Injustice is just one dam thing after another

Dam construction. Picture: REUTERS/ROOSEVELT CASSIO

Mega-scale dams built in the developing world are often fashioned as a move towards sustainable societies. But activists argue that these projects leave many displaced, with disastrous consequences for societies. Picture: REUTERS/ROOSEVELT CASSIO

TO provide more clean energy, particularly in fast-growing Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the world needs more hydropower dams and energy, experts say.

But a surge in building big dams is also leading to poor people being displaced and losing rights to water — something that needs to be addressed if more projects go ahead, community leaders and researchers say.

“When you build a mega dam your land acquisition and inundation creates a great level of displacement. This is a disastrous plan and not true development,” says Rajendra Singh, an Indian water activist and winner of this year’s Stockholm Water Prize for his efforts in protecting rivers and boosting rainwater harvesting.

Singh, speaking at World Water Week in Stockholm two weeks ago, said building small-scale dams, rather than huge ones, may be a more effective way to protect poor people, while increasing access to clean power.

“Build your dam on the river, just before the bend, and communities can still use the free flow of water,” he said, drawing a serpentine line on a piece of paper. “You can still produce energy, though on a smaller scale, and you can still ensure people’s rights to use the water.”

About 160 countries worldwide use hydropower technology for electricity generation, according to Adnan Amin, director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency. The power produced amounts to just under 16% of the world’s total electricity generation, he says.

In more than 50 countries, hydropower plants provide at least half of the total electricity supply. An increase in this number, Amin says, is crucial if the world wants to shift to a sustainable society. That is particularly true in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where much of the world’s population growth is expected to occur by 2050.

Building small-scale hydropower facilities can make sense, Amin says — but he warns they may not be up to meeting the coming demand.

“There is a strong business case for small hydro projects, but we are also facing a situation where the energy demand in Africa is set to triple and in Asia Pacific it will double by 2050. So we have to explore all possibilities.

“If we look at the developing countries with large power needs, large water needs, growing populations, we have to find power and water sources that can support this growth in the future. It’s very difficult to forgo opportunities to develop clean power (and) irrigation because of some sceptics.”

But research in West Africa by the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development, a research and policy group, suggests that building large-scale dams is leading to widespread displacement of people there.

Seven dams in West Africa, six of them in the Niger basin, have led to about 237,000 people losing their homes or land, researchers found. Many have had difficulty finding new ways to make a living.

In Burkina Faso, a planned tomato processing plant and fish stocking facility, promised to help provide new jobs, have yet to be built, and in Senegal and Burkina Faso, over-fishing in dam reservoirs by displaced families has led to conflict among fishermen, one study found.

Nouradine Zackaria Toure, the chief of a dam-affected village in the Gao region of Mali, says nine countries in West Africa today have 150 dams, with 40 more planned in the region. That has led to displacement, a lack of irrigated land, forced migration and conflicts over scarce food and water, he says.

Dams in West Africa, though built with the best of intentions, are failing to benefit the poorest of the communities, says Toure.

In particular, the energy and the water produced by the dams is reaching others, but not those displaced by the projects, says Toure, who also heads a network of riverside communities in the Niger Basin, the Regional Coordination Group of Users of the Niger Basin. He says the size of dams is less important than ensuring local communities share in their benefits, including access to the energy they produce and sufficient water to irrigate their fields. Dam-displaced communities must also have a genuine voice in deciding what should happen to them.

“We don’t care about the size. We just want our rights over land and water and energy to be respected,” Toure says.

Singh says the problem is that many dams and hydropower projects are designed to meet a country or region’s growing water and energy needs, but at the cost of curbing the rights of people and communities living near them.

In India and elsewhere in Asia, dams are in some cases reducing or ending community ownership or access to water and land near it, and are often the root cause of conflicts.

While the costs and benefits of building large dams need to be weighed, the “greater good” is what’s important, says Singh.

This article was published online at Business Day Live (BDlive) and was retrieved on 09/07/2015 for educational and information purposes.


Thomson Reuters Foundation