... Deep Water is not a book about dams, as it were, but about three people whose lives have been lived in the tall shadows of dams. This makes all the difference. It renders in human scale issues whose contours are vastly spreading, difficult to read, intertwined, and contradictory.
And so we get Medha Patkar, a leader of the Indian anti-dam movement, for whom Leslie travels far, as he puts it, "to see Medha try to drown” — literally by standing for hours until the rising reservoir water covered her head. We get Professor Thayer Scudder, the “world’s leading dam resettlement expert,” an American anthropologist who virtually invented the study of what happens in human terms when dams are put in place; haunted by a disastrous resettlement in Zambia, among others, at the close of his career he’s holding out hope for “one good dam” — one project that will restore his early faith in dams as agents of progress. And we get Don Blackmore, the head of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission in Canberra, Australia, trying to get a key river in this notoriously parched country — endlessly drained and tapped and otherwise siphoned by human hands — into some kind of working order.
Leslie is a keen observer of people and an evocative cartographer of place. He has spent years on research and traveled far and repeatedly, often to speak to people who had few more possessions than the chairs on which they and Leslie sat. He delivers scene and mood with the economy and precision of a good novelist. His profiles are so well observed one forgets that the characters have not sprung from his own imagination. Scudder, for example, a flinty old African development hand, has seen the rot but holds a death grip on his last tremors of hope; he could have strolled out of Norman Rush’s Mating. Scudder doles out gifts to Zambian friends, people affected by a dam, to start businesses, attend colleges. All the efforts seem to end in failure. “They were experiments,” he responds. “They provided data, very interesting data.” When Leslie gets to the Indian dam Sardar Sarovar, a “modern ziggurat,” as he calls it, he succinctly captures in a moment the underlying dynamic: “In a certain way, the dam was a technological marvel, but the women at the water’s edge were cleaning clothes in the traditional fashion, pounding their fabrics into submission against the canal wall.”
Causes Jacques Leslie Supports
Resource Renewal Institute
Earth Island Institute