RIVER REPUBLIC: THE FALL AND RISE OF AMERICA’S RIVERS

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma, Independent Reviewer

An authoritative exposé of the political economy of river management in the United States

River Republic: The Fall and Rise of America’s Rivers, Colombia University Press, 2012

Dictatorships are loathed the world over for the fatalities they cause. But rarely have democracies been reprimanded for the living rivers they destroy. Isn’t it a fact that the United States of America has led the world in inflicting grievous damage on its rivers?

It indeed is! In its two centuries of experience in manhandling rivers, the US Army Corps of Engineer has dammed, diverted and dried up nearly all the country’s rivers. It apparently never occurred to this elite force that moving water could also be a resource. Pouring concrete to impound or divert flows has prevailed as a water development strategy known as ‘water hubris’ guiding river management. As a result, some 3.3 million small and big dams have converted free-flowing rivers into a series of interconnected reservoirs in the US. Yet none of these projects have lived up to the promise of being self-sustaining. Annual maintenance expenditures alone have caused the initial cost–benefit calculus to go haywire.

Dam building and river engineering generate sufficient political capital to sustain themselves while water projects have become instruments of power, prestige and political gamesmanship. To get a sense of how water hubris has been nurtured, Daniel McCool, Professor of Political Science at the University of Utah, provides bio-sketches of two leading agencies: the US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Bureau of Reclamation. Through their relentless pursuit to “curb the sinful rivers,” these two agencies have turned water hubris into a moral right, almost in religious terms, to conquer rivers. No wonder, then, that calls for new water projects are almost always accompanied by dire projections of impending “water crises.” The actual crisis is that the real requirements of water management are lost in the din.

The collapse of the Teton Dam on World Environment Day in 1976 may have been the tipping point. From a 27 km long reservoir, 80 billion gallons of water swept through the 305-feet-high earth-filled dam killing about a dozen people in Rexburg, Idaho. Ironically, the disintegration of the Machhu Dam in Gujarat in 1979, which killed as many as 25,000, hasn’t had any impact on the prevailing water hubris in India.

It has been officially acknowledged that there are 15,237 dams in the US with high hazard potential. As many as 890 of these dams have been dismantled due to public outrage. Water hubris appears to be giving way to a new water ethic in the US. Inspiring accounts of citizen triumphs against the institutionalized annihilation of rivers are worth emulating.

McCool confirms that not only has the status quo been challenged, but that some rivers are returning to their free-flowing condition. River instigators are working their way through a maze of institutional obstacles. River restoration is now something of a cottage industry. Indeed, there are as many as 2,500 non-profit groups in the US partnering with the agencies that originally built the dams now working to restore rivers to their pristine status.

River Republic is an authoritative exposé of the political economy of river management in the United States. McCool stresses that the great challenge for this generation is to figure out a way to reverse the downward corkscrew of our rivers before we reach a point where there is nothing left to save.

Personal anecdotes and insightful analysis make it an important book. River Republic offers essential lessons for entrenched water bureaucracy.

 


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