by Claire Sterling

Once they go up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.

—Tom Lehrer

What happens when we dam the flow of a great river and form an immense body of water where there was none before? We are not sure. Yet we have been persuading the world’s poorer countries that there is nothing like a really big dam for a fast economic takeoff. Dozens have been built on this assumption over the past ten years: in Pakistan, India, Thailand. Laos, Iran, Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, Egypt, Brazil, Peru, Honduras, to list a few. But the takeoff hardly ever comes, since no sooner do the dams go up than something unforeseen arises. Calls for help unfailingly follow, international agencies respond, experts fly out, information rolls in.

By now the archives of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, World Health Organization, UNESCO, and the Special Fund bulge with reports from hydrologists, limnologists, pedologists, seismologists, entomologists, geologists, morphologists, meteorologists, bacteriologists, epidemiologists, ornithologists, maiacologists, zoologists, ichthyologists, agronomists, sociologists, and librarians to keep track of what the others are up to. Most of them expect to be at it for years. Nevertheless, they have learned enough already to suggest that there is more to building a dam than simply making sure it will stand up, store water, and generate power.

When a big dam is built, the waters backing up behind it may flood several thousand square miles of land. Every living thing not born to the water is drowned by it: trees, flowers, crops, animals, insects. Everything changes: the water’s chemistry, the habitat of river fish, the kinds and numbers of aquatic plants, the life expectancy of disease-carrying insects and creatures who customarily dine on them (not to mention those on whom they customarily dine themselves), the weather, the wind, the flights of birds, the pressures on the earth’s crust, the tendency, therefore, to earthquakes and landslides, the levels and movements of underground streams and springs, the fertility and salinity of the soil downstream, the depth, speed, and course of the river, the formation of the coast where it empties into the sea, the habitat of the coastal fish, the way of life for all the people who used to be where the land was before the lake came.

Not much thought was given to such matters in the old days, when ecologists weren’t yet underfoot and everybody thought that big dams meant instant progress. Engineers loved to build them, and nobody ever told them that they ought to worry about ecosystems on top of everything else, as Tom Lehrer once noted in a slightly different context (“Once they go up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun”). The solid benefits—massive supplies of cheap power for industry and water for irrigation that might double or triple food crops were rarely questioned. The ecological shocks often did not set in until later, sometimes much later, and it took still longer for the word to get around from country to country, or dam to dam, or even office to office at the same dam. (In Egypt, where I spent many weeks studying the Aswan High Dam, I kept running across officials aware of bad trouble in their own sector but assuming that everything else was fine.) It is only in the last few years, in fact, that damowners have begun to compare notes the world over.

The changes needn’t necessarily be for the worse. Fish have been known to multiply exuberantly in newly made lakes, in the tropics especially, though not right away or forever. At first, rotting vegetation makes the water black and so short of oxygen that not many fish can stand it. Most river fish can’t, anyway. But then the water clears and other species come along, living like lords as they sport among the sunken village huts and fatten on the decaying plants, decomposing animals, and each either. In Thailand, thirty-three species disappeared from the lake behind Ubolratana Dam within a year of its formation, while the cannibal murrel population doubled. In Ghana, six sorts of mormyrids and the abundant Alestes Nurse were extinct in Lake Volta within a year, whereas several sorts of cichlids and lates—exactly a year old—showed up in fishermen’s nets for the first time. (They used to live in the river’s still pools and backwaters, shunning its swifter downstream currents.) The newcomers have grown to bursting since Volta Lake began to fill in 1964. and enchanted Ga and Tonga fishermen are hauling in sixty thousand tons of plump specimens yearly.

On the other hand, less than five thousand tons are coming out of the Aswan High Dam’s Lake Nasser, formed in the same month and year as Lake Volta and much richer for the hundred million tons of nutritious Nile silt dropping into it annually. The Egyptians still find it hard to credit this gap between reality and their golden expectations of fifty to a hundred thousand tons. “It will certainly be ten thousand tons next year,” I was assured in 1970 by the codirector of the Lake Nasser Development Center. Dr. A.F.A. Latif, “and it should be twenty-five thousand by 1980.” Perhaps. But much more attractive curves are already turning downward elsewhere. The catch in Lake Volta itself dropped by a fifth in 1971, and the lake behind Zambia’s giant Kariba Dam seems to be getting very nearly fishless. Formed five years before Lakes Volta and Nasser, Kariba showed dazzling promise. Experts predicted an annual fish catch of twenty thousand tons in no time. Yet it was down to four thousand tons by 1963, half that by 1964, and so little by 1967 that a corps of two thousand fishermen shrank to five hundred.

FAO fishing experts, summoned by the score to the rescue, can still only guess at some reasons: overfishing, undercropping, poor gear, too many drowned trees getting in fishermen’s way, too many predatory fish overindulging. The one cause they can be certain of, though, is the waterweed.

Waterweeds can be prettier than they sound, particularly the lush pink water hyacinth, which happens to be the most depraved. Once it was, in fact, just a charming Japanese flower. Then it went off with somebody or something to South America, where it began to show up whenever the weather was warm enough. Breeding sexually and vegetatively and growing a mile a minute, it can form mats thick enough for a man to walk on. By now it is choking rivers, lakes, bayous, canals, even ponds in several U.S. Gulf States, most of Central and South America, nearly all of Africa from Zaire and Rhodesia to Tanzania and Madagascar, and eastward to India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia. The whole length of the Congo River has been clotted with it; fourteen billion cubic meters of water, half the White Nile’s flow, are lost every year in the Sudan’s great Sudd Swamps because of its transpiration; all three of Thailand’s newest manmade lakes are failing to fill for the same reason; irrigation ditches are blocked and river boats stalled by it; fish trapped under its heavy blanket die for want of food and oxygen as it cuts off more and more sunlight and air; and because it can so easily become entangled in a dam’s penstocks or trashracks and so clog the turbines—its cousin the water lettuce very nearly put the Kariba Dam out of business that way—almost every hydroelectric project built in the tropics since World War II is menaced by it.

So far, waterweeds like hyacinth have survived every assault we can dream up: saw boats with Rube Goldberg contraptions, leaf-eating beetles and weedeating fish, herbicides poured, painted, and sprayed from boats, the shore, the sky. They are either too expensive or too poisonous or no use. An ideal solution would be the manatee, mermaid to sailors of old, who has a wonderfully sunny nature and does nothing but eat water hyacinth all day long. Unhappily, manatees make such good eating themselves that they rarely have time to mate before humans take them home for dinner.

Development planners are learning not to count too much on all those fish in man-made lakes—or, to their more considerable shock, on all that water. Water, in boundless supply, was supposed to be one of the two big prizes. What wonders could not be worked with it, they would ask, for farmers struggling with parched soil or for countries with too many people and too little arable land?

Quite a few of these lakes were never meant to store water for irrigation in the first place. They were to provide enough for the turbines, and they can come dangerously close to falling short even of that because they evaporate, or transpire, or silt up, or leak. Evaporation takes fifteen billion cubic meters of water a year from Lake Nasser; that is nearly double the engineers’ original estimate (they forgot to calculate the higher wind velocity on a big body of water) and more than a quarter of the Egyptians’ whole allotment from the Nile, practically their sole source. Transpiring water hyacinth can take ten times as much, meter for meter. Silting has cut the storage capacity of Lake Austin in Texas by 95.6 percent in thirteen years, and of Algeria’s Habra Reservoir by 58 percent in twenty-two years, while West Pakistan’s $600 million Mangla Dam is expected to silt up completely in fifty years. And any reservoir with big cracks or open passages in the earth around or under it can leak. The United States has had to abandon several because of leakage or seepage_ Cedar Reservoir near Washington, the McMillan and Hondon in New Mexico, the Tumalo in Oregon, and Jerome in Idaho. But the most spectacular case is Lake Nasser.

For all the history and extravagant hopes that went into its making, Lake Nasser cannot assure the Egyptians even of the water supply they had before. The lake was planned to store 163 billion cubic meters and to reach capacity by 1970, but it is not yet half full and may never fill (Egypt’s most distinguished limnologist. Professor Abdel Fattah Gohar, told me that it might take two hundred years). We have no way of knowing exactly why, except for evaporation. But two highly educated guesses have been made, by a noted British hydrologist named John Ball in the early 1900s and an Egyptian named Abdel Aziz only a few weeks before ground was broken for the High Dam.

They pointed out that Lake Nasser’s entire threehundred-mile Western bank is composed of porous Nubian sandstone, part of a million-square-kilometer aquifer underlying the Libyan Desert which can absorb endless quantities of water. Directly under the High Dam, furthermore, the Nile channel cuts across a water-bearing bed nearly half a mile deep, through which water may flow either in from the Libyan aquifer or out. Mostly it used to flow in, before any dams were built around there, adding about three billion cubic meters yearly to the Nile flow downstream. But after the first Aswan Dam was built years ago, pressure from the new reservoir pushed all this water the other way and as much again besides. So the Egyptians had lost six billion cubic meters by tinkering with the Nile before the High Dam even got started. What with a far bigger dam, an incomparably bigger lake, that water-bearing bed, those sandstone banks, and that colossal evaporation rate, Lake Nasser is losing more than a third of the water flowing into it, thirty billion cubic meters yearly. Downstream, the Egyptians are getting nearly ten billion cubic meters less than they used to, 53.7 billion instead of 63 billion.

It need hardly be added that Lake Nasser’s waters are not going to coax much barren desert into bloom after all. Here too, Egyptian hopes die hard. At the Lake Nasser Development Center in Aswan, devoted Egyptian and UN scientists continue to study and map the baked, treeless land along the new lakeshore, against the time when the lake may fill or science may find some cheap way to grow food in dry sand. “We’re working for our children or their children,” an Egyptian geologist told me. “Someday, somebody will make use of our soil maps. Not now. The turbines have to run; we can’t spare another drop of water.”

At the Ministry for the High Dam in Cairo, Dr. Aziz Hana used practically the same words to say the same thing. What he didn’t say, because it wasn’t his department, was that even with more water coming downstream, there wouldn’t be enough suitable land to reclaim. The late President Nasser had hoped for 1.3 million acres, still the official figure. But soil studies made before the dam was completed showed that only 750,000 acres were suitable, and known reclamation projects add up to less than half that: a 5 percent increase in cultivated acreage, whereas the Egyptian population grew by a third while the High Dam was going up.

Whatever the advice he wouldn’t listen to, Nasser was not the first, or last, to fall into error. Not many superdams are turning deserts green, for a lot of reasons; and a good many have engulfed more and better land than they could reclaim.

Nobody knows the value in money of all the land, plants, timber, ancient monuments and artifacts, villages, and towns lying at the bottom of the world’s man-made lakes. The millennial site of Abu Simbel’s twin temples and the whole Sudanese town of Wadi Halfa are among them. So are some of Ghana’s richest cocoa farms and Zambia’s two-crops-a-year alluvial lands on the banks of the Zambezi. Giant stands of teak are now dying in the Ivory Coast’s Bandama Valley; and when and if the first mainstream dam is built across Southeast Asia’s Mekong River, at Pa Mong, nearly a million acres of prime paddy land will go under in Northeast Thailand and the magnificent Laotian valleys of Ban Done and Vong Vien.

Nobody is quite certain, either, how many people have been forced to move by the rising waters. There are always some who take to the hills never to be heard from, as happened in the Tennessee Valley. To the best of our knowledge, a hundred thousand were displaced in Egypt and the Sudan, nearly a hundred thousand in Ghana, at least a hundred thousand in the Ivory Coast, and half a million may join the list should the projected Pa Mong Dam eventually span the Mekong. It costs a lot to move them and is starting to cost more as the practice spreads. When the Ivory Coast’s Kossou Dam was about to be sealed in 1970, an enterprising Baoulé chief wrote to the mayor of Tigne in the French Savoie, where a big dam had gone up some years before, inquiring about the demands of his constituents. The mayor’s list, long and expensive, has become a kind of charter for a fast-growing World Brotherhood of Doomed Cities.

Yet even when a thousand dollars a head is spent on these refugees, few can be resettled on the kind of good bottomland they lost. Rarely is there any other unoccupied land except the stony arid kind higher up. Thailand now finds one such political snakepit in its Northeast region, right below the Chinese border. The Ivory Coast, trying to resettle President Houphouet Boigny’s fellow Baoulés on the overcrowded lands of rival tribesmen (at a cost of about a $100 million, as much again as the Kossou Dam itself cost), seems to be heading for another.

I’ve met displaced Thais and Baoulés, and Ghanaians in their “gone elsewhere” villages, and the Nubians of Upper Egypt in their squat dreary cement huts at Kom Ombo. Some were better off than others, of course, but nearly all showed symptoms of the classic resettlement syndrome: unselfreliant, passively aggrieved, dispirited.

The Baoulés I visited were still in their thatched village of Angouissé when I came, waiting for the rising waters to overtake them: they would believe it when they saw it, they said. They were full of complaints and premonitions. Their elders had visited the new settlement prepared for them, much grander than their own with $1600 houses and corrugated tin roofs. But it would be hot, they said, bulldozers having knocked down every tree in sight; the houses had no kitchens, which the government, not they, ought to build; the single well was inadequate and too far away. There would be no food until the new crops came in, they thought (though the FAO’s World Food Program will be feeding them for two years). They had been invited to learn how to fish, but disliked and feared the water. They were advised to raise cattle on the poorer soil, but didn’t care for cattle. What they cared about was land; and they’d be getting only an acre apiece, half what they had now, not enough to live on.

The Thais I met, near Khonkaen in Northeast Thailand, had already been through it all. Their rice fields were gone, lying at the bottom of the Nam Pung Reservoir. Their resettlement money was gone too, long since. They had spent a backbreaking year or two clearing the harsh upland soil, with no help from the government and practically no water. About one in five had drifted away and dropped out of sight, many to join up with the Communist terrorists. The rest were trying now to grow soybeans and kenaf, a kind of jute. Some were starting to make out at last. Others never would.

Everywhere I went they would tell me they had never felt well since leaving home. “They are not sick,” a social worker explained. “It is too much trouble, too much thinking.”

This is not just a matter of land. People whose families had lived for centuries where the lakes form may languish and die of unbearable traumatic shock when forced to part with their homesteads, ancestral graves, fetishes. Mortality rates shot up among evacuated Ghanaians when Lake Volta formed; the very young and very old, particularly, died faster. They may also sicken on the road, traveling under deplorable conditions. Or they may fall sick simply because of living near the water.

Wherever a superdam has gone up in tropical Africa and Asia, the lake behind it has brought an explosion of water-borne disease. Even small dams can do it, as the Ivory Coast has learned. One built there at Bia in 1964 managed, within a year, to bring on raging epidemics of river blindness (eight hundred cases), sleeping sickness (two hundred cases), and bilharzia infecting four out of every five inhabitants. Fortunately there weren’t many inhabitants. When Lake Kossou fills, though, World Health officials expect “a very serious threat” of sleeping sickness among a hundred thousand refugees and others on its densely populated shores, “endemic” bilharzia and malaria, a “special danger” of yellow fever, a “violent outbreak” of guinea worm—the fiery serpent of the Bible—and a chain of “excreta illnesses” such as dysentery, cholera, and typhoid.

This happens partly because people accustomed to relieving themselves in the bush do so in the water instead. In good part, also, the reason is change of habitat for the carrier insect. A few, as uncomfortable in their new surroundings as the refugees they live on, must either get away or perish. The most vicious is the black fly, simulium, causing river blindness through West Africa. Dependent on fastflowing water with plenty of oxygen, the black fly hates the still waters of a new lake. But it quickly finds happiness downstream, where the water thunders through the dam’s sluices. In Ghana, long cursed by river blindness on the Volta’s banks, the affliction has not been eliminated but merely redistributed.

Almost all other carriers of tropical water-borne diseases rejoice in their new House and Garden setting. Nothing else offers better breeding conditions than a large, calm lake surface and several thousand miles of twisting shoreline full of shallow nooks and crannies for malarial mosquitoes, the culex fly bearing yellow fever, dengue fever, and elephantiasis, the guinea worm growing three feet long in the human body and causing painful ulcers, the liver fluke loitering in the insides of raw fish (a favorite Northern Thai dish is raw fish dipped in fresh cow bile), and that scourge of all Africa and Asia, the snail—carrier of bilharzia.

Several sorts of snail are good at this, none of which can survive in fast-flowing rivers. What they like is placid waters: irrigation canals, say, or manmade lakes. They may land there by the merest chance, carried by migrating birds or the wind. Once settled, they can multiply at a rate increasing their numbers fifty-thousandfold in four months. Lake Nasser is thickly infested with them along its entire shoreline, not yet a calamity because hardly anybody lives there. Infestation is much the same in all Egyptian irrigation canals, old and new, as in most of Africa and the Far East.

The snail doesn’t attack humans. It simply plays host to the prickly-spined blood flukes which do. The flukes’ larvae need only to be deposited in the water by an infected person’s urinating, defecating, or just bathing, whereupon it homes in on the snail to lie in wait for the next human victim. Any healthy person setting food in these infested waters can pick up the fluke without a bite or scratch in warning; once lodged in his bloodstream, the fluke lives happily ever after, perpetually copulating.

A man can die of bilharzia, but more often he is condemned to live in growing pain and exhaustion. The chronic sufferer grows steadily weaker from stomach cramps and damage to the heart, lungs, liver. He may develop cirrhosis, bladder and kidney infections, cancer; and even if not, he can rarely put in more than three hours’ work a day. There is no lasting cure: anybody freed of bilharzia in the morning can pick it up again before nightfall. The safest temporary cure is an old-fashioned tartar emetic which must be administered in twelve weekly intravenous injections causing violent pain and vomiting. Although newer drugs keep coming onto the market, none is entirely satisfactory, and some are singularly unsatisfactory, tending to induce maniacal tendencies, hallucinations, or an uncontrollable impulse to jump out of the window.

Egypt, among the hardest hit countries because practically all Egyptians live on or near the Nile and the countless irrigation canals branching off it, has tried uselessly for years to bring down the bilharzia rate. Fourteen million of its thirty million people had bilharzia before the High Dam was built; one in ten deaths was caused by it: and the cost to the state in lost working time ran to half a billion dollars annually. Since the High Dam went up, the infection rate in areas with new canals has risen from zero to 80 percent.

Some say that all the land enriched by such dams makes up for the spiritual and physical impoverishment of the people. Yet Egypt’s land, after construction of a billion-dollar dam, is certainly getting no richer. True, the Egyptians are no longer threatened by the Nile’s yearly floods, but they’re no longer getting the flood’s priceless gift either: the silt that has made the Nile Delta the most fertile on earth is dropping to the bottom of Lake Nasser.

A foreigner looking down on the now translucent green Nile, as I did from a hotel balcony in Cairo, might find it lovely. To the Egyptian agronomist clutching my arm as he pointed, it was frightening. “I’d give my soul to turn it muddy brown again,”he said. That cannot happen, ever.

The Egyptians I met who were doing soil studies could not be sure how much the final damage might be. Nevertheless, they estimated that about two thirds of the 2.35 million tons of chemical fertilizer already in use goes to make up for the lost silt. All six million cultivated acres in Egypt will be needing fertilizer soon, along with potassium, nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, copper, zinc, molybdenum, borum, and manganese for the delta’s once inexhaustible soil. The yearly cost of the extra fertilizer alone comes to upwards of a hundred million dollars, and this fertilizer will be a permanent necessity.

Not every dam holds the silt back, of course, and some do impound enough water to leave farmers knee-deep. But using the water for irrigation is no simple matter, and can be a positive menace at times. Eight years and twelve million dollars after the U.S. Reclamation Bureau began to study the Mekong’s projected multibillion-dollar Pa Mong Dam, it discovered that the world’s largest salt deposit lies under Thailand’s Khorat Plateau, which Pa Mong was supposed to irrigate. One splendid irrigation project like that could make the soil so saline that nothing would ever grow on it again.

Actually, that particular project was not so splendid. Only 106,000 acres were going to be irrigated in Thailand anyway, a sad fraction of the million acres of fine paddy land that would be drowned by Pa Mong. Theoretically, irrigation would double rice yields there and permit two or three crops a year. But the Khorat Plateau has very poor laterite soil, which would soon be worn out under intensive cultivation. Furthermore, two or three crops a year would mean that much more work for farmers who are accustomed to planting only when the monsoons come, and who know nothing about irrigation. The difficulties are already familiar to Thailand’s Royal Irrigation Department, which has spent $180 million to develop irrigation in the last two years with only about four hundred successful acres to show for it.

To be agriculturally useful, Pa Mong’s waters would need investments of not only about $400 an acre to prepare the land but five times as much for cheap fertilizer and farm credits, feeder roads and access to markets, training and motivation for farmers provided by a far better extension service than the Thais (or we) would readily provide. What with one thing and another, therefore, the modest goal of bringing 106,000 acres under irrigation would cost Thailand no less than a quarter of a billion dollars.

Naturally, there is always somebody who wants to try an irrigation scheme wherever a big dam goes up with enough water storage; the schemes look so good on paper. Yet even when they can be made to work, the heavy use of water and generally poor drainage cause underground water levels to rise and create an accumulation of soil salts that knocks the land out of use sooner or later. Pakistan got into such trouble this way that only by drilling hundreds of thousands of tube wells was it saved from agricultural ruin. Egypt, nearly all of whose cultivated land is becoming dangerously waterlogged and salty now, has already started to install expensive closed underground drains on a million acres in the Delta. This alone, the most ambitious drainage project on earth, will cost $147 million, of which the World Bank is putting up less than a tenth, which the Egyptians will have to pay back. To install closed drains and the pumps to go with them on the remaining land would cost well over a billion dollars, a quarter of the country’s income.

There are several other ways in which a superdam can cost more than its list price: the scouring of riverbeds downstream undermining other dams and bridges; the erosion of coastal dunes and sandbars, thereby endangering cities like Alexandria and permitting seepage of salt water into sweet-water lakes; the loss of ocean fish should the dam withhold organic silt required for the aquatic food chain (Egypt has lost 18,000 tons of sardines a year that way, and if just two projected mainstream dams are built on the Mekong, the owners of 300,000 fishing boats at the river’s mouth might go bankrupt); landslides; and earthquakes on the magnitude of six or more on the Richter scale, such as the one touched off by India’s Kogna Dam in 1967, which killed 200 people.

The payoff is supposed to come from hydroelectric power. There, in the installed capacity of kilowatthours, lies the secret of the economic takeoff, or so planners say; and judging from the comparative figures—6615 kwh per person in the United States, 6746 in Sweden. 2364 in Soviet Russia, 79 in India—they ought to be right. But power installed is not necessarily power consumed, as the Egyptians, who have yet to find a use for even a third of theirs from Aswan, have discovered.

The capacity can be enormous. The High Dam’s is ten billion kilowatts a year; the Tarbella’s in Pakistan is almost as much; the Pa Mong’s on the Mekong would be twice that; and if all forty-odd dams under consideration in the Mekong Development Scheme were built, they would plunge all Indochina—indeed all Southeast Asia—into a blaze of light. Then what?

The power produced would be cheaper than thermal or nuclear power, but only if every kilowatt-hour were consumed from the start, over a span of a hundred years. Even this would not take into account the social and ecological costs of uprooting several million people in the Mekong Basin, drowning several thousand villages and hamlets in fertile river valleys covering the better part of 25,000 square kilometers, spreading sickness among men and cattle, dispersing or killing off a great many fish in the river and sea— the giant prawn and unique ten-foot-long giant catfish would be among the first to go—scouring 1500 miles of riverbed, and putting an end to the annual silt-laden floods nourishing twelve million acres of luxuriant delta soil in Cambodia and South Vietnam.

To use the power, furthermore, everything taken for granted in an advanced industrial state would have to be developed: grids, factories, transport, communication, trained workers, seasoned management, markets—in short, the acceuil (the French seem to have the only word for this) without which the power goes to waste. On those terms, the Mekong’s dam network would cost from $25 billion to $50 billion. No poor Asian or African country, with so few skills, so little experience, such meager capital, could be sure of success even then.

It is curious but true that such calculations simply weren’t made until quite recently. Engineers honestly didn’t know they were committing ecological sins: who did? Rich countries putting up the money sincerely thought of themselves as benefactors. Poor countries were suitably grateful, and displaced people getting pushed around never seemed to fall into anybody’s department.

Times have changed. Wherever I’ve gone to report on these projects. I’ve met officials eaten by doubt. In Yamassoukrou, operating center for the Ivory Coast’s Kossou Dam, harassed social workers coping with refugees dreamed of putting up stickers saying IS THIS DAM REALLY NECESSARY? In Ghana, whose Volta Dam is a glittering success because Valco Aluminum is a built-in market for its power, the curse of the refugees still lies heavy after seven years. “I sometimes wonder if the whole thing was worth it,” said Dr. Letitia Obeng, co-manager of the UNDP/Ghana Volta Lake Research Project. “Oh, it’s grand! But you wouldn’t believe what our people went through.” In Cairo, where the High Dam’s spell is still strong, only the elite know the extent of the damage. Privately, they will admit that they probably would not build it if they had things to do over again.

The disenchantment is strongest in Bangkok, where five hundred UN experts have been working for nearly two decades with the four riparian states of the Mekong Committee to harness one of the last great rivers still undammed in the world. When I was there last spring, the U.S. Reclamation Bureau was just retiring from the field in confusion. It had been working under extremely trying conditions since 1964 to determine whether or not the Pa Mong Dam would be feasible. By the time it came up with the affirmative answer, the place was swarming with ecologists, and word had long since gotten through from Egypt, India, Pakistan. “Who needs Pa Mong, really?” demanded Kasame Chatikavanij, director of Thailand’s Electricity Generating Authority, when I asked him about it. “Of course we could use the power eventually; we have a very nice growth rate. But we are not rich. I would rather put our money into smaller projects, a little at a time, as the need arises, and not gamble it all on one big throw—like Aswan.” Not all Thais agree, least of all Boonrod Binson. Thai member of the Mekong Committee. Nevertheless, what little is left of a once unclouded faith in Pa Mong is to be found more among wouldbe givers than receivers.

Not that all poor countries are turning down all such propositions nowadays. They are merely learning to ask more questions. After all, thermal power stations can be built for a fraction of the cost, one at a time as consumption grows. Atomic plants, cleaner though costlier, can also be built in fairly small units. Once a giant dam is built, though, it is there, evaporating, transpiring, leaking, silting up or weeding over, scouring the riverbed, driving the fish away or killing them off, drenching or salting the soil, breaking timeless natural laws, banishing people; and every day those turbines stand idle the local minister of finance is closer to a nervous breakdown.

Because nobody is giving them away. All the rich countries offer is hard currency, technicians, and equipment, on loan, at interest. In the end it is the poor countries who pay, and pay, and pay. €