Water and Power

(source: Waterboard Zuiderzeeland 2008)

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    Water and power

    For a long time water was viewed as a source of power that should be controlled. The Egyptians and Romans set the example, being masters in irrigation and the creation of major water works that controlled water's ways. In more recent time periods large-scale dams for water storage and hy--DROPower became common practice, thereby often displacing entire communities and ecosystems. Furthermore, freely meandering rivers were engineered and tamed to become artificial 'rivers' (canals). Many countries are currently trying to reverse this latter practice by allowing rivers to once again meander freely.

    Water may also be used as a source for exerting political power over others: by depriving other users of water sources of drinking water, whole communities may become vulnerable in their existence.


    'If the dam is constructed blocking the river, not only will the Salween River stop flowing, but so will Shan history. Our culture will disappear as our houses, temples, and farms are flooded.'

    -Shan refugee, Burma (2000)

    A Cartel of Drugs, Gasoline, Smuggling and … Water

    'The city of Maicao, La Guajira in Colombia is quite special in terms of culture. It has Caribbean people, Venezuelans, Guayuu Tribes, Lebanese immigrants and, some years ago, we also had guerillas; all of them living close to each other – and all eager to protect their own interests. About a decade ago a group of people took over the control over a water tank and started selling canned water from it to the local citizens, for about 1000 times the price we used to pay in the big cities. Working as a consultant for a water service company we were asked to help out. We revitalized the water supply system and soon started providing treated water to the local people through the piped system. The cartel thus lost their ‘clients’ and their profitable water business. And the people were happy that they received good quality water in their homes at a fair price.'

    Leonardo Alfonso, Colombia


    Key messages and tips for professionals

    • Water used as hy--DROPower can be a sustainable source of energy.
    • Dam building for hy--DROPower and water supply can have a major cultural and ecological impact; entire cultures and ecosystems may disappear.
    • Positive examples of hy--DROPower plants and dam construction are usually smaller scale projects, with relocation and compensation schemes.
    • The benefits and negative impacts of dam development should be assessed on a river basin scale. The socio-economic aspects of upstream-downstream linkages should thereby be taken into account and form part of the decision-making process.
    • Throughout history water has been used as a means to exert control over others.
    • Political power is not detrimental to sustainable water management as long as it is wisely used and not misused.
    • Lack of transparency (corruption) aggravates problems.
    • A long-term vision of those in power is a prerequisite for sustainable water management.
    • Empowerment of local people through taking part in decision making around responsible water use has proven to be an effective strategy for sustainable water management.