Rivers are sacred in many cultures and central to the World’s early civilizations, from Mesopotamia and Egypt to India and China. Perhaps this was on his mind when Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, famously (if ironically) called mega dams the “temples of modern India.” He would have been more prescient in calling them “temples of doom” given the enormous human, environmental and economic costs of these behemoths. In India alone, since independence, by some estimates nearly 50 million people have been displaced.
Women have been at the forefront of struggles around the world to keep our rivers flowing in the face of the huge barriers posed by vested interests – energy, construction and agricultural corporations and the governments that serve them on the one hand, and growing energy demands on the other. Medha Patkar, a leader in India’s Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada River Movement) recognized the special connection between women and rivers when she said, “women’s rights and lives are often more rooted in natural resources than in marketable commodities, they tend to appreciate the non-quantifiable value of [these] resources more than men.” These resource struggles have become all the more difficult in the context of climate change as energy-hungry corporations and countries are championing large dams as sources of clean, green energy. But it is clear to our partners in the global South and to us that they are false solutions – mega dams inundate rural valleys, destroy forests and force small farmers and indigenous communities off their land. And by wiping out forests that take carbon out of the earth’s atmosphere and creating huge reservoirs that emit methane, they destroy natural systems and increase global warming. March is a special month for us at Grassroots International. It commemorates International Women’s Day (8th), the International Day of Action against Dams and for Rivers, Water and Life (14th) and World Water Day (today, March 22nd). To commemorate these special days, our allies at International Rivers released a special issue of World Rivers Review that focuses on women, rivers and dams. “Women look after the seed of life, work the most and go hungry the most often. We have to be in command and cannot remain in the shadows anymore,” said Soniamara Maranho of Grassroots International partner, Brazil’s Movement of Dam-affected Peoples (MAB) at the third international gathering of people affected by dams and other mega water projects in Temacapulin, Mexico in October 2010. Grassroots International supported our ally MAPDER (Mexican Movement of People Affected by Dams and in Defense of Rivers) to organize that gathering. The first of these international meetings happened in the Mekong basin in 1993, in Rasa Salai, Thailand. The Mekong is once again in the news as the governments of Laos and Thailand plan the construction of the Xayaburi Dam, a mega project on the Mekong that will cause irreparable damage to the lifeline on which millions of people in mainland Southeast Asia depend. Grassroots International recently joined our partners and allies in sending a letter to the Laotian and Thai governments calling on them to cancel the project and support the resource rights of their people. Photo courtesy Karen Robinson