12 October 2015

Dam Failure - An American Love Story Grown Cold and Man Ahead of His Time

While much of the developing world is busy preparing, planning, and constructing new dams across the globe, places where dams were constructed a century ago are a harbinger for the catastrophe for human security in the long run due to these flood control/energy generation/storage structures. Check out America folks - this is what happens when you plan with economics in mind, rather than social and ecological frameworks at the center of development.

Recently a hurricane hit the East Coast of the United States. In particular, the hurricane hit South Carolina fairly hard, and they are still recovering. With all the news on TV it is hard to keep up with tragedy. It also seems that we've become a bit desensitized to the tragedy of flooding and coastal inundation. Hurricanes, storm surges, sea level rise once the subject of panic stricken legislators and scientists is mere background noise, perhaps the human toll wasn't high enough to merit attention. NPR released a fascinating analysis of what happened in South Carolina and why we should care - when I say we, I mean the we of the global community. Maybe we can learn from this failure.

The tragedy that occurred in South Carolina was not just about a storm, human cost, and loss of economic value to communities. It is another highlight of the potential major danger in the aging infrastructure in America - not just any aging infrastructure, but infrastructure that Americans trust and build their lives around according to that trust. The article includes some easy to navigate figures that capture the bind we are in - since we have no real cash in our current accounts - it has all gotten tied up in Medicare for the Babyboomers and our engagements overseas - we won't really be able to address this easily. Perhaps the solution is bonds, banks, taxing the rich - but who wants to talk about such things in an election year? We simply trust that the Army Corps of Engineers made decisions 60 years ago that were foolproof. But with privatization, much seems to have fallen out of the public responsibility and the public eye. Of the 87,000 dams in America, 65% are privately managed/owned and there is a major backlog on repairs. 

For the Republicans in the audience - this is a perfect example of why privatization is not the answer - you don't have enough morality, responsibility, or ethical motivation in the private sector. 

We need another G.F. White. You probably haven't hear of him, but this brilliant geographer reasoned that while floods are an act of God, losses due to flooding is largely due to us, to human communities making poor decisions of development, perception, and trust.

His PhD dissertation, Human Adjustment to Floods, published in 1945 challenged the then burst of water development projects across the United States. A 20th century geographer White highlighted the folly of damming America's rivers and coastal areas which resulted in encouraging Americans to build in flood plains, especially poor Americans. His may be the only dissertation I have read all the way through. He was then recognized as someone who changed policy toward dam construction in the United States. His scholarship, which captures common sense approaches to water, including working with water - respecting the massive energy and power that the element has, not trying to harness and control such a destructive force. 

He also went beyond this in his scholarship. His contributions, according to Wikipedia citation, include the following:
  • How to bring safe water to all the world’s people as a human right
  • How to reduce significantly the global toll of hazard deaths and damages
  • How to facilitate peace, through joint water development and management
  • How to make geography (in particular) and science (in general) more useful to the world
  • How to enable people to coexist with nature and develop sustainably.

  • A man ahead of his time, I wonder what he would say about the recent failures in South Carolina, or how he would advise developing nations on dam construction?