For decades, the western United States was ground zero for one of the greatest experiments humans had ever undertaken: replumbing the world’s rivers. As Marc Reisner cataloged so forcefully in the book Cadillac Desert, dam builders pursued these mega-projects with little regard for whether they were needed, or what effects they would have on people or the environment. It was an experiment fueled less by need than by greed.

A member of the Mundukuru tribe looks into the camera, in the background construction of a dam is taking place.
A member of Brazil’s indigenous Munduruku tribe looks on the São Manoel dam site that has destroyed part of his ancestral homeland on the Teles Pires River. | Photo by Caio Mota, Forum Teles Pires.

Dam-builders undertook this gargantuan effort without clearly understanding what they would lose – the healthy, productive rivers that were once said to be so thick with fish that you could walk across a river on their bodies.

The U.S. didn’t keep this ecosystem-devastating technology to themselves. Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation busily exported dam technology to other countries around the world, selling these large dams as temples to modernity. Developing countries conveniently gave American companies and engineers fat contracts to build them.

Many U.S. dams are now nearing the end of their lifespan, and dam removals have increased exponentially. But the hydropower boom is still reverberating through the rest of the world. Large dams are being planned and developed on major rivers like the Mekong, the Amazon, and the Congo, where millions depend directly on their rivers for food and livelihoods. 

This is madness. In too many cases, local communities shoulder the financial burdens and social and environmental impacts while the developers walk away with a profit. And in an era of climate change, hydropower is a risky and insecure energy source that’s deeply vulnerable to increasingly severe droughts and floods. Furthermore, dams lower the climate resilience of riverine communities. It’s time to find another way.

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