Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
OCCC banner image with library photo

OCCC Reads 2015-2016: Water Matters: Chapter 9: A Short History of Dams

This guide provides a range of resources to use for OCCC Reads 2015-2016.

Chapter Summary


Jacques Leslie defines a dam as the author’s list of winners and losers“…the ultimate expression of the majestic, deluded spirit of the Industrial Age” at the same time that he defines our cultural time as “The Age of Consequences.”  So, what then of the consequences for the Industrial Age’s deluded spirit of “conquering nature” on our times? If the environmental effects of the Three Gorges Dam in China is any indication, the consequences of dam building can be dire.


  • Are the world’s biggest manmade structures
  • Are On 60% of the 200 major river systems
  • Shifted the globe’s weight to alter speed and tilt of rotation
  • About 50,000 large dams
  • Total is hard to count around the world (about 99,000 in US)
  • Supported growth of Western cities after 1935
  • Generate a 5th of world’s energy supply
  • Makes possible about a sixth of the world’s food supply
  • Have a vast number of unintended negative consequences (expensive upkeep, silt accumulation-yearly decreased generation, water temperature changes-impact fish breeding, fragment species and ecosystems, etc.)

The author’s list for winners and losers invites the reader to further reflect about his or her perception and understanding of dams.  Winners like politicians, engineers, and construction along with subsidized water costs for industrial farmers stand in contrast to the displaced peoples and their lands-usually minorities and poor and tribal-that can decimate cultural and social practices.  The mounting dangers of aging structures and mounting bills for dam repair are consequences for all.

After pressures on the World bank to reduce its support of dam building (its peak in 1985), a World Commission on Dams was created.  Speaking for alternatives to dam building and social justice, the Commission has had only limited effect, but has become a standard for “best practices” and “an admonition to dam builders”. 

Discussing alternatives to dams, the author points to the cheapest of alternatives to dams: conservation practices, particularly in the fields of agriculture and energy use which reduces water demand and hydroelectric demand.  And such practices gives value to traditional ways.  He ends on a note of optimism as all the stakeholders negotiate possible dam removals on the California-Oregon Klamath River.  Such is the history, the players, and the dilemmas of the world of dams.

Why Use this Chapter?

Why Use this Chapter:

  1. To set the stage, have students complete the water Calculator Quiz at page 196
  2. Research/report on the state of Oklahoma dams.
  3. Research/report on tribal water issues in Oklahoma
  4. Manage a “creative controversy” on the benefits vs destruction of dams
  5. Write/deliver speeches against a proposed dam construction
  6. Role play “water leaders” and other conservationists
  7. Field trip to China’s Three Gorges Dam (or one closer)
  8. Invite local government water officials 
  9. Invite local conservationists 
  10. Have a panel discussion of dam issues