Geography Reference
In-Depth Information
the National People's Congress, trained in hydroelectric engineering at the Moscow Power
Institute in the 1940s and served for several years as minister of electrical power (Yeh and
Lewis 2004:454).
As we examine hydropower development in the Lancang and Nu River basins in subse-
quent chapters of the topic, the missteps, unintended consequences, and even human tra-
gedies of this technocratic approach will become apparent. However, it should be noted
that China is not alone in its penchant for pursuing technological and engineering solu-
tions with little regard for their social, cultural, and ecological implications. The American
legacy of dam building has proven particularly instructive to dam proponents around the
world. Chinese scientists and policy makers who favor large-scale hydropower develop-
ment in the southwest region explicitly cite Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, and other
American examples as inspirations, noting in particular how the growth of California and
other Western states was made possible by the huge expansion in dam construction in the
1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (Wang, Yu, and Li 2008). These dams, many of which began as
job-creation strategies under the Works Progress Administration of the Great Depression,
made new water sources available for expanding municipalities such as Los Angeles and
new sources of electricity available to meet growing industrial and consumer demands. 14
Overcoming the aridity of the West through water-engineering projects was fundamental
to the building of the American Empire (Worster 1985) but would also come to serve as a
model for developing countries who wished to pursue hydropower development on a grand
The Columbia River of the Pacific Northwest, America's fourth largest by volume, is
the largest drainage system into the Pacific Ocean and the site of the most intensive hy-
dropower production in the country. A film on the Columbia River dams entitled Hydro ,
released by the Bonneville Power Administration, features a segue between workers finish-
ing the dam and a 1950s housewife, somewhere in the suburbs of the northwestern United
States, plugging in her toaster and making breakfast for her family. Such is the relationship
between increased availability of electricity and human well-being, as depicted in these
thinly veiled propaganda pieces. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest region myself, I
rely on Columbia River dams to produce much of the electricity that I consume every day.
In the contemporary Northwest, environmental conservation, especially of Pacific salmon
species, has become a topic of broad social and political concern, but in the heyday of dam
construction during the mid-twentieth century the ecological costs of dams went largely
unexamined. The great folk singer Woody Guthrie was commissioned by the Bonneville
Power Administration to write an anthem celebrating dam construction on the Columbia
River. Entitled “Roll on, Columbia, Roll On,” it extols the virtues of early explorers such
as Lewis and Clark, heralds the dams as symbols of national pride and progress, and points
out how hydroelectricity made modern life in this region possible, ending each chorus with
the refrain, “your power is turning our darkness to dawn.”
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