EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - November 23, 2020 - 12:00am

I can’t wrap my head around the recent tragedy in Cagayan Valley. Scenes of massive flooding that wiped out towns and cities are just heartbreaking. Stories of the loss of lives and homes are simply tragic, especially with everything that’s happened in 2020.

I wonder really how we can justify the need for dams if they’re not fail-safe? How can we operate a dam if they can overflow and bury people in their homes?

The flooding in Cagayan no doubt offers a cautionary tale. Should we continue to tamper with the ecological balance of our rivers or the environment?

The long-term solution, says Alcala Mayor Cristina Antonio is complex. We should reconsider a whole gamut of things – from the way we live, how we have cut our trees, destroyed our forests and farms in the name of development.

The debates are endless, as they are varied. But focusing on dams alone, here’s what I gathered so far – dams have helped improve the quality of life of people by diverting water for power and by storing water for continuous use.

‘Is it worth a dam?’

In 1936, the first mega-dam, the Hoover Dam, was built on the Colorado River in Black Canyon in the US.

Three times the size of the Statue of Liberty, it was the largest dam in the world, according to an article on EHSO.com, one of the sites I visited to research about dams.

The Hoover Dam’s massive concrete walls held back the waters of Lake Mead, a 160-kilometer-long body of water heavy enough to bend the earth’s crust. Nine more large dams diverted the Colorado River’s water into Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California, fueling the growth of major cities, the article also said.

The flagship project, the Hoover Dam, triggered a dam-building fever across the globe as other countries saw how dams harnessed the world’s major rivers.

“Like Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, post-colonial leaders saw them as the new ‘temples of development,’ monuments to a nationalistic vision of modernization and unlimited growth, and vigorously promoted their construction,” noted EHSO.com, a website run by environment, health and safety professionals who distinguish themselves as having no affiliation with large corporate America.

By 1989, over 800,000 dams had been constructed worldwide for drinking water, flood control, hydropower, irrigation, navigation, and water storage, said Patrick McCully, campaigns director of the Berkeley, California-based International Rivers Network.


But that was before. Today, perceptions of dams have drastically changed.

As people became more aware and as many communities felt the destruction of dams to the environment, dams soon became symbols of environmental and social devastation, far from the “temples of development” they once were.

Dam failure

Thankfully, we have not seen dam failures of massive scale in the country as what happened in other parts of the world, but let’s not wait for these accidents to happen.

In 1975, for instance, the failure of the Banqiao Reservoir Dam and other dams in Henan Province, China caused more casualties than any other dam failure in history. The disaster killed an estimated 171,000 people and 11 million people lost their homes.

According to damsafety.org, dam failures happen when there is overtopping caused by water spilling over the top of a dam. This also happens when the spillway is inadequate.

Another reason for dam failures, is foundation defects, including settlement and slope instability.

Inadequate maintenance is also another culprit for dam failure as well as piping, which happens when seepage through a dam is not properly filtered and soil particles continue to progress and form sinkholes in the dam.

More dams

The Philippines is building more dams on top of the 11 dams in Central Luzon I counted – Magat, Ambuklao, Binga, San Roque, Pantabangan, Angat, Ipo, La Mesa, Wawa, Caliraya and Laiban Dams.

By providing drinking water and fueling economic growth by diverting water for power, navigation, flood control, and irrigation, dams have succeeded in many ways.

But it’s hard to cheer success if the adverse effects of dams are not addressed, now and in the future. The list is long as well – river impoundments, disruption of ecosystems, ecological damage, as well as displacement of communities, especially our indigenous peoples.

In recent years, dams have become symbols of corporate and governmental hubris.

I am sure the era of dams will not end because of its benefits unless a future Nobel prize winner comes up with a better and safer alternative.

But it cannot be business as usual anymore. Building dams can no longer depend on short-term interests of developers, and policymakers should ensure that dam builders develop their projects with utmost seriousness that is rooted in science. In the case of Magat, sources said there should be an upstream flood control dam.

A dam that isn’t fail-safe poses dangers to lives and the environment.

In a country like ours that is already as damned as it can get, the last thing we need is another tragedy.


Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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