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A case study on urbanisation and devastation

"Dams vs Heritage: The Dilemma"

The case study is based on the recent turmoil in Joshimat, where a significant part of the society has been impacted as it witnessed the horrors of urbanization and the building of dams without paying heed to the environmental risks.Last month in India, a report was presented to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism, and Culture. The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) published the report, revealing that 50 out of 3693 centrally protected monuments have gone "missing". The report titled 'Issues relating to Untraceable Monuments and Protection of Monuments in India' was submitted on December 8, 2022.

The report sparked a few conversations, but people are still "ok" with the disappearance of FIFTY monumental sites. As per the report, no traces for 24 out of 50 monuments can be found. Twelve were engulfed by land encroachment and rapid urbanization, whereas 14 centrally protected monuments were swallowed by dam and reservoir construction.

Out of these three reasons, the slow decay of monuments is understandable since the government had more pressing issues to deal with post-independence, and its focus shifted from heritage preservation to health and educational facilities. Hence, the funding shrank to such an extent that presently, out of 3693 monuments, mere 248 sites are protected by 2,578 security guards. However, destroying a monument to construct a dam seems challenging to digest. 

This case study will look at the inversely proportional relationship between dams and heritage preservation.

Scrolling through the pages of global history, large catchment areas of dams, called reservoirs, have swayed many cultural heritage sites along the way. For instance, the construction of the largest dam on earth: the Three Georges dam in China, ate up many heritage sites; some, like "Zheng Fei Temple" and "The Baiheliang Stone" were fortunate enough to be either relocated or preserved underground, but others did not pass the "preservation benchmark."

On the same grounds, 85% of the artefacts and heritage sites of the 12,000-year-old city, "Of Hasankeyf", in Turkey, were destroyed with the construction of reservoirs for the controversial Birecik and Ilisu Dams in 2019. The city of Hasankeyf, located in the Batman province of southeastern Turkey, on the banks of the Tigris River, is considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, which was nearly destroyed in the flooding of the reservoir.

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What's worse is that the internet is filled with similar instances, where dam construction has caused damage to cultural heritage sites, where only a few like Abu Simbel temples in Egypt make it out of the misery alive; others rust in the waters for years to come.

The issue is that the dam's construction cannot do without first initiating the building of a large water body. The water stored in this body, also called the reservoir, fuels hydroelectricity generation. Hence, the larger the area, the higher the power generated. But, the ugly side is the more significant the area, severe the damage to surrounding areas.

And dams have not only swallowed entire villages and towns like "The lost village of Ontario, in Canada, but they have also caused severe damage to the biodiversity. Dams are notorious among environmentalists and scientists for the severity of the damage they cause during and post their construction.

"Dams can have a huge impact on World Heritage sites, reducing precious natural wetland areas, changing river flows and also endanger local communities," Tim Badman, Director of IUCN's World Heritage Programme, said.

According to the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), as of 2019, there were more than 58,700 large dams in the world, defined as those taller than 15 meters or with a storage capacity of more than 3 million cubic meters.

The data revolving around the number of heritage sites impacted due to dam construction is limited; however, digging in the archives, in the year 2000, a report was published by UNESCO, per which more than 100,000 heritage sites have been destroyed or submerged due to the construction of dams.

"International Rivers Organization", a body extensively included in preserving rivers and their surrounding communities, highlighted global heritage sites that might fall prey to dam damage. A few of the top sites include Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas – CHINA, which is globally known for its varied biodiversity, lake Turkana – the world's largest desert lake tucked in Kenya that makes life a little easier in this arid country and Talamanca Range-La Amistad Reserves/La Amistad National Park in PANAMA/COSTA RICA, which is the most outstanding natural reserve park in entire North America.

We know the consequences:

The world has seen the peril of Joshimath, the underlying cause: irresponsible dam construction. The dam failure of the South Fork dam in 1889, which washed away an entire city of Pennsylvania, is described as the worst artificial disaster in American history; the cause of dam failure- was ignorance by convenience. The significant loss of biodiversity in the great barrier reef due to the dam of the same name on the Burdekin River in Australia or an increase in the humidity due to more than required water storage in reservoirs, the threat is not just limited to heritage loss but the loss of biodiversity, relocation of humans and aquatic life along with tarnishing river basins and climate.

The blame game: who is responsible for the loss of heritage?

Undoubtedly, the government has a detrimental role to play in the loss of heritage. From sanctioning the construction of dams to determining the extent of dam projects, official bodies are heavily included. However, the blame cannot be pinned entirely on the government. We, as a whole society, are also responsible. 

How?

Apart from society-led revolutions that can save cultural heritage, preservation heavily depends on "the will to preserve". 

During the construction of the three Georges dams in China, numerous artefacts were stolen by professional scavengers and local farmers in the guise of dam construction. Many of these, including a bronze spirit tree dating to the Han dynasty, went up for sale via dubious channels. Although saved, this destroyed their archaeological context linked to artefacts. Apart from looting, we do not have any severe dearness to our heritage. Often people are seen scribbling their names on the walls of these timeless relics and leaving behind trails of plastic; in a few cases, few are even seen spitting and pissing on these monuments. Now, we ask you, why would the government or any environmentalist advocate for preserving our heritage when we do not respect the century-old legacy left behind by our ancestors? 

Why build dams in the first place?

If dams cause such massive devastation, then why build the dams in the first place?

Dams are constructed to generate electricity via water potential. But, in the age when non-renewable resources are sparse and other renewable resources are still in the development phase, hydro potential becomes our last resort. And the higher the dam's elevation, the more significant the power generation; hence, dams thrive in mountainous regions. 

Globally, in 2005, around 17% of global power was produced by hydropower plants, and the generation in 2021 dropped by 3% more than the previous year, which is a cause of global concern. If the scenario remains the same, we will not be able to meet net-zero scenario goals, producing 5700 TWh of electricity through hydro potential by the end of 2030. 

To realize the goal, we must follow a trajectory of 3% of year-on-year growth from 2021 to 2030. But, unfortunately, we are already lagging on that front.

So, if building dams is detrimental, should we sacrifice the past for the future?

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The final thoughts:

Dams are constructed for society's social, economic, and political upliftment, showering people with the benefits of electricity and agricultural aid. So the question might arise, what to choose: The thriving economy of the present or preserving the heritage of the past?

However, here is the thing. We do not have to choose between the two. There is no need to sacrifice today's development for the past's sake. We can, instead, co-exist and save both. Building small-scale hydro projects that are not only environment-friendly but sufficient to sustain the energy needs of smaller areas, dismantling and relocating the artefacts, and adequate preservation and safety of the artefacts are the ways we can safeguard our legacy along with continuing to progress.   

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