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From the President: Damming the Past Volume 55 Number 6, November/December 2002
by Nancy C. Wilkie

The mounting threat from hydroelectric plants

The recent floods in central and eastern Europe, as well as China and Nepal, are a potent reminder that natural forces pose a great threat to archaeological sites and cultural monuments. But we cannot blame nature alone for the destruction caused by flooding; human activities often set the stage. Dams built to control flooding and provide power and water can often adversely effect natural and cultural resources. Witness the current difficulties in the Nile Valley following the construction of the Aswan Dam. Floods no longer deposit silt to renew farmlands, and irrigation has brought about a rising water table and greater salinity of the soil.

As the number of dams built worldwide grows, archaeological sites are inundated at an alarming rate. While a few major sites, like Zeugma in Turkey ("Troubled Waters," September/October 2000), have been partially excavated before being flooded, in most cases little or no archaeological exploration has preceded construction. By the time China's controversial Three Gorges Dam is complete, it will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, and will have caused the displacement of more than 1.2 million people and the inundation of more than 1,000 archaeological sites and historic monuments. Scattered, under-funded excavations have salvaged only a fraction of the known resources ("Race Against Time," November/December 1996).

While archaeological sites and monuments are priceless in terms of intellectual value, they do represent real tourist revenue--a significant consideration for many countries. Plans to build dams along the Usumacinta River, which flows between Mexico and Guatemala, would flood one of the richest ecological and archaeological regions in the Maya world, inundating sites like Yaxchilán, Piedras Negras, and Altar de Sacrificios. Both Mexico and Guatemala depend heavily on tourism; flooding this area would not only destroy natural and cultural treasures, but would eliminate enormous tourism potential for the countries.

Archaeologists will never be able to preserve all ancient sites, but we can try to mitigate the damage by allowing adequate time for archaeological surveys and excavations prior to the building. By interacting with environmentalists, developers, and human rights groups at the planning stages of such large-scale operations, archaeologists can help develop strategies and encourage alternatives.

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Nancy C. Wilkie is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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