Chile: yet another free-market success story!

map_of_chileThe New York Times recently ran a story about mining companies in Chile that suck up all the water in already arid regions–in this case the driest spot on the planet–pollute the rest, and as a result decimate the local agriculture and drive away the inhabitants. (The title of this post is therefore an ironic bait-and-switch, unless of course you think this represents a triumph for unfettered capitalism (which in a sense it is, I guess.)

Chile is apparently a world leader in implementing free-market measures that have removed the bothersome fetters of  government regulation from the claws of business and industry. One result, says the story, is that:

. . . Private ownership [of water] is so concentrated in some areas that a single electricity company from Spain, Endesa, has bought up 80 percent of the water rights in a huge region in the south, causing an uproar.

Ecological and social justice concerns have brought some reversals. This mid-2008 story from the Patagonia Times is a good snapshot of the major battles over water rights in Chile. It’s interesting that the free reign granted Endesa and other companies in 1981 was modified in 2005 in an attempt to protect the public interest. This mid-2008 story from an online Spanish (as in Spain) news source reports that Endesa and its partners were denied water rights in Chile’s southernmost sector, Patagonia, effectively barring them from building five planned hydroelectric dams in a region world famous for its natural beauty.  Coincidentally, there is a banner ad for Endesa currently at the top of the page.


Controlled Fury

As you no doubt know, the city hardest hit by the massive flooding in Iowa is Cedar Rapids. That community’s name reminded us of Jeffrey Rothfeder’s vivid account of the flood that struck Rapid City, South Dakota on June 9, 1972. In his 2001 book, Every Drop for Sale, he describes (In a chapter titled “Controlled Fury”) how the decrepit Canyon Lake Dam–its spillway clogged with debris during a torrential rain–collapsed and inundated the city, causing tremendous damage and killing 236 people.

Rothfeder uses the story of Canyon Lake Dam’s failure to illustrate the dangers inherent in humankind’s desire to control water–particularly our propensity to divert rivers and store their flow in vast quantities behind dams. The arguments in favor of dams notwithstanding, they have been and always will be the equivalent of time bombs. Says Rothfeder (p. 21):

In instance after instance, floods occur when dams and their abatement systems are unable to withstand the increasing pressure from swelling reservoirs and rivers seeking their natural course in rainy seasons.

This is not to say that dams had anything to do with the Iowa’s inundation. We don’t know what role water diversion systems have played in either aggravating or mitigating the current flooding. We do know that the Army Corps of Engineers is making a lot of judgment calls, balancing the need to release water from straining dams to avoid breaches with the equally urgent need to minimize contributing to the flooding downstream.

What both Rapid City and Cedar Rapids shared in their mutual tragedies was a lack of awareness of the danger that they had always faced: According to Rothfeder, the people of Rapid City were barely aware of the Canyon Lake Dam’s reservoir, an ancient structure that no longer had a purpose and was not even much used for recreation. The stunned inhabitants of Cedar Rapids for some reason simply thought they were not in danger of flooding.

From the New York Times

They said this city would never flood. They talked about 1993, and 1966 and 1851, years when the Cedar River swelled and hissed but mostly stayed within its banks. They thought they were safe. They were wrong.

Our thoughts are with the citizens Cedar Rapids and its surroundings, who are looking at a long period of recovery. It may take days–or weeks–for the water to recede and according to officials they’re looking at up to two months without power.

Four of Popular Mechanic’s Top 10 infrastructure fixes are water related!

(Update: The blog Atlanta Water Shortage seems to have closed its doors. The url is now occupied by the web host and domain name sleazebags at

Atlanta Water Shortage points to this Popular Mechanic‘s story, The Ten Pieces of Infrastructure We Must Fix Now. We’re bursting with self-involved excitement over here at because four of the 10 imminent disasters are water related!

Our copy editor is now running three office pools: one to pick the day that Kentucky’s Wolf Creek Dam will collapse and inundate nearby Nashville, Tenn. and surrounding communities, and one to pick the date that an earthquake will severely damage the levees in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, (and here) to flood miles of surrounding farmland and compromise the drinking water of 66 percent of California’s population.

Think you have the inside scoop on when the Herbert Hoover Dike will fail and allow Lake Okeechobee’s contents to flood the homes of the 40,000 or so lakeside residents and maybe even contaminate all of southern Florida’s water supply? Hey, lay your money down and fill out a bracket! Experts say that each year there’s a one-in-six chance that it’s going to happen!

And no story about potential water disasters would be complete without mentioning water- and leadership-challenged Atlanta, Georgia, which is losing 18 percent of its water from leaking pipes! That’s treated water, my friends (as the brain-cell challenged Republican presidential candidate might say). We discussed this abhorrent fact in part 2 of our oft-cited It’s a Drought, Stupid series.

A great new water news source

logo.gif‘s new section on water links to scores of up-to-date articles on all of your favorite local, domestic, and global water controversies and calamities–desalination, drought, dams, bottled water, water wars, groundwater depletion and fish extinction in and around the Mediterranean, and China’s efforts to surpass its economic rivals in polluting the environment, just to name a few! Don’t miss it! As not seen on TV!

Lesotho: a case study in sticking it to the poor

[3/6/08: The editorial staff of is perplexed by the unusual amount of interest in this post recently, which is among one of our more obscure. Leave us a comment if you can enlighten us as to why. Heck, leave a comment if you can’t enlighten us. Ed.]

In the locker room at our local Y—after one of’s frequent team-building group workouts—we overheard a naked gentleman who appeared to be around 65 explaining to a half-clothed gentleman why he joined the peace corps satellite-image-of-lesotho.jpgand would soon find himself in Lesotho teaching English. “I’m retired and my wife died. What am I gonna do, stay home and feel sorry for myself?”

No, we thought, he should go to Lesotho and feel sorry for its inhabitants. Lesotho is a tiny nation snugly surrounded by South Africa. Truth be told, until we did some research, we thought Lesotho was among the benighted bantustans. It’s not, but it might as well be. Like the now dismantled homelands, the mountain kingdom—as the ruggedly mountainous land is called—is impoverished and completely economically dependent on the beast in whose belly it sits.

This executive summary from Humanitarian Appeal—for all of you executives reading this—and this article will give you a sense of the extraordinary misery visited on the Basotho (inhabitants of Lesotho) by the worst Southwest-African drought in thirty years. The damage includes the fact that the mainly rural population has extremely limited and shrinking access to clean water and is facing a famine. Even the urban poor lack sufficient water. According to a 2004 report from Public Citizen:

In the capital of Maseru, only 50% of the population has access to adequate drinking water. People purchase water from vendors at inflated prices or wait in long queues at public water works.

But here’s the naughty bit: Lesotho is water-rich and its economy is pretty much based on exporting water. WTF?, the astute reader is no doubt asking at this moment, much as we did when we first read that outrageous fact. The problem is that most of the water is in the highlands, inaccessible to most of the inhabitants, but not to South Africa. The Wikipedia entry on Lesotho explains:

Water is Lesotho’s only significant natural resource. It is exploited through the 21-year, multi-billion-dollar Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), which began in 1986. The LHWP is designed to capture, store, and transfer water from the Orange River system to South Africa’s Free State and greater Johannesburg area, which features a large concentration of South African industry, population, and agriculture.

katse-dam-lesotho.jpgThe article goes on to state that the LHWP (its Katse Dam pictured at right) has made Lesotho almost energy-independent, but fails to note that most of the inhabitants are dirt-poor and have no access to that power. The main point of all this is that all of the water from the LHWP is going to South Africa, and not a drop to drought-stricken Lesotho.

The rural Basotho are not just being screwed out of water by South Africa and their little puppets in Lesotho, but like millions of the wretched around the globe, they have lost their land, homes, and livelihood to the massive dam project. From Worldwatch Institute:

In the past six decades, large dams have displaced some 40–80 million people worldwide, according to the World Commission on Dams. But the total number affected by such projects is far larger: IRN reports that millions more have lost land and homes to the canals, irrigation schemes, roads, power lines, and industrial developments that accompany dams, while others have lost access to clean water, food sources, and other natural resources in the dammed areas and downstream. In the case of LHWP, the number of affected people is more than eight times the number of the most visible victims of the project.

According to a wet and naked but reliable informant, our erstwhile locker room buddy has indeed left for Lesotho. We hope that he takes some time off from teaching and feeling sorry for the Basotho, and like the many tourists that visit the country, goes hiking (like in the pretty picture above) or even horseback riding! Given his age, he probably should avoid the snowboarding. Yep, there’s even snow up in them there African highlands.

The most dangerous dam on the planet’s elevator rant: In 1983, Sadam Hussein’s engineers build a gigantic dam on a bed of soft, water-soluble rock and guess what it starts to leak almost immediately and they have to keep injecting a concrete mixture into its base continuously so it doesn’t collapse and after the U.S. invades it leads an effort to fix it which believe it or not fails because of “incompetence” and “oversights” but the U.S. Army Corps of mosul-dam-corps-of-engineer.jpgEngineers is convinced that failure is imminent and have studies to prove it which Iraqui officials who claim the dam is safe reject and so 500,000 inhabitants of Mosul face the prospect of drowning in the mother of all dam catastrophes! pant-pant-pant

If this weren’t a great tragedy in the making there would be so much to laugh about here. Like the nuanced difference of opinion: The USACE calls the Mosul the most dangerous dam in the world and says that it could fail with hugely disastrous results any minute, while Iraquis insist that there is no real danger. We shouldn’t take the USARCE’s word for anything having to do with the safety of dams, but maybe in this case they’re a tad more credible than the Iraquis, who built a huge dam on porous terrain that dissolves on contact with water.

The team is tired and hungry and faces a long commute. Instead of continuing to rant, we’ll let the keeper of a fantastic science-oriented water blog, Hydro-Logic, tell you the whole sordid story. He also offers a lot of links to articles about it, like this one from the NY Times.

Two dams or not two dams: California’s crucial water decision

Actually, three dams is more accurate, but the team is always willing to sacrifice accuracy in the service of a cute headline. The point is that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose name and title make us wish we were being paid by the letter, is proposing the construction of two new dams and expanding the capacity of a third to meet what will soon be the state’s desperate need for water.

This San Francisco Chronicle article is as good a summary of the current debate about California’s water dilemma as you are going to find, and is accompanied by links to some good water-related resources.

Nut graf:

The governor wants to build two new dams and expand the reservoir of a third as a key element in his plan to meet future water needs of the state’s growing population. But environmentalists say two of the projects would be net energy users and that the three of them together would add energy consumption to a water-delivery system that is already the state’s largest consumer of electricity.

The problem with the environmentalist’s argument is that it is complicated and complicated generally doesn’t sell in the Golden State. Their objections are based at looking at long term consequences of using huge basins of water as storage, and takes into account, for example, increased evaporation caused by global warming and the possibility that the two new dams would produce a net energy loss for the state.

For the most compelling aspect of the environmentalists’ approach is encouraging the development new regional water supplies–including water recycling, conservation, groundwater protection, groundwater cleanup and stormwater capture–which could recoup huge amounts of water and avoid the need to pump water throughout the state from central repositories.

Boooring! The governator and the republicans in the legislature keep it simple: Dams=Storage. What is wrong with storage? What is up with these fuzzy thinking liberal environmentalists who don’t understand storage? If you want to keep something for a long time, you store it. Dams store water. Duh.

This counterpoint from an article by Gary Patton, the executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, posted on the California Progress Report, a progressive online news site. (Caveat: He cites the construction of three dams; the proposal is to build two new dams and expand one that already exists.)

The Governor’s proposed $9.085 billion water bond measure directs billions of taxpayer dollars to projects that will take decades to implement and will produce relatively little water.

This proposal would inappropriately allocate $5.1 billion for construction of three costly and damaging dams. While state and federal agencies have studied these dams for years, not one of these dams has been proven to be cost-effective or environmentally acceptable. In fact, state and federal agencies have not been able to find even one willing local partner to contract for the resulting water at the anticipated cost. Taxpayers should not be asked to subsidize projects that so obviously fail the cost-effectiveness test.’s hit? Torpedo* the dams and full speed ahead for innovative and environmentally sound approaches to solving California’s imminent water crisis.

*figurative language