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Letter in Science: Appeal to Factor Cultural Cost in Dam Development

Family to be relocated by the Renaissance Dam on the Nile in Ethiopia

Family to be relocated by the Renaissance Dam on the Nile in Ethiopia © J.C. Veilleux 2012

In response to recent discourse in Science's Magazine that discuss economic, biodiversity, and political impacts of wide-spread and large-scale dam development on the world's most iconic tropical rivers: the Amazon, Congo, and Mekong in article by Winemiller et. al Balancing hydropower and biodiversity in the Amazon, Congo, and Mekong in January 2016 and feature article by Erik Stokstad Power Play on the Nile in February 2016: in March 2016, Dr. Elizabeth Anderson and I published a letter in Science to appeal readers and researchers to more seriously consider the cultural costs of development.

In our letter, we highlight the intimate relationship that riverine communities have with the rivers where they live. The relationship meanders through their identity, practices, livelihoods, traditions, languages, religions, ritual, daily lives, and survival. Development is changing the rivers mentioned above in ways that can eliminate local uses and even eliminate local landscapes. The dangers of such loss continue to happen too quietly, often lightly documented or completely undocumented, as culture value is difficult to measure in dollars and cents. More commonly, researchers focus on the political diplomacy, economic changes, or environmental impacts. Less frequently is development caste in the light of cost - development is thought to be action toward improving lives through providing access to medicine, education, markets - and while this it does provide in most cases, it also brings with it loss of access to resources, like land, loss of tradition, and loss of traditional knowledge and livelihoods. These things can greatly alter a people's identity and community cohesion.

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