Kandadji Dam at the Brink of a Humanitarian Disaster

Villagers to be displaced by the Kandadji Dam
Villagers to be displaced by the Kandadji Dam

Last week, I was joined in Washington DC by Sena Alouka and Sani Ayouba, courageous activists from the African youth organization, Jeunes Volontaires pour l’Environnement (JVE), for an intense series of meetings at the World Bank to raise concerns around the Kandadji Dam.

The World Bank is the biggest donor to the project, which is planned on West Africa’s largest river, the Niger. The project intends to deliver energy and food security by generating much-needed power and expanding irrigation in Niger, a country on the edge of the Sahara Desert that is ranked last on the UN’s Human Development Index.

But progress on the dam has stalled, and thousands have been forced to relocate to places that lack critical infrastructure. My colleague Sani visited the project last month, and found a community reeling from a difficult and prolonged relocation that still hasn’t concluded. This week, we met with senior officials from the World Bank who do not deny the fundamental challenges that the Kandadji project poses.

Sani Ayouba and Sena Alouka meeting with senior World Bank officials
Sani Ayouba and Sena Alouka meeting with senior World Bank officials

During our meetings, Sani also spoke of the communities he visited who will be displaced by the dam’s reservoir in the project’s second phase. Since the project began in 2012, they have suffered a serious lack of economic opportunity, as no one is investing in a region that could be inundated by a dam’s reservoir. This has led to pervasive frustration, which my colleague Sena describes as “waiting for the dam syndrome.” While local communities are stoic and willing to move for the betterment of the country, the project must not be done at their expense. As they continue to await relocation, they are in urgent need of significant support.

Having supported many such visits over the last ten years, I was struck by the palpable concern from officials over the fate of the project and the thousands of people who will have to make way for it. Our visit confirmed my worst fears that Kandadji has gone off the rails, and the fallout for the Bank and local communities will be profound. In our meetings, the World Bank did not deny that the social footprint of the project could be much higher than anticipated. Developers originally estimated that 32,500 people would be displaced by the reservoir; the number of people could in fact be well over 60,000. This truth was acknowledged amid concerns that the irrigated land promised to communities is insufficient. As I describe in a new fact sheet on the project, this would create a real humanitarian crisis.

Despite the project’s many faults, Niger’s enormous needs are undeniable. But with a price tag that's over $1 billion and growing quickly, plus an ever-growing social footprint, it’s clear that it’s time to press the pause button and consider all available options. The Bank’s own research shows that improving traditional farming techniques is preferable to large-scale irrigation schemes in Africa, which have a dismal track record. Meanwhile, Niger has enormous potential for solar energy. But despite the remarkable rise of solar and wind globally, three quarters of the Bank’s lending for renewable energy in Africa over the last six years has gone to large hydro.

The World Bank has failed to learn the hard-won lessons of its past in supporting large dams, which have routinely impoverished local communities. While there may be no good options left on the table, it’s clear that the World Bank should not have been involved in the first place.

As the World Bank faces the prospect of pulling out, the future is unclear for tens of thousands of people whose lives have been upended. As Sani stressed during our visit, the Bank was instrumental in getting the project off the ground, and it can’t shirk its responsibility now – it must do right by impacted communities and ensure that they are not left in the dust.

Sunday, June 5, 2016