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Special Report
Last Updated: 04/09/2010
Dams: providing or destroying water security?
Oluwole Olusegun Akiyode

For over three or four decades, there have been propagandists and antagonists for the construction of dams all over the world. Dams were presumed to evolve with the world as a product of its socio-economic development. History has shown us that dams’ construction is not a recent phenomenon but has existed for sometime, especially with the discovery of the 8,000 year old irrigation canal in the Mesopotamia area.

This paper examines water security as a concept of environmental security and also analysis through history the importance of dams before the development of the “now concept of dams” and also analysis the role of dams in the present concept with positive and negative impacts on water security. The paper ends by identifying the need of consideration of water security in the management of dams.

Keywords: Dams, water, security, irrigation and development.

Dams have been part of human history, evolution and development. Dam is defined as "[…] any artificial dike, levee or other barrier, together with appurtenant works, which is constructed for the purpose of impounding water on a permanent or temporary basis from downstream toe–of-dam to the emergency spillway, the top of dam" (New Jersey 2005:2).

A dam could also be looked at as an artificial barrier usually constructed across a stream channel to impound water. Timber, rock, concrete, earth, steel or a combination of these materials may be used to build the dam (Ohio government 2009). The supposedly main purpose of building a dam is to control water in order to store it. Even though, there could also be other political reasons attached to dams construction.

There is a belief that the Mesopotamians might have been the first dam builders with the discovery of 8000 year old irrigation canals found in the area of Zegros mountains on the eastern edge of Mesopotamia; which was not unlikely for weirs of brushwood and earth to be used to divert waters from streams to canals (McGully 2001:13).

In 1949 there were about 5000 large dams that had been constructed worldwide, three quarters of them in industrial countries and by the end of the 20th century over 45,000 large dams in over 140 countries (Jerry 2001:2). The rough estimate of small dams in the world is about 800,000 at present (McGully 2001:4). The usefulness of dams cannot be overemphasized in the control of floods, hydroelectric power production and irrigation for agricultural purposes, etc. However, dams also at most times come with demerits which include flooding, displacement of people and biodiversity loss. Recently, dams have been implicated as having negative effects on earth’s tectonic regional systems (Ibitomi S., 2009. Banu N., 2009). Thus, dams’ definition, merits and demerits fits into the complexity of water security which addresses the negative and positive implications of water development and management. The paper defines water security as an off shoot of the environmental security concept, relating to the effective management of water. It traces the reign of hydrocracies and analyses the hydropolitics of dam construction. It also identifies the usefulness and demerit of dams in providing water security relating to the drivers in the industries. Finally, the paper will conclude whether dams are controlling or destroying water security.


The exit of the cold war era of the 1980’s between the then two super powers, the US and the USSR, contributed to the shift of paradigm from ‘state centric militarized security’ to human and ecological aspects of global security which later evolved as the field of “environmental security”. Steiner (2006:56) at the G8 summit of 2006 summed up environmental security as issues from energy security and climate security, to water and health security. It could also be referred to as “implications of environmental degradation, scarcity and stress due to disasters, migration, crises, and conflicts and on the resolution, prevention and avoidance of environmental damage” (Kreimer 2003:150). Thus, different divisions of environmental security revolve around it, spearheading different disciplines in order to tackle and address specific problems and/or resources such as food, climate, health and water.

Water as a resource, unlike other resources has no substitute in most of its uses; the resource is essential for growing foods, manufacturing goods and safeguarding human health (Postel and Wolf 2001:60). Water is practically an issue tied with the existence of life because of its importance in nearly every area of development including sustaining life on planet earth. The security of water came into existence before the concept of environmental security, but was not conveyed in the prospective perspective, which thereby gave it an uninterested view. It was always related to the issues of wars between states and communities with no objective realization of its cardinal importance in protecting, preserving and also its positive effects on the sustainability of life and society. In recent years, the connotation of “war” lead to a total distraction of the common underlying issues of its main dependency which necessitate its need for security. The academicians of recent times looks at the issue of water as an issue of peace, not war; which broadens the discourse (Stucki 2005:12).

Schultz (2007:2) in his paper “Water security” emphasized human intervention as a precursor to increasing water security and defined ‘Water Security” as the sustainable use and protection of water systems, the protection against water related hazards (floods and droughts), the sustainable development of water resources and the safeguarding of (access to) water functions and services for humans and the environment. While Grey and Sadoff (2007:547) writing on “Water security for growth and development” looks at water security not only as absence of water, but also its presence which could be a threat defined as “the availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risk to the people, environments and economics”. Thus, we shall look at the impact dams could have on water making policies. The resource will be evaluated as a positive contribution or a threat to the society, tracing the resource through the reign of the hydrocracies that drive water institutions.


The reign of the hydrocracies brought out a new era of the hydraulic mission that percieves mobilizing water as a foundation for social and economic development which is to “ensure security of supply” which is normally done by means of developing infrastructure such as dams (Turton 2003:85-86). The trends of the modernists in the reign of hydrocracies are transforming the world without consideration of the demerits or merits of dams’ construction.. This modernist idea, which has been termed the hydraulic mission, has also gained acceptance by the states to propel the state issue of securitization in terms of water. Alan (2003:5) one of the seasoned researchers on water security said political economies of industrialized countries have been inspired for a century or more by the belief that the nature, including water resources, could be controlled. He reiterated that since the late nineteenth century, the entrepreneurs and state agencies involved in delivering water for economic and social purposes believed that nature, including water, could and should, be subject to mastery of science and industries which is the high face of modernity. Thus, the construction and development of dams on rivers in the 20th century became an issue of states in conjunction with the hydrocrats. This phenomenon has allowed dams and water security to become tools in the hand of the states.

The architecture and nature of dams’ construction changes with the ‘new concepts of dams.’One of these new concepts includes high dams that can permanently stop the flow of rivers. This state-centric approach at most times refuses to put into consideration the riparian states that are connected to the same rivers, especially downstream communities that sometimes solely depend on the same river. Thus, the idea of a ‘water war’ song came into existence with no consideration that the same water could be used as an instrument of cooperation and peace. The genesis of the ‘new song’ of war also aligned with the Malthusian principles of scarcity in relation to the object of the resource which became a prominent discourse in the school of Homer-Dixon and his group in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. This school developed a pattern of thought that the availability of resources determines people’s wellbeing and the scarcity of such resources can lead to conflicts under such certain conditions (Levy 199:43. Gleditsch & Udal 2002:285).


The Nile river is the longest river in the world, but with transboundary complexity. The Nile river basin consists of ten states; these include Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. Historically, the river has been the source of water and irrigation in this region before the medieval ages. The river had been the source of power for historical ancient Egypt, the main source of life, especially with its association with agricultural production, one of the primary sustainers of the state’s economy and life. No country in the world is more dependent on irrigated agriculture than Egypt, where all cropland (100%) is irrigated and all future plans must be based on either of the two sources, the Nile or underground reservoirs beneath the Sahara (Pugh, 1990 cited in Olhsson 1995:32). Egypt is the downstream riparian of the Nile river, thus every effect on the upstream of the river may have a later effect on Egypt’s source of water and life, especially with its location in the arid region. Thus the river transboundary complexity has put Egypt in a condition of perpetual insecurity with all the other riparian states. The annual flood of the Nile river provides the alluvial soils and water which the irrigated agriculture of Egypt has been based on for thousands of years. Egyptians measured its rise and fall in order to determine when to plant and how much to cultivate; since too much or too little might spell disaster and famine (Collins 1990:1-3, Hultin 1995 cited in Ohlsson 1995:29). Thus, water which supposedly is a common good, provided by nature, becomes a political good that could be twisted in favour or against riparian states. This common good of nature has, at several times, brought out threats and counter threats of war in the region, instead of a nature-connected sharing role. The political play in connection with Nile river brought out the concept called ‘hydropolitics’ through the study of the Nile by John Waterbury in 1979.

Hydropolitics is defined as the authoritative allocation of values and respect to water (Turton & Henwood 2002 cited in Turton 2005:5). It could also be looked at as a function of two variables; the rate of change in hydrologic systems, and the institutional capacity to absorb change (Turton 2003 cited in Earle, 2005: 55). Hydropolitics is all about taking a decision on interboundary water resources by the connecting states. The wind of the power play with this common good is not only associated with the Nile river, but also with few other rivers that interconnect different states. This includes: the Indus basins, where the Indus river serves as source of irrigation for the thickly populated area in the semi-arid region flowing through Indian to Pakistan; and the Parana La Plata basin with its three rivers, Parana, Paraguay and Uruguay connecting five supposedly agricultural states of Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.

In most of these basins, it has been difficult to draft a workable treaty that will assure the party states total security of their own shares for the common good.

The abstraction of water is one of the main drivers of insecurity in transboundary rivers. This process could be done by construction of dams on the river. The present concept of dams brought about by the modernist approach through the hydrocrates with the idea of total domination and control of nature, could curtail the flow of rivers by holding its water for months and years. This is the advent of the recent fear; threat and insecurity being experienced by interconnected riparian states, especially those that are down stream, and the essence of hydropolitics is being played in bringing about acceptable and sustainable policies by the riparian states in different basins. Scattered around the world on rivers are located dams believed to drive electric power or energy for different nations; which has always been the main reasons ascribed for the huge constructions on the rivers worldwide. In North America, Europe and the Former Soviet Union, 71% of the large rivers (pre-manipulation with an annual discharge greater than 350 cubic meter per seconds) are affected by dams and reservoirs, inter basin and water abstraction (Buijse et al 2002 in Ralma & Varies 2005:19). The following section will look at the effects of the current concept of dams which includes high dams in different regions in the world.


The construction of the current concept of dams (the high dams) which has been a source of developmental competition by nations showing their modernistic hydrologic prowess has been shown through different studies to have pre and post construction socio- economic impacts on different regions. El-Sayed and Van Dijken (undated), writing on mediterenean ecosystems agreed that Egyptian agriculture has been blessed with the building of the Aswam High dam, especially providing cheap electric power and necessary irrigation for agriculture. However, the authors posited that

[…]it has also had far-reaching effects on the transport of fertile silt and sediments. These sediments are now trapped behind the dam; a situation which has led to severe erosion along the Egyptian coast. The decrease in fertility of the

southeastern Mediterranean waters caused by the High Dam has had a catastrophic effect on marine fisheries. The average fish catch declined from nearly 35,000 tons in 1962 and 1963 to less than one-fourth of this catch in 1969.

Also, the three Gorges Dam across China’s Yangtze River which were hailed as one of the largest engineering feets in the 20th century were said to have displaced about 1.3 to 2.0 million people (Dai 1998,Chao 2001,Tand and Yao 2006 In Gleick 2009:145). While the proposed dams for Yunnam South Western China were expected to displace about 100,000 people, before the project was abandoned (UNEP/WCMC undated:9).

It has also been found that dams could bring about serious impacts on the downstream ecosystems and culture. The Environmental Impact Statement for dam operations acknowledges the

[…] concern among the State, Federal, and tribal resource management agencies; river users who fished in Glen Canyon and take white water raft trips in Grand Canyon; and native Americans and Environmental groups concerned about the detrimental effects on Culture and plants, animal, and habitats (Lowry 2003:95).

Further, the report of the World Commisioner for Dams makes it

[…] very clear that if we want to solve conflicts over water resources management and dams in a sensible way, we can no longer ignore the range of dam impacts. Of course, dams have numerous benefits, but they have also deprived people of their livelihoods and devastated natural resources, valuable ecosystems and biodiversity.

It was also noted that “currently, 30 % of freshwater fish and over 800 other freshwater species are facing extinction. At the same time, millions of people are losing their homes, land and livelihoods through natural disasters, floods and droughts, or in connection with the construction of new dams” (UNEP, 2001). A recent study of the proposed Tipaimuk Dam in India is expected to have a negative effect on the geotectonic system of the region, which may engender earthquakes in the future (Banu N., 2009:3,Ibitomi S., 2009).


Apart from human and ecological security risks that could be adduced to the building of dams, the high dam syndrome could lead to a national security threat for a riparian state when it is expected to improve the socio-economic security of another riparian state, especially the upstream state. Dams could be used as an instrument of hydrological defence or offence by states. The action of a riparian state in the management of its dam, may affect its riparian neigbour. Thus, “the inability to accomplish these tasks may result in social, economic, and political loses for a state, which may threaten national security” (Zawahri 2008:280). This is because “a threat to national security is an action or sequence of events that threatens drastically and over a relatively brief span time to degrade the quality of life for the inhabitants of the state and also threatens significantly to narrow the range of policy choices available to the government of the state” (Ullman 1983 in Tutton 2003:86).

Dams can also be used as a “water weapon” against a riparian state; it can either be used as an offensive and defensive mechanism against neighbouring states. This is the purposeful manipulation of the interdependent and vulnerable relationships inflicting loses on riparian states (Zawahri 2008:285). Turkey has five large dams along the Euphrates river with the capacity to stop the river flow for three consecutive years (Ka’ddam 2000 in Zawahri 2008:285). River Euphrates feeds Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The river is important to these three arid countries in the region. Sometimes downstream areas could be subjected to flooding if the spillway gate of a dam opens. If turkey decides to open the spill gate of the Karakamis dam (which can discharge 20.000 cubic meters per second) it could flood downstream land due to the topography along the Euphrates being flat (Zawahri 2008:285).


The concept called water security embraces peace and cooperation as one of its thrusting forces. Thus, there is a need to redefine the purpose of the current concepts of dams as projects of development with the attendant consequences that underlies its constructions and operations, especially when the vulnerability and interdependency on international rivers could allow states to cooperate, even with their differences. We have example of this in the Indus River where Pakistan and their Indian neighbour cooperate in the sharing of water, even with a primary conflict in Kashmir. Thus, the need of critically analyzing the effects of the construction of dams on the international rivers should be an object of discourse within inter-riparian groups, because of its effect on water volume or variability, quality and ecosystems. The effects of dams’ construction and its hold on rivers and its water on the tectonic integrity of the world are also to be given priority in development. Thus, the need to identify whether dams are controlling or destroying the water security is becoming more and more evident.


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Oluwole O. Akiyode is a Master of Art candidate of Environmental Security and Peace at the United Nations Mandated University for Peace. He is a Nigerian with a Bachelor of Biochemistry degree from the Federal University of Technology, Akure and Master of Environmental Management from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. He has several published and seminar papers on environmental issues.