To Dam or not to Damn

Dams.  Dig them or damn them, you’ve probably got good reason. 

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Have you read or seen Salmon Fishing in Yemen? The heady idealism and transformative potential of a dam can be intoxicating.  In Australia, dams store water and keep the bubbler flowing despite frequent droughts.  They also allow us to generate hydropower, a relatively clean and renewable energy source.  Dams illustrate our engineering prowess and ingenuity.

I was thinking about this as I canoed through a drowned forest near Tallowa Dam on the Shoalhaven last year, picking a line through the bony branches of dead gums.  Dams devastate aquatic ecosystems.  They stop the water’s natural flow, which has a twofold effect.  Upstream of the dam the river is flooded into a swollen, stagnant lake, and downstream it’s starved of water supply.  Migrating fish can’t pass between the two and entire populations die out. 

Fighting against dams to protect ecosystems is nothing new.  You might have heard of the Franklin River, one of the last remaining un-dammed rivers in Tasmania, a state run almost entirely on renewable energy in the form of hydropower.  Last year I read a book about it called The River Runs Free by Geoff Law.

 

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Geoff Law has paddled, liloed or rafted the length of many of Tasmania’s rivers, some in the eerie days just prior to their damming.  Law was a fierce ambassador for the protection of these rivers and became embroiled in many doomed campaigns to save them.  There were success stories too.  Thanks to the work of Law and his contemporaries, the Franklin got away unscathed.  Today people come from all over the world to experience its wild, untrammelled flows by raft, kayak and foot.  In January I was one of them.  

Dams are better than dredging up non-renewable minerals, denuding the landscape and poisoning ecosystems in a flood of toxic by-products and emissions.  They’re better than a thirsty population without a reliable water supply.  Built with the right environmental policies in places, maybe they’re not so bad.  But it’s hard not to get a little sentimental when faced with the indifferent innocence of a wild river rising and falling, inhaling and exhaling, making its blameless way to the sea.   

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