Water Quality and Dams


The process of damming rivers is a practice that is common to humanity. There are several reasons to construct a dam ranging from storage of water for arid regions to recreational purposes to the production of hydroelectric power. Large hydroelectric dams are responsible for 19% of the world’s total electricity production. [1] Although this is a renewable source of energy compared to electricity produced by fossil fuels there are a number of negative environmental and social impacts that come with introducing dams into communities.

The need to find ways to create electricity from renewable resources like water has become of growing importance. The economic benefits, however, must not overshadow what happens to the people that must either be moved from the area or will have their environments completely changed. Many studies have looked at what kinds of health problems are associated with dam projects. Some well documented problems include malnutrition, due decreases in the variety of fish in the river, the spreading of infectious disease due to increased migration to the area, and reduced access to health services after being displaced from their homes.[2] [3] [4] One of the most menacing issues with dam construction projects, however, is the contamination of water. For riverine communities water is a means of life involving everything from transportation to food to recreation. If the water becomes contaminated several health consequences can occur from becoming poisoned from chemicals, high rates of gastrointestinal illness, and malnutrition.

Health Impact

Through the contamination of water where local communities drink, bathe, swim, or fish, large hydroelectric dam projects have a variety of severe health impacts. Chemicals related to the dam construction process can contaminate the water and subsequently poison the populations who rely on that water for drinking. This happened with the Tucuruí Dam on the Tocantins River in Brazil. Chemicals were used during the deforestation process and got into local water supplies subsequently killing the workers and the native populations.[5]
High levels of mercury have been found in people living downstream from dams, especially near to mines. Bacteria in the reservoir water convert any mercury in the water from the dam into methylmercury, which is a central nervous system toxin. High concentrations of methylmercury in fish that is consumed by the population is of great concern to pregnant woman because these chemicals adversely affect brain and nervous system of the baby causing damage to memory, attention, language and motor skills. [6]

Another health impact of poor water quality caused by dams is cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria are a type of microscopic algae produced from quickly eutrophied (nutrient enriched) water such as the water found in dams of tropical areas. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China had led to an elevation of water temperature and a
reduction in the flow of the Yangtze River, thus creating conditions ideal for the growth of cyanobacteria.[7]
These cyanobacteria can cause a range of gastrointestinal and allergenic illnesses in humans. Some cyanobacteria can even promote liver cancer during chronic low exposure.

Schistomes_LifeCycle.gifLarge dams create pools of stagnant water, which are breeding grounds of disease carrying insects. Problems with infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue, hepatitis, schistosomiasis, and river blindness have arisen in areas once thought of as having eradicated such diseases. One such example is the Aswan Dam in Egypt where the rate of schistosomiasis rose from 21% to 75% during the construction of the dam and has reached a 100% incidence rate in some communities. Schistosomiasis caused by a parasitic flatworm that is carried by infected freshwater snails. The flatworm, known as a schistosome, bores through the skin through the person if they wades or swims through an area contaminated with infected snails and enters their bloodstream where they lay eggs. The eggs can spread to the brain, liver, spinal cord, lungs, bladder, and several other organs damaging tissue in its path. Schistosomiasis can cause diarrhea, cirrhosis of the liver enlargement of the lymph glands, and weakens the body making it vulnerable for other diseases.[8]

Medical Anthropology Research

Medical anthropologists have done many studies on the health impacts related to the construction of dams. Water-related diseases are included in these works such as with Edward K. Mburugu’s work with the Kiambere Hydroelectric project in Africa that saw increased incidence of water-borne diseases and malaria.[9] Studies have also been done on River Blindness in Burkina Faso. Dr. Satish Kedia has done work with the health impacts of the Tehri Hydroelectric Dam project in India.[10]

Along with Dr. Kedia researchers such as Barabas and Bartolome looked at the displacement and relocation of populations and Oliver-Smith studied resettlement issues due to development projects, and Santos and de Andrade looked at these issues with indigenous populations in the Brazilian Amazon.[11] [12] [13]
Information gained from these anthropologists has aimed to produce an exhaustive account of the issues caused by development projects and offer policy suggestions and advice to reduce the negative impacts of those affected and displaced. Most anthropologists working in relation to dam projects are focused on displacement, resettlement issues (Dr. Anthony Oliver-Smith, Dr. Gregory Button, Dr. Satish Kedia), nutrition, and food insecurity (Dr. Yvonne Braun). Although these works do include some information on water quality and its affect on health, most of the information is found in the public health field.

Applied Work

Applied environmental anthropologists and applied development anthropologists are familiar with the social impacts on a community created by dams. Not only are they capturing the health effects of poor water quality but also many applied anthropologists are brought in to address issues in environmental, development, or health policy. Research on information-processing technologies and how decisions are made for development projects are two avenues in which applied anthropologists can help to create interventions. Finally, applied anthropologists stress the importance of including the local community in the research and intervention process so that communities are defining the issues that they deem as most important.[14]

An important model for resettlement proposed by Michael Cernea is the Impoverishment Risks and Reconstruction (IRR) model, which seeks to identify risks associated with forced displacement and illuminate the processes necessary for the reconstruction of livelihoods. The model highlights the negative effects that populations may face when being forced to move because of a dam project. These impacts include loss of access to health services and the increase of poor water quality. By taking these potential risks into account, the IRR model serves as a guide for conducting research as well as informing program interventions to prevent these risks for poor health outcomes from occurring.[15]

Online Resources

International Rivers – Still water, deep troubles

Dam related problems in Mozambique

Further Reading

Braun, Yvonne A.
2010 Gender, Large-scale development, and food insecurity in Lesotho: an analysis of
the impact of the Lesotho Highlands Water projects. Gender and Development

De Wet, Chris
2006 Development-induced displacement: problems, policies, and people. New
York:Berghahn Books.

Friedman, John T.
2009 Context and Contestation in the Development Process: Lessons from Kaokoland
(Namibia). European Journal of Development Research 21(3): 325-343.

La Rovere, E. L., and F. E. Mendes
2000 Tucuruí Hydropower Complex, Brazil. A World Commission on Dams case
study prepared as input to the World Commission on Dams, Cape Town,
  1. ^ Perlman, Howard
    2012 Hydroelectric Power Use. http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/wuhy.html, accessed April 24, 2012.
  2. ^ Gaur, Mokshika and Soumendra M. Patnaik
    2011 Who is Healthy among the Korwa?. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 25(1):85-102.
  3. ^ Erlanger, Tobias E., Somphou Sayasone, Gary R. Krieger, Surinder Kaul, Pany
    Sananikhom, Marcel Tanner, Peter Odermatt, and Jürg Utzinger
    2008 Baseline health situation of communities affected by the Nam Theun 2 hydroelectric project in central Lao PDR and indicators for monitoring. International Journal of Environmental Health Research 18(3):223-242.
  4. ^ Sleigh, Adrian
    2001 Dams, Development, and health: a missed opportunity. The Lancet 357:570-571.
  5. ^ La Rovere, E. L., and F. E. Mendes
    2000 Tucuruí Hydropower Complex, Brazil. A World Commission on Dams case study prepared as input to the World Commission on Dams, Cape Town, www.dams.org
  6. ^ Burma Rivers Network
    2012 Healthy Rivers, Happy Communities for now and the Future. http://www.burmariversnetwork.org/key-concerns/social-impacts.html, accessed March 24, 2012.
  7. ^ Bartram, Jamie, Wayne W. Carmichael, Ingrid Chorus, Gary Jones, and Olav M. Skulberg.
    1999 Chapter 1 Introduction. In Toxic Cyanobacteria in Water: A guide to their public health consequences, monitoring and management. Ingrid Chorus and Jamie Bertram eds. London: E & F Spon.
  8. ^

    Goldsmith, Edward and Nicholas Hildyard
    1984 Dams and Disease. In The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams. Camelford, UK: Wadebridge Ecological Centre.
  9. ^

    Mgburu, Edward K.
    1994 Dislocation of Settled communities in the development process: The case of Kiambere Hydroelectric Project. In Involuntary Resettlement in Africa: Selected Papers from a Conference on Environment and Settlement Issues in Africa. Cynthia C. Cook ed. Washington DC: The international Bank for Reconstruction.
  10. ^ Kedia, Satish
    2004 Changing Food Production Strategies among Garhwali Resettlers in the Himalyas. Ecology of Food and Nutrition 43(6):421-442.
  11. ^

    Barabas, Alicia and Miguel Alberto Bartolomé
    1973 Hydraulic development and ethnocide: The Mazatec and Chinantec people of Oaxaca, Mexico. Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.
  12. ^ Oliver-Smith, Anthony
    2009 Development & Dispossession: the crisis of forced displacement and resettlement. Sante Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.
  13. ^ Santos, L. A. O., and L. M. M. de Andrade
    1990. Hydroelectric dams on Brazil’s Xingu River and indigenous peoples. Cultural Survival Report 30. Cultural Survival, Cambridge, MA.
  14. ^

    McGuire, Thomas R.
    2005 The Domain of the Environment. In Applied Anthropology: Domains of Application. Satish Kedia and John van Willigen eds. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
  15. ^

    Cernea, Michael
    2000 Risks, Safeguards and Reconstruction: A Model for Population Displacement and Resettlement. Economic and Political Weekly 35(41):3659-3678.