inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #0 of 86: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 21 Sep 05 08:36
Our next guest is journalist Jacques Leslie, whose latest book, "Deep 
Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment," 
has earned enthusiastic praise from The Columbia Journalism Review and 
On Earth Magazine, and garnered the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress 

Jacques's journalism career began at age 24, when the Los Angeles Times 
sent him to Vietnam to cover the war. While on assignment there he exposed 
the horrifying conditions for prisoners in South Vietnam's notorious 
"tiger cages," the profiteering of South Vietnam military officers, and 
the disparity between the U.S. Embassy's public utterances and its 
internal reporting. His book about his experiences -- "The Mark: A War
Correspondent's Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia" -- was published in 1995.

He has also covered the fall of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia, Indira
Gandhi's conviction on election malpractice charges in India, and the 
deaths of Spain's Francisco Franco and China's Mao Tse-tung.

Leading the conversation is Ted Newcomb. Ted has three Master's degrees --
in religion, theology and most recently philosophy. His vocational life has
spanned a variety of careers, 4 years doing oceanography with NOAA, a stint
with the Federal Reserve, 12 years in youth, singles and divorced
ministries, 14 years in the hotel and resort industry and two years as a
live-in caregiver for a family member with Parkinson's disease. A first-time
grandfather, he has recently relocated to Phoenix to properly spoil his
granddaughter and is presently managing a resort hotel in Scottsdale,

Welcome to Inkwell, Jacques and Ted!
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #1 of 86: It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Wed 21 Sep 05 11:10
Great to be here Cynthia, Jacques it is a privilege. 

Jacques, the genius of your book is in personalizing the subject which
tends to be overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem, the 400 page
reports, the various United Nations committees, the World Bank, the
NGO's, etc. How were you drawn to the water crisis, dams in particular,
and how and why did you structure your book in the way that you did?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #2 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Wed 21 Sep 05 13:05
Thanks for having me, Cynthia, and for taking this on, Ted. I'm grateful to
both of you.

The book arose out of the research I did starting in mid-1999 for a Harper's
Magazine piece that ended up being titled "Running Dry: What Happens When
the World No Longer Has Enough Freshwater?" That led to the discovery that
dams seemed to occupy  the very heart of the debate over water, or, to put
it another way, that of the various subjects associated with water scarcity,
it is dams that provoke the most argument, conflict, and passion. As a
writer, I saw lots of potential there.

Then, when I started researching dams, I learned that an institution called
the World Commission on Dams was in the midst of its deliberations. The WCD
was created out of the World Bank's frustrations in building dams. By about
1995, it had grown extremely frustrated by the capacity of meagerly financed
but dedicated nongovernmental organizations led by the International Rivers
Network in Berkeley to tie up huge projects in long delays and controversy
until project investors grew impatient and abandoned the project. The Bank
found its projects so snarled by these controversies that it reluctantly
agreed to a proposal made by dam opponents to create an independent
international commission that would review the impacts and performance of
Bank dams and issue recommendations on how they should be built in the
future. The Bank complacently assumed that such a commission would generally
validate dams, but it made one interesting caveat: instead of agreeing to a
commission that would study Bank dams, it called for a commission that would
study _all_ 45,000 large dams (dams, that is, at least 15 meters, or 50 feet
tall), apparently so attention would be diverted from the Bank's numerous
dam fiascos.

The Bank then teamed up with a semi-official NGO called the World
Conservation Union (or IUCN, after its French initials) to create the
commission. Nominees for its twelve commissioners were placed in three
categories-- prodam, mixed, and anti-dam-- and four commissioners were drawn
from each category. The commission first met in 1997, worked hard and
seriously, and contrary to the predictions of many observers who thought it
could never produce a unanimous report, issued precisely that in November
2000. It was so critical of dams' performance and contained so many
guidelines for future construction-- 26 of them-- t hat the Bank turned its
back on its creation, and has since embraced a policy of wholeheartedly
building as many huge dams as it can.

At first I thought I'd write a history of the commission, and nearly signed
a contract to do that. Thank goodness I was divertedâ€-- that would have
been a nearly impossible task, requiring interviews with a hundred-plus
people spread all over the world and visits to dozens of remote dam sites.
Instead, at the last minute Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the nation's leading
literary publisher and a champion of narrative nonfiction, entered the
picture, and asked for a narrative nonfiction book on water. I immediately
saw that I could choose the most interesting person from each of the WCD's
three commissioner categories, and write a book consisting of profiles of
the three of them. That's what I did. In some ways the book was modeled
after another tripartite work of narrative nonfiction, John McPhee's
_Encounters With the Archdruid_, and it helped that all 27 of McPhee's books
have been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. My editor, Paul Elie, knows
McPhee, and knows what's involved in narrative nonfiction. Paul's guidance
benefited the book enormously.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #3 of 86: It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Wed 21 Sep 05 15:42
It's amazing that a commission comprised of such diverse viewpoints
could reach any consensus at all. Once you determined the approach you
wanted to take, what was your bias going into all of this and did it
change over the three years you spent with your research and the people
involved? Were you surprised at all?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #4 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Fri 23 Sep 05 11:35
To be sure, the antidam side got a number of breaks after the commission was
formed. One was that the person expected to be the most stridently prodam
member, a past president of the dam engineers' association called the
International Commission on Large Dams, or ICOLD, resigned soon after the
commission began meeting. He complained that his honorariums weren't big
enough, but I suspect he also took a look at the composition of the
commission and decided he didn't want to spend the next couple of years
defending his views. He was replaced by another ICOLD past president, Jan
Veltrop, also an engineer, whose transformation during the WCD's proceedings
is commonly credited with its success. He seemed to be genuinely startled by
the social impacts of dams that he hadn't known about before, and so his
prodam position softened a little. For endorsing the WCD report, he earned
the vilification of many of his fellow engineers. On the other hand, Kader
Asmal, the South African water minister (now education minister) who chaired
the commission, singled Veltrop out for his courage after the report was
published. Finally, yet another prodam commissioner, Goran Lindahl, was CEO
of ABB, Ltd., a huge conglomerate that got out of the dam business during
the Commission's existence, so Lindahl had less at stake in the argument.
However, all that said, I think it was the mass off evidence that the
Commission accumulated in its many studies that chiefly dictated its
conclusions about dams' performance.

I started the project with a more accepting view both of the World Bank and
dams in general than I finished with. The Bank's historical disregard for
people displaced by dams, even as it called itself "the anti-poverty
organization," even as it calls itself "the anti-poverty organization," was
telling for me. And though I still can see that dams have increased
agricultural production and eased water shortages in many places, it became
clearer to me that the increases ususally favor the wealthy, and that the
longterm negative impacts will in any case eventually override them. It
seems to me imperative to shift some of the money now invested in dams to
conservation and technologies that are much less damaging.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #5 of 86: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 23 Sep 05 11:52

(NOTE: Offsite readers with comments or questions can send email to
<> to have them added to this conversation)
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #6 of 86: Sharon Brogan (sbmontana) Fri 23 Sep 05 12:21
I had planned, of course, to have finished the book before the
conversation began. Instead I have been distracted by hurricanes and
only began reading last night; so I will be reading the book and the
conversation simultaneously. 

I look forward to both.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #7 of 86: It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Fri 23 Sep 05 12:58
Your book begs the question if there is such a thing as a 'good' dam.
Many of us would think the Hoover Dam would fit that description. Would
you talk a bit about the Hoover Dam and its impact?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #8 of 86: Rip Van Winkle (keta) Fri 23 Sep 05 13:36
Speaking of hurricanes, I just read a line in a Rita news update that
said, "in addition, environmentalists are warning of possible oil
spills..."   It struck me, why do the "environmentalists" always get
stuck with the warning?  Why not, "engineers are warning..." or
"refinery operators warned..."?  Or even, "reasonable people are

Did any of the people picked for the anti-dam side change/evolve their
positions while working on the commission?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #9 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Fri 23 Sep 05 17:47
#7 The prologue describes the benefits and detriments of Hoover in some
detail. What seems fair to add now is that it stands as a kind of symbol of
its generation, when its bounty of electricity and water was understood but
its monumental environmental damage was not. It's my fervent hope that we
are now on the edge of a new era, in which we find ways to coexist with our
natural surroundings rather than "conquer" them. If conquest remains the
goal, it's obvious to me that nature will be the conqueror.

#8 Your point about hanging these conclusions on environmentalists is a good
one. The problem is, in many cases it _is_ only environmentalists who issue
warnings like these. For example, refinery operators surely understand the
risk of spills in the Gulf, but they probably don't want to talk about it.

The question about changes of position on the antidam side of the Commission
is an interesting one. The antidam commissioners made changes, but they were
usually tactical ones, not changes of heart or changes arising out of some
revelation or other. For some time during the negotiations over the final
report, for instance, they supported a recommendation that all displaced
people should have the right of "free, prior and informed consent" to a
project and its resettlement program. But other commissioners refused to
support that, and the final report ended up recommending informed consent
only for indigenous peoples, who have comprised perhaps 30 or 40% of the
40-80 million people displaced by dams.

Throughout the commission process, the antidam commissioners and their NGO
allies outmaneuvered the prodam people. Whenever the commission met, the
antidam people held meeting after meeting to figure out a common strategy,
while the prodam people never organized, and sometimes even made fun of the
antidam people's meetings. The prodam people made numerous misjudgments,
including what I think was the key one, which was to assume that the data
being compiled on dams' performance would support their assumptions.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #10 of 86: Philippe Habib (phabib) Fri 23 Sep 05 22:44
I am also not quite done with the book yet, but only about 2/3 of the
way through.  As I read the book I found that I was not reading as much
about dams and their technical effects as I had thought I would and
more about  the dams and their societal effects and the people impacted
by them.

Having read the first 2 sections, I still don't see a strong anti dam
case so much as I see a very strong case for the better treatment of
those displaced and the need to solve all of our problems with more
appropriate technology rather than the large expensive projects that
only benefit the richest companies from the richest countries.

This leads me to think that a large dam is not the solution every time
but I still can't imagine life without the benefits of power and
stable water supply that large dams provide.

Have I missed the intent of the book?  What has your research led you
to conclude about dams as a whole?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #11 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Fri 23 Sep 05 23:10
phabib, the book's third section deals chiefly with environmental effects.
I'd prefer that you read it before I answer your question. If you still feel
the same way then, I'd be glad to respond.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #12 of 86: virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Sat 24 Sep 05 07:36
"der alex" writes from off-Well:

You said you`d prefer to invest more money in technologies that are less
damaging than dams. Knowing all the environmental and personal tragedies
it`s a fine idea, but which realistic alternatives do you see that can
displace dams and their tasks in agriculture, energy and drinking water
production, and which options have the anti-dam lobby (if one exists) to
realize these alternatives against the pro-dam lobbyists?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #13 of 86: It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Sat 24 Sep 05 10:28
It would seem from your book that we have the World Bank ignoring its
own Commission and pursuing the building of large dams, we have a
Commission that actually produced a well-thought out report, and we
have the politics involved in the individual countries that need both
the water resources available from building these dams and the
financing from the World Bank. And we do not as yet have new
technologies or the willingness to pursue them. Is that a fair

And if so, what are some practical strategies for working through this
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #14 of 86: It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Sat 24 Sep 05 10:35
DEEP WATER also brings together two great themes that seem to be in
the background of our modern consciousness, technology and
globablization. We seem to have this 'faith' that somehow these two
forces are now coming together and all will be well. Obviously, that is
not the case, would you speak to that a bit?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #15 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sat 24 Sep 05 10:36
I'm not sure what question the last clause is asking, but as for "realistic
alternatives," there's a substantial list that includes both traditional and
new technologies, including rainwater harvesting, water recycling, drip
irrigation, desalination (for water supply) and solar, wind, fuel cells, and
pump and turbine redesign (for energy). In the Indian state of Rajasthan, a
fellow named Rajendra (my spelling may be off) won the Magsaysay Prize (a
kind of Nobel Prize for the developing world) by developing a system of
ponds and rainwater harvesting that recharged groundwaer, revived streams,
and rejuvenated villages in an arid area. I hope to write about this work
some day. At the other end of the technology spectrum, the price of desal
has dropped so much recently that urban water managers now look on it as a
preferable alternative to dams, among other reasons because the water it
delivers is more reliable (i.e., not subject to drought).

Remember, too, that 70% of the water humans use is for agriculture, and the
amount of water wasted in agriculture is vast. The biggest gains can be
achieved by simple conservation, and we could get started on that path by
charging farmers something approaching the real cost of the water they use.
In California, San Joaquin Valley farmers pay a tiny fraction of the real
cost of water, which they then use wastefully, among other ways by growing
water-guzzling crops such as rice, which is absurd.

All that said, I'm not sure that even with the smartest and most innovative
technologies, the planet can sustain its current population level, let alone
the 8 or 9 billion people projected to live on it by mid-century. Ecosystems
all over the world are already threatened or crashing. We have to take
seriously the idea that our rate of use of resources including water cannot
be sustainedâned. To me, that's the starting point of resource "realism."
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #16 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sat 24 Sep 05 10:38
Slippage. My #15 is in response to #12.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #17 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sat 24 Sep 05 11:02
Re #13, The biggest obstacle to embracing reasonable policies and
technologies is political, I think. The Bank exists to loan large sums of
money, which it believes churn the levers of development. It doesn't have
the staff to administer small programs, and in any case isn't disposed to
support them. Instead, it provides large loans as part of vast programs,
which central governments love because of the huge sums funneling through
their treasuries. These top-down projects tend to enrich both governments
and wealthy entrepreneurs, but they often hurt the poor, the very people
they're supposed to help. The development projects I've seen that are
successful tend to be much smaller in scale and start at the  village level.
But the Bank and central governments generally don't show much interest in
that sort of work.

Re #14, I think globalization as we understand it is headed for disaster,
because it is rapidly consuming what's left of the world's natural resources
and leaving devastated ecosystems in its wake. It's bad enough that the U.S.
provides a terrible model for the rest of the world with its monstrous
consumption patterns. Now countries like China and India are doing their
best to emulate us. In greenhouse gas emissions alone, the combination will
be devastating. Even putting aside global warming, what seems to have
happened until recently is that developed countries exported their
pollution; now developing countries like China themselves devastate part of
their terrain so that a fraction of the population lives in wealth. China's
water situation, for instance, is an absolute mess-- a statistic I gleaned
in the water scarcity piece I did for Harper's back in 2000 is that 80% of
the length of China's rivers are too polluted for fish, and I'm fairly
certain that that number is even higher now. China is making last-ditch
efforts to rescue its water crisis (such as its current plan to build vast
aqueducts to transfer water from the Yangtze River to the north), but
they're stopgap measures that provide only temporary solutions and in any
case are depleting their treasuries.

In Deep Water, one small example this is the increasing frequency of toxic
blue-green algae in the River Murray as a result of the diversion of so much
river water. When the outbreaks occur, everybody loses: fishing and river
recreation stop, and wine grapes get contaminated. The only way to support
all of the activities the river makes possible is to maintain the river at a
healthy level. Globalization puts all the emphasis on production and
economic growth, and that will lead to disaster, I think.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #18 of 86: It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Sat 24 Sep 05 11:56
That's very sobering. We've spent almost 40 years in this country
trying to raise environmental consciousness only to result in
Kyoto-lite. To think that China and India are now embarking on the same
eco-unfriendly curve is staggering. Do you think this is going to be
one of those situations where a disaster is going to have to take place
before the world gives these problems serious attention, and is there
any coming back from the kind of harm we are doing to the planet; are
we heading in a direction that will reach a critical mass?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #19 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sat 24 Sep 05 13:30
I certainly don't have any definitive answer, but my impression, formed out
of conversations with water scientists, reading, and gut instinct, is that
we've either passed over the line or are close. As perverse as it sounds
(and the world is brim-full of such perversity at the moment), Katrina has
actually brought a tiny bit of hope, in the sense that more people now
understand that the environment cannot be ignored. But whether the right
lessons will be learned, or even if they are, whether habits and politics
have enough flexibility in them to change, is very much an open question.
And overriding all of this is the quite well-founded fear that disasters
will bring more chaos than enlightenment.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #20 of 86: Christian De Leon-Horton (echodog) Sun 25 Sep 05 01:10
What strikes me most about the book is the clear indication that
massive dams are, by and large, a very poor idea. Even if the social
justice issues are ignored, the environmental effects are staggering,
and one has to wonder if a full cost-benefit analysis has ever been
carried out on the ecological services of ecosystems that end up
submerged. These affects are alluded to time and again, but I have yet
to see anyone put a price tag on it.

Of course, the social justice issues cannot be ignored. Ignoring the
plight of impoverished peoples in the path of rising waters is not only
unjust, it is also impractical. Despite the increasing evidence that
large dams are actually driving more people into poverty, we are still
not taking a serious look at the consequences of displacing hundreds of
thousands of people. Displaced, impoverished populations are likely to
be reservoirs for dangerous diseases, sources of social unrest, and
stressors on the ecology wherever they go. We'd probably be better off
leaving the rivers and the people be and developing smaller, more
decentralized technologies to provide irrigation, drinking water, and

Given the amount of evidence against massive dams, it's hard to
imagine how anyone is seriously arguing that they are necessary for
lifting people out of poverty. 
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #21 of 86: Rip Van Winkle (keta) Sun 25 Sep 05 07:04
Re the Katrina effect: I just discovered that the October 2004 issue
of National Geographic has an article about Louisana wetlands.  It
starts off with a scenario for a hurricane hitting NO, and
word-for-word, EVERYTHING in the scenario happened just about exactly
as written.  Including the profile of who would be left behind.  The
only discrepancies are that somewhat fewer people than predicted appear
to have died, and the waters stopped a little short of the French
Quarter.   The article also reports that a "group of strange
bedfellows" - environmentalists, business leaders, Army Corps - had
completed a 30-year Louisiana wetlands restoration plan in 2003.

Do you think the bit of hope Katrina brings is more a short "window"
or more a reminder/image that will work slowly for a long time?  What
would have to happen in the realm of dams to produce a similarly
revealing collective experience?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #22 of 86: Low and popular (rik) Sun 25 Sep 05 09:06
I'm getting double Jacques this morning.   I'm watching him on C-SPAN2's
Book TV and reading this at the same time.

You speak well, sir, and this is a fascinating, if disturbing, discussion.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #23 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sun 25 Sep 05 10:47
<Do you think the bit of hope Katrina brings is more a short "window"
 or more a reminder/image that will work slowly for a long time?

I'm reminded of Don Blackmore's interpetation of Australia's drought as an
opportunity to get environmental flow policy going. He figured he had a
couple of years before Australians forgot about water policy, and then he'd
have to wait until the next drought. Of course, if Katrina is followed by
other related catastrophes, it could work as a longer-lasting
"reminder/image." Sacramento, for example, is every bit as vulnerable as New
Orleans to flooding. And in the realm of dams, the collapse of a highly
visible massive dam would have vast repercussions. Glen Canyon showed signs
of being that dam in 1987 (I think that's the correct year), when it rumbled
ominously but didn't quite fail. A couple of dams in China succumbed to a
typhoon in the early 1970s, and a couple of hundred thousand people died in
the ensuing flood, famine and outbreak of disease, but few people outside
the region ever knew about it. Many of China's dams-- and China has built
22,000 of the world's 45,000 large dams-- remain vulnerable, because they
were built during or just after the Cultural Revolution with engineering
standards so poor that the dams are now referred to as having been built
with "beancurd construction.

The C-SPAN taping came as a surprise. I walked into the bookstore in Santa
Rosa a few minutes before the scheduled reading, then learned that C-SPAN
was there. I had a couple of minutes to think about whether I'd change my
presentation to focus it more towards Katrina, and opted for arranging to
make it the first question. Then I started the reading. Apparently the
Farrar, Straus & Giroux publicist never got an email telling her that the
taping was on.
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #24 of 86: It's a new sun to me (nukem777) Sun 25 Sep 05 11:51
The UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)
recognized, in November 2002, for the first time, that water is a
fundamental human right. Would you talk about the practicalities of how
that actually takes place; the politics involved and the whole issue
of privitization?
inkwell.vue.255 : Jacques Leslie, "Deep Water"
permalink #25 of 86: Jacques Leslie (jacques) Sun 25 Sep 05 11:55
Let me just add one scheduling note to what I said above about C-SPAN. My
taped reading will show one more time today on C-SPAN2, at 1 p.m. Pacific
time-- in case anybody's interested.


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