Dams, Hydropower, and Humans

Geoffrey Lewis
November 27, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: Grand Coulee Dam. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Dams were originally constructed by human beings to help with the agriculture needs of small societies. Throughout the 20th century, they wore many more hats. Dams began to be used for not only agriculture, but water storage and hydropower, depending on the region of the dam. Hydropower provides 19% of the total worldly electricity supply and is currently used in over 150 countries and it is the water rich countries such as Canada, Norway, and Brazil that use dams almost exclusively for hydropower production. [1]

How Hydropower is Produced

When a dam is built, it stops the flow of the river and causes the water level to rise. The higher water level then allows for the harvesting the energy of the through the falling of that water. The reservoir the dam creates literally acts as stored energy. Water then flows from high to low through turbines within the dam. The water spins the turbines which are connected to a generator to turn the rotar which then creates the electric power. [2] Because dams are usually built in very remote areas, large networks of electricity lines must bring the energy created by the dam to people in a form that everyone can use. [2] Hydroelectric power produced by dams in the Columbia river was more than the energy demands of the region. This large excess of energy allowed for prosperous aluminum and plutonium industries to get subsidized electricity costs following the second World War. [3]

Cultural Dam Issues

Large dams have led to the displacement of over 40 million people worldwide, some estimates go as high as 80 million. [1] Dams have been especially detrimental to Native Americans, for example the Native Americans who resided along the Columbia River in Washington. The end of the Columbian River Valley was one of the most densely inhabited areas by Native Americans. These tribes included the Chinooks, Clatsops, Kathlamets, Wahkiakums, Katskanies, Colitezes, Skillutes, Kalamas, Quthlapottles, Clannarminnamons, and Multnomahs. [4] The formation of the Grand Coulee Dam, shown in Fig. 1, caused water to rise above sacred fishing grounds, cut off salmon spawning runs, and even cover over burial grounds of their ancestors. All of these aspects of Native culture were put second to the energy harvesting capabilities of dams.


Hydropower is an important renewable energy source that has helped fuel the United States and many other countries around the world. The creation of dams helps create jobs and an industry base with incredible exportation capabilities. [1] But as stated by Richard White, "Reorganizing energy production was but a means to reorganize society." [4] It is important to be cautious of the reorganization of Native societies. At what point does the cost of energy outweigh the cost of a human's culture. The creation of dams needs to be done in a respectful and responsible way, through consultation of all stakeholders.

© Geoffrey Lewis. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] World Commission on Dams, Dams and Development: A New Framework For Decision-Making (Earthscan Publications, 2000).

[2] "Hydropower Resource Assessment at Existing Reclamation Facilities," U.S. Department of the Interior, March 2011.

[3] J.R. McNeill and E. S. Mauldin, A Companion to Global Environmental History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

[4] R. White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (Hill and Wang, 1996) p. 51.