Sunday, October 28, 2012

Benefits and sacrifice: The needs of the many

Since the turn of the last century, since the advances in electricity and what it can do, the U.S. and other  countries have concentrated on getting the benefits of electricity to more and more people. Soon came the great electrification projects of the Great Depression and later. Huge numbers of people benefited. Quality of life improved for much of rural America. Farmers' way of life changed drastically. Factories were vitalized. A whole new age changed our lives forever.

Soon came efforts to "harness" the great rivers in the U.S. to produce electricity. There were a few great falls. Niagara comes to mind as one of the first that was harnessed to provide electric power. There are not many great falls of that magnitude, though, so the imagination turned to building dams to use the power of water. It was very costly. Hugely costly. But many were put to work at a time when work was hard to find. The great public works projects of the Great Depression helped pull America out of a terrible time in our history.

In the case of every dam we built, the river backed up and created the lake needed for falling water. People lived in these areas that had to be flooded. They had to be relocated. Sometimes smaller groups of people must sacrifice for the good that will affect so many more people for the better. So they say, and I suppose it is true. In some cases, many of the people that had to be relocated were Native Americans. That is a whole other post.

The Tennessee Valley Authority comes to mind as one of the earliest and largest of these huge projects. Remember how the heros of the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?" were saved at the end of that movie? One of the first dams built in this system was Norris Dam, begun in late 1933. This project relocated 2900 families and necessitated the removal of over 5,000 gravesites. That sounds pretty gruesome.

Another huge public works project begun in the Great Depression, also in 1933, was on the Columbia River in Washington State, a dam across the Grand Coulee gorge. It was another monstrous undertaking of engineering. Huge benefits in electricity and crop irrigations were realized. But again, the created lake flooded much land and people had to be relocated. Some of the Native American descendants of those people are still in court even today, trying to get more money because they were relocated and don't think they were compensated fairly.

Hoover Dam was begun in 1931. It is a marvel of engineering. It is the largest dam in the U.S. It provides power for people in Nevada, Arizona, and California. Lake Mead was created by Hoover Dam, and, of course, people had to be relocated that used to live along the Colorado River. As usual, many were indigenous people living on ancestral lands.

Great dams exist in Canada as well, and great benefits are being derived from these structures. Again, vast numbers of people benefit and a (relatively) few people must be displaced.

There was also a need for electrification of Central and South America. These projects are extremely expensive and beyond the means of most of these small and unstable countries. That is one of the reasons the world bankers, the U.N., and the International Monetary Fund exist. Some of the dams built with "loans" from the word banks, and via the U.N., were not spectacularly huge, but each time, as is always the case, people who lived in the new flood plain had to be displaced.

In the next post, I want to talk about one of these dams, financed by world banks, located in Guatemala.


  1. My father, who was an unabashed environmentalist (by preference and vocation), used to take anyone who visited us automatically to the Hoover Dam when we lived in Las Vegas. He thought the world of it.

    I have a picture of me by the spillway during the only time (I know of) they ever sent water over the spillway. Pretty impressive sight.

    1. That's a wonderful memory. I love Hoover Dam. The Art-Deco statue. Do you remember that?

  2. Well that got the crowds talking.....



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