Thou Shalt Not Build Dams – Ever!

The Queensland floods have caused tragic loss of life, vast damage to infrastructure and will cost several billions of dollars. They are among the worst floods in Australia’s twentieth century history. Similar devastation occured in 1918, 1954 and 1974. I know a couple of farmers ‘up north’ and one tells me that after a bad drought comes a bad flood. He adds that this is followed by a couple of good years with ‘bumper crops’. He might be right – I don’t know. At least he is offering a testable hypothesis.

What I do know, though, is that the floods will generate a much-needed public discusion, and hopefully a debate, about the role of dams in flood mitigation. No new dams of significant size have been built in Australia for about three decades. During the recent long drought, the ‘dam’ question arose again but the response from experts and governments was along the lines of ‘Why build a dam if the climate has permanently changed in a way that means there will be less rain in future?’.

Opposition to dams has been a key success in the development of the Green movement and its party since the early 1980s. But to use the term “opposition” understates the situation: it is really ‘demonization’ of dams. In the Green quasi-religion, dams are evil, akin to a Satanic force. Thus, there must NEVER be any new major dams built. Not ever. The Green policy is expressed at their website as a principle: “There should be no new large-scale dams on Australian rivers”. 

Had the Greens been as influential in the second half of the 1970s as they have been since the mid 1980s, it is unlikely that the Wivenhoe Dam, on the Brisbane River, 80 kms from Brisbane, would have been constructed (after years of planning and building, it was opened in 1984). The Wivenhoe was designed, following massive floods in 1974 (on current indications, worse than the present Brisbane flooding), with a flood mitigation function alongside the usual water supply role. Like all dams, it is an example of human beings changing the natural world, by unnatural means, into something very useful and necessary to us in terms of our needs, standard of living and future progress.

During the terrible Australian drought, the Queensland Government moved to build a new dam on the Mary River, the Traveston Crossing Dam. It was seen as necessary to providing reliable water supply to Brisbane. Opposition to it, spear-headed by green activists, was successful and the Traveston dam was never built. Given that the drought had been so severe and gone on for so long, back then the argument that there might not be enough rainfall to justify such a large dam carried some weight to many people. But there were also those who argued convincingly for it and it was only halted because of a decision by the Federal Minister for the Environment in 2009 who was worried about the loss of endangered species (a lungfish, a local turtle and a local cod). In the recent floods, the Mary River peaked (at the town of Gympie) at over 19 meteres. What would have been the flood mitigation impact had the Traveston Corssing Dam been in place?   

To the Green mentality and ethos, changing Nature is destroying Nature, dams are an assault on the ‘delicate balance’ in Nature, an example of human arrogance going ‘too far’. In this regard, the Green mentality and ethos are quasi-religious. The late Michael Crichton put it neatly in a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco in 2003 when he talked of the “remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths’. He said: 

There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe. Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday—these are deeply held mythic structures. They are profoundly conservative beliefs.

(Full text: )

It’s good that he identified them as ‘profoundly conservative beliefs’. They are very reactionary beliefs.

As has been pointed out many times at this site, it is indicative of our strange times that opposition to dams, as a matter of principle, can be seen as left-wing. What is the traditional practice of left-wing parties in power on this question? What is the left-wing theoretical foundation for a policy on dams?

In practice, revolutionary left-wing parties in power – such as the communists in Russia/Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s and China in the 1950s and 1960s – were gung-ho in the building of dams. They did so because making a revolution is about changing things for the better, raising the standards of living and opportunities for liberation from wage slavery. To borrow from Karl Marx, it’s about ‘unleashing the productive forces’ – not forcing them into a sustainable relationship with Nature. It’s about an attitude based on “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” – not ‘tread gently – Nature’s resources are finite’. But this is ‘red’ politics, not green. The Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong was so into dams that in 1956 he wrote a poem about his dream for the Yangtze:

“Great plans are afoot:
  A bridge will fly to span the north and south,
  Turning a deep chasm into a thoroughfare,
  Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west
  To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain
  Till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges
  The mountain goddess if she is still there
  Will marvel at a world so changed”. 

In chapter 1 of The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx expressed his enthusiasm for the revolutionary consequences of the rise of the new bourgeoisie in transforming Nature and extending human horizons. He said:

It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. 

It is unlikely that he would not have been as awe-inspired by the wonders of large-scale dam construction and the range of benefits on such a vast scale arising from dams: the capture and storage of safe and reliable water supply, generation of hydro-electricity, irrigation, flood mitigation and recreational uses (all on a scale unimaginable in Marx’s time).

The Wivenhoe Dam on the Brisbane River worked effectively in mitigating bad floods around Brisbane in 1999 but, alas, despite its 1.4 million megalitre flood mitigation capacity (on top of its water supply capacity of 1.1 million megalitres) it could not stop the extensive damage that occured during the current floods. And to return to the opening point of this article, there needs to be debate about all this. To what extent did the Wivenhoe mitigate the flooding of Brisbane? How much worse would it have been without that mitigation capacity?

There is good stuff on this at Catallaxy 

I know that it will be argued that dams are ‘so 1950s’ but that is not an effective argument unless the proponent can offer something new and better. And, no, the state imposing compulsory water storage tanks in homes is not something better. I live in a trendy inner city suburb and a few of my neighbours have multiple storage tanks in their gardens, a reflection of their susceptibility to climate change alarmism. (They no longer have that glow of self-righteousness about them but will no doubt keep the tanks in place).

An area that interests me greatly is geoengineering and its possible roles in controlling rainfall. I have no expertise in it or in hydrology. But I do know about politics and the politics that declares, as a matter of principle, that there must be no new large dams is a dogmatic, conservative and reactionary politics. It is highly unlikely that adherents of such green politics would support greater funding for research into geoengineering solutions – indeed, geoengineering is abhorrent to them – let alone new dams with enhanced flood mitigation capacities, as appropriate in flood prone regions.

It always strikes me, when these issues arise, how backward the social system of capitalism really is. Human lives and billions of dollars are lost yet only a pittance is invested into research and development into geoengineering, let alone dams, and even that is contested by the reactionaries.   

14 Responses to “Thou Shalt Not Build Dams – Ever!”

  1. 1 Arthur

    Excellent article! Should be adapted for mainstream press.

    This article from “The Age” (and presumably other Fairfax) opinion today 2011-01-12 epitomizes the problem.

    Building more dams is no way to prevent flood catastrophe by Dr Willem Vervoort.

    Author is an associate professor in hydrology and catchment management at the University of Sydney, presumably responsible for education of people planning management of catchment areas.

    First, the worst floods are the largest floods – to reduce the occurrence of large floods we would have to overdesign our dams. This would result in low efficiency and high costs as the dams would be mostly empty, as in the past 10 years of drought. And we can’t accurately estimate the largest possible flood, particularly with predictions of increasing extreme events due to climate change. A dam can never provide full flood protection.

    In other words, a dam providing flood protection would also store water that could be useful during droughts. This is bad!

    A water manager focusing on flood prevention would want a dam to be as empty as possible to store the maximum flood, while one focusing on irrigation, water storage or power generation would like the dam to be as full as possible. As a result, the risk of early spilling is increased, resulting in floods downstream. Many of the major dams are currently full and spilling.

    Therefore we should not fill a dam during floods and release water during droughts!

    Water storage in dams is also inefficient due to high evaporation losses, particularly in areas such as central Queensland.

    Flooding and drought is far more efficient!

    Third, a large body of international research highlights the detrimental effects of dams on the environment, and this is one of the key drivers for the proposed Murray-Darling Basin plan.

    The give away. Author is a pure Public Relations flack. Not just a random nutter incapable of presenting a coherent argument.

    Dams reduce flows and smooth out flow variations. In Australia – the land of droughts and flooding rains – the climate is highly variable, and this creates its natural beauty and diversity.

    Floods are a key element of this environment. Dams cause variations in water quality and temperature that are different from the natural environment and disrupt downstream flora and fauna.

    Droughts and floods are natural and therefore beautiful. Controlling floods and droughts would disrupt flora and fauna!

    More specifically author is a public relations flack for a particularly bizarre nature worshipping cult.

    Finally, some interesting socio-economic research. Dams tend to give a false sense of security to people living below dams and on flood plains; they believe they are 100 per cent safe, which is never the case.

    Almost as bad as seat belts!

    And there is the fact that increasing water supply (through building additional water storages) always leads to increased water use and water demand.

    The real bottom line. People use water, people are “unsustainable” to this cult.

    […lots of smoother talk omitted and summarized by the final quote below…]

    Learning to live with floods rather than preparing to fight floods will lead to a more resilient and prosperous future and allow us to take full advantage of our variable climate.

    There may well be arguments that additional dams are not cost effective for a particular flood plain. But the article studiously avoids economic issues and appeals directly to sheer illogic.

    This raises the broader question of the degeneration of higher education. An associate professor of hydrology and catchment management spreading this kind of garbage is not an isolated phenomena. I recently attended a public meeting at which a professor in the field of electric power argued (in support of renewabls and in opposition to nuclear) that costs were meaningless.

    Our ruling class is now so completely parasitic that it no longer even educates competent people to manage things for them.

  2. 2 Bill Kerr

    There were some good comments about the Wivenhoe Dam on the Brisbane River in the thread following the article arthur linked to.

    Dams can be built for either flood mitigation or water storage. Wivenhoe Dam was built for mitigation but over time its purpose became compromised and it was used for storage, which obviously reduces its mitigation function.

    The notion of high set houses on flood plains was abandoned, perhaps because the Dam provided a false sense of security. Not sure.

    “There are 3 major rivers feeding the Brisbane river – Upper Brisbane, Lockyer & Bremer. Wivenhoe can only mitigate the Upper Brisbane. The current risk to Brisbane is from unmitigated flows from the Lockyer (remember Toowoomba?) and Bremer (Ipswich). Of course dams placed on those 2 rivers would have helped mitigate the current flood more effectively. It is nonsense to argue otherwise.”
    – from a comment by GetReal

  3. 3 Bill Kerr

    Brisbane Floods in Historical Perspective
    Go there to see an informative chart putting the Brisbane floods into historical perspective and a prescient warning from an official report following the 1974 floods:

    Meteorological studies suggest that rainfalls well in excess of those recorded in the floods of 1893 and 1974 are possible. Therefore it seems certain that unless major flood mitigation schemes, such as the proposed Wivenhoe Dam, are implemented, floods even greater than those of 1974 will again be experienced in Brisbane.

    Clearly more could have been done by government to anticipate and mitigate the current situation. Another aspect of wrong policy wrt “wild rivers”.

  4. 4 Arthur

    The Australian today reports a suppressed official study that warned of massively underestimated dangers of flooding in Brisbane.

  5. 5 Arthur

    Congratulations on Seeing red on dams, not green getting into the Australian Friday 2011-01-14.

    Interesting that they copped the “how backward” view of capitalism!

    Comments still open (23 so far).

  6. 6 Bill Kerr

    Without comment a couple of informative recent articles from The Australian:
    How dams became a dirty word
    Damned if they do, damned if they don’t

  7. 7 Bill Kerr

    Bob Brown has today blamed the coal industry for the floods –> Coal barons must pay for flood damage, says Bob Brown

    I’m not a global warming denialist but the problem with his kind of lock step, simplistic thinking is that it promotes an overthrow of a genuine scientific process. All extreme weather is blamed on human activity and the complex process of evaluating the relative contribution of human activity and uncertainty or random fluctuation is abandoned. And of course human activity which contributes to mitigation, such as building dams, is not even considered in The Green contribution to the debate. Climate scientist Judith Curry has some excellent articles on her blog including recent ones on uncertainty and attribution of extreme events.

    judith curry:

    How does attribution help save lives and property? We will still have floods and droughts, whether or not we stop burning fossil fuels. We have a big adaptation deficit with regards to floods, droughts, and hurricanes, relative to the events of the last two decades. If climate scientists were pushing strategies to adapt to extreme events through better land use policies, infrastructure, and better forecasts, then I would be more impressed. Instead, these attribution statements get tied up with statements about reducing CO2 (e.g. Trenberth’s statement, Santer’s statement, Somerville’s statement, etc.) Thinking that floods and droughts and hurricanes will go away if we stop burning CO2 is beyond a joke. Looking back at the 1890′s, we saw a horrendous rash of extreme weather events that had nothing to do with global warming.

  8. 8 Bill Kerr

    Reprinting from the comment thread at Bishop Hill’s blog More on Brisbane Floods about status of the Wivenhoe Dam

    “There are several issues at question with this event and it will remain to be seen if they are all answered publicly.

    Firstly some facts and figures. The 100% capacity of the dam is the capacity perceived for water supply not the dams total capacity. The figures relating to this are laid out in the article in the Australian. The total capacity is then stated as, rightly or wrongly, in the order of 200%. Due to the drought situations in the area a minimum operational level was determined at 60% below which water usage was restricted. This policy I believe was set by the government.

    The actual level of the dam can be seen with the historical graph, interactive, at the bottom of the web page for the dam, which I might add is a really informative page and a credit to Seqwater.

    Between May 2009 and Feb 2010 it can be seen that the level was kept around the 60% level, but from March 2010 the level was increased to 100% and maintained at that level. Jan 2011 shows the influx of water from the severe rainfall in the catchment area reaching a level of around 190% within a few days between 6th of Jan and current.

    So we come to the issues.

    The policy to restrict water usage must have been issued in response to the drought conditions and the scientific advice stating that the world was warming and the drought would be an extended situation for the area. The decision not to relax the restrictions after the dam attained the 60% level was probably influenced by the belief in global warming and the advice of alarmist scientist telling the government what they wanted to hear.

    What was significant about March 2010?

    During the months October to December 2010 there was plenty of published warning that the current build up of the La Nina weather system could provide 1974 levels of precipitation leading to a significant danger of flooding as referenced in the article.

    With the conflicting advice from two scientific sources, one warning of long time drought and one of intense flooding it seems that the dam levels were maintained at 100% instead of preparing for severe influx by reducing the dam level to 60% or possibly beyond.

    The decision to maintain these levels due to the warmist influence was probably the wrong one in hindsight. Hopefully the influences that led to that decision are now not as influential.

    It remains to be calculated if a reduction in the level of the dam during Nov and Dec 2010 would have been enough to reduce the damage and loss of life but one thing is for certain. It would not have made it worse.

    The second issue is the reports that over the weekend of 8th 9th of Jan that those responsible for making the decision about water levels were not available even as the level of the dam was rising significantly. This needs to be substantiated and as such I will not pass comment.

    The river Brisbane has several tributries leading into it and two of these major ones are downstream of the dam. When the decision to lower the level of the dam was taken these tributries were already swollen and influencing the level of the Brisbane river. The intense release of the dam water thus caused a severe increase in an already swollen river. With the dam at 190% and still rising this decision was the only one that could be made at this time. Failure to control the level of the dam would lead to water coming over the top and start a catastrophic failure of the dam leading to unthinkable devastation.

    The second issue needs public investigation which I am sure will happen within time. The first issue requires a change in mindset, not just by Australian authorities but by all. Now it is serious. Now it is costing lives. Now there has to be repercussions. …”
    – Jan 15, 2011 at 11:42 AM | Lord Beaverbrook

  9. 9 Barry

    The original article has been published at On Line Opinion: After about six hours on-line, it received more than 6,300 hits. The OLO editor tells me this is “absolutely extraordinary”.

    What’s going on?!

  10. 10 Bill Kerr

    Yes, Barry, if you scroll to the bottom of the OLO page your article is now listed as this weeks most popular. Well done!

  11. 11 Dalec

    Notice that you concentrate on Brisbane
    extra dams on the various rivers that fed into Ipswich and Brisbane would no doubt assist in flood mitigation there.
    No dam could have protected Grantham from the totally destructive wall of water that swept over it, as Grantham is mostly populated by the rural poor so I suspect it is of no concern to you.
    Likewise most of the towns in Northern Queensland; Rockhampton and so on, are located in the middle of a vast flat plain that really has no place for a dam that would have to accommodate a water volume equivalent to the total area of France at a metre deep.

    In Brisbane the real problem is that building has been allowed in the flood plain that is exercised with only a few meters or so of river rise. There are vast tracts of high land in the city of Brisbane that are reserved for “nature” (the Toohey forest that I drive to work through comes to mind)if homes were built there and the flood plain reserved for parks etc then there would be no problem.
    In the part of Brisbane where I live you see no evidence of floods at all – likewise where I work.
    The people who received the worst floods were the rich who built in prime sites such as Fig Tree Pocket along the river.
    Hence your and the OZ concern I guess.

  12. 12 Arthur

    Dalec could have made a relevant point that dams might not be feasible for some locations in flood plains without the pitiful abuse. I already made the same point towards the end of my first comment. But I don’t think the difficulty presented by having to agree with me explains the aggression.

    Dalec could also have made another relevant comment elaborating on the link supplied in my second comment by explaining that higher land reserved for “nature” could have been developed instead of the flood prone areas that were developed.

    Of course it wouldn’t be Dalec without the pitiful abuse.

    But perhaps there’s something deeper going on. This is a clear cut situation in which climate alarmism has directly cost lives as well as billions of dollars.

    Endless lectures about endless drought seems to have actually resulted in keeping the dams too full vastly reducing the flood mitigation they could have provided.

    Expect a lot of hysterical greenie abuse to shift the blame just as they did in blaming global warming for their oppositin to fuel load reduction that could have saved lives during bushfires.

  13. 13 Barry
  14. 14 Dalec

    Arthur, Barry.
    I suggest you both read this;
    I think she is right on the money here and since she meets with such approval by you on other matters, her views should have weight.
    I think there is general agreement among experts that a 2-3m high levee bank – and the existing dams – would protect that small part of Brisbane that is subject to flooding.
    However the bourgeois property owners along the bank will fight this tooth and nail, hence the suggestion that the taxpayers fund even more dams so that their property values will not be reduced.
    Likewise in many of the Victorian and North Queensland floods, Levee banks are the only solution.
    The elephant in the room in all this, is insurance. In NZ they have a government backed natural disaster insurance scheme that works to force the Insurance companies to pay out I understand. The behaviour of the insurance companies in the present crisis is basically criminal theft; no doubt you too could join the chorus that asks them to be nice.

  1. 1 Life During Wartime: Queensland floods 2010-2011 « Woolly Days

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