Education is the key to improving public awareness, and maybe greater acceptance, of dams worldwide. Ron Corso from the US Committee on Large Dams gave Suzanne Moxon his views on the subject
Six years ago the US Committee on Large Dams (USCOLD) changed the name of its public relations (PR) committee. ‘It became clear that we were never in the PR business and that our main goal is education,’ Ron Corso, chairman of the renamed Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) says. ‘We wanted the name of the committee to reflect our basic goal and searched for something to fit this. We chose public awareness in the end, as this, through education, is the key to making more people aware of the issues related to dams. Education is the best approach.’ When asked why such a committee is needed, Corso explains that there is growing awareness of environmental concerns worldwide and a great deal of information in the public arena is anti-dams. ‘Our aim is to let people know who USCOLD is and that our purpose is to give a balanced view of dams. Engineers really have a simplistic view of life,’ he added. ‘They assume that as they are doing something good for society, like building dams, then everyone will embrace it. But, realistically, if we sit back and assume that people will get information on their own, and learn about the benefits of dams, there is a good chance that the public will not hear the whole story.
‘We, therefore, need to be more pro-active,’ he explained. ‘In the past we were just reacting to the information put out by other organisations and environmental groups. We merely filled in the gaps. But now we need to provide people with a more balanced view of dams.’ Corso says that dam opponents have seized the agenda in recent years. The US public’s perception of dams and hydro power is ‘not too good’. ‘Even the US Congress has had difficulty in recognising hydro as a renewable energy resource. At the same time the Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, is making a public display of tearing down dams,’ COPA’s chairman commented. ‘Such events can not help but affect public opinions.’ To illustrate the point that COPA wants to give a balanced view of US dams, Corso acknowledges that in some cases it is necessary to tear down dams if they are unsafe or no longer useful. But, he added, the dams Secretary Babbitt has been targeting are small structures. Removing these small structures will not adversely affect local power supplies, river navigation, flood control or irrigation, as would the removal of larger structures.
‘There is a growing sense of need in the water resources industry to get more balanced information out into the public arena,’ said Corso. ‘The anti-dam movement has drawn a lot of attention to very narrow issues but has never given a broader view of the subject. We need to focus the issues and make sure that the debate is not tilting one way or the other. We desperately need rational and legitimate discussion on water resources.’
Historically the subject of dams has been viewed as a PR problem, not a public education issue. Over time it has been recognised that education is needed much more than a PR campaign. It is only through education that people can make their own informed decisions about dams. In recognition of this, at icold’s annual conference in 1998 ICOLD also changed the name of its Committee on Public Relations, to a Committee on Public Awareness. ‘We are all in agreement now,’ Corso said. ‘There is consistency in our belief that we need to embark on improving public awareness.’ COPA is working hard to improve awareness in areas of the industry that it feels has been neglected in the US. Little attention has been given to questions such as: why are dams built; what are their purpose; what are their benefits to society; and how do they fit into the infrastructure of the US? To rectify this COPA has embarked on several initiatives. USCOLD is now in the process of developing its own video production on dams as an educational tool to help people understand why dams are built and their benefits to society. Other activities include:
•Taking part in a national TV programme which will be broadcast in the US on public television networks. COPA provides technical advice and information about the benefits of dams.
•Distributing a slide presentation to any interested party who wants to know about why dams are built.
•Providing facts, via the USCOLD newsletter, that members can use in every day life when talking to the public. The idea is to give more information about what dams are used for. For example, a Wisconsin dam was modified to control water discharges downstream so the US Olympic Kayak team could use the river for training. ‘We have to push simple facts like this really hard so that people can relate to dams,’ Corso explains. ‘A lot of people live by a reservoir and are not even aware that there is a dam there too.’ •The USCOLD Website also has information about the benefits of dams.
COPA is made up of ten USCOLD members from different fields — US Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, Federal Emergency Management Agency, electric utilities and consultancies. This provides input from a lot of different sources. Commenting on the work they do, Corso says that COPA tries to talk to the media as much as possible. Inaccurate information about dams is corrected with letters and articles which, more often than not, are also published. ‘We try to respond aggressively to any inaccurate information,’ he said.
COPA’s goal is not to create an atmosphere of confrontation but to seek better public understanding of both sides of the dams issue. ‘Anything that is built by humans will have an effect on the environment,’ Corso acknowledges, ‘but the benefits to society as a whole have to be weighed against these impacts.
‘We want to start educating young people,’ he added, ‘and to provide them with the information to make up their own minds. We recognise that some people will have negative views about dams. We just want to ensure that all the facts are there. We also need to educate people at all levels, particularly the public at large and politicians. Too many people have forgotten about drought years, floods, and the many benefits made possible with the development of dams. Education includes reminding everyone.’ Commenting on the debate about the impact of dams worldwide, Corso said: ‘The balanced view is that dams are important to improve the human condition and to sustain a better standard of living for most people. In the US, for example, we forget that there are people in the world who do not have the same opportunities as we do. They may not have clean drinking water, an adequate food supply, job opportunities, or the power to make all the basics in life possible. It is in this context we want to present information about dams so that individuals can make their own balanced decisions about their usefulness to society as a whole.’