Dams and Nature: The Human Impacts

There’s lots of discussion and debate these days about the concept of “ecosystem services,” the benefits that healthy ecosystems provide to society. Many advocates say that we must change the conversation about conservation, and that ecosystem services is a key to that. They argue that we need to start talking about the ways that ecosystems benefit people, because polls are indicating that “protecting nature for nature’s sake” isn’t resonating strongly enough in a world more concerned about the weak economy, poverty, war and other social challenges.

Critics of this approach argue that the concept of ecosystem services is too wonky and geeky for non-technical audiences. They make the point that talking about the need to protect watersheds and wetlands because they purify our water supplies will never arouse passion in the way that a photo of a majestic white ibis in the marsh can.

Do we conserve nature because our minds tell us to do it, or is it our heart that moves us?

One thing is for certain: At least 2 billion people on our planet depend upon rivers directly in their day-to-day lives. Rivers feed them. Rivers grow fish that people eat. When rivers like the Zambezi or the Mekong flood, they naturally irrigate and fertilize floodplains where millions of people plant an amazing variety of crops. They have been doing this for thousands of years, practicing the knowledge of soils, water and crops passed through countless generations.

These 2 billion people don’t care if you call what nature provides them “ecosystem services.” They call it food.

Tragically, just-published research co-authored by myself, Conservancy scientist Carmen Revenga and others suggests that dams have affected at least 500 million of those river-dependent people. People suffer when dams flat-line the naturally fluctuating river flows that have for millennia set the rhythms of fish, crops, and human culture.

I know what this suffering looks like. Just last year, I saw it in the children living downstream of Kariba Dam on the Zambezi. Starvation has bent their legs and drawn their skin tight on their ribcages.

Those images make me very sad. But knowing that these impacts could have been avoided really pisses me off. Check out our paper in this month’s special issue of the journal Water Alternatives. We specify three simple and effective ways to fix or avoid these problems.

The clock is ticking: There are tens of thousands of new dams on the drawing boards for the developing regions of the world.

(Image: Children near the Zambezi’s Kariba Dam. Image credit: Brian Richter/TNC.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. hello Brian Ritcher,
    I am in australia and you are most probably fast asleep as I write this, and thats OK, snooze on.
    Like sleep water is a basic need for healthy living and without either will result in exhaustion and death.

    If we place the importance rivers, and all life forms relying on its waters, below the need for the creation of dams, then all those life forms will eventually cease to be an issue.

    Unless, we who have used and abused our waters in favour of industry and civilian growth, give assistance freely, an alternative to sustain the rest of our world’s rivers healthy existance, we have no grounds for critcism of the people who need an upgrade in living and working conditions.

    We have dammed our rivers and streams to the point of causing droughts at river mouths.

    We have improved our living and working conditions and caused smog and fog to fill our skies.

    We are in the process of stopping pollution from all and sundry; personally and industrially.

    We have stripped the trees and natural coverings of our landscapes to feed our peoples and animals.

    We are trying new methods to conserve the energies of our planet that give healthy living to all its life forms.

    We are using those energies (wind and water), to create clean power supplies.
    We are using drip systems on plants at root level instead of blanket watering from above.
    We are using rain,storm and grey water to reduce the amount of water wastage caused by our life styles.

    We no longer have the need to rape our bushlands
    forests and rivers to create food productive farms, dams and industries.
    We recycle our industries waste water into other industries that each used to drain our rivers.

    Wholesome techniques should not have a cost to the peoples of the river systems that are untouched by mass industry. We who are now attempting to improve our methods and have learned that this is imperative should HELP FREELY the non industrial folk of our one world.
    All the species of this world, whether mammal, fish or bird
    Are provided with their food, whatever their taste
    Each created for the other,
    When the offspring leaves the mother
    There is all the food that’s needed without waste.

    The ants will feed the lizard, and in turn, it feeds the Hawk
    The flies; they feed the spiders, then the frogs.
    The amphibian feeds the snake
    Which the Kookaburras take
    And in time, they’ll all feed ants inside the logs.

    The logs are old Gum Trees that house and feed the bees
    That fertilise the plants we use as foods.
    With rain and sun the crops will flourish
    And when harvested, can nourish
    All the peoples in the world, if we so choose

    Foods for all the nations are here in God’s Creations,
    Glorious is the spirit that’s big enough to care.
    Food goes where it’s needed
    If our sight is not impeded
    Or we keep it for ourselves when there’s enough for all to share.

    In this world of ours we’re brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers,
    We’re all related by living on this earth.
    Whatever we do tomorrow
    Can bring happiness or sorrow
    Today is when we work out what it’s worth.


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