Large Hydropower Dams Are Not the Answer: Time to Rethink Africa’s Energy Infrastructure

Rudo A. Sanyanga

This Article was previously published in the
Perspectives #02/2017: Putting People Back Into Infrastructure

The electrification rates of Africa are appalling: the lowest in the world, with as little as 1 percent access in some rural areas. The average electrification rates in sub-Saharan Africa range from 16 percent in rural areas to about 59 percent in urban areas. Out of a continental population of 1.25 billion, more than 600 million people ­– almost twice the population of the United States of America have no access to modern energy. This is a major cause for concern. If one accepts the oft-quoted mantras that “energy is an enabler” and infrastructure equals prosperity”, it follows that the lack of infrastructure and access to electricity are major contributors to poverty on the continent.

Over the past half-century, successive African governments have been aware of the need to improve infrastructure and to extend access to electricity, and have made numerous efforts to address these deficiencies. One major effort occurred in 2012, when African heads of states adopted the Programme of Infrastructure Development for Africa (PIDA), an initiative to address infrastructure services gaps in energy, transport, water, and information and communication technology. After a priority action plan (PAP) was developed to prioritise projects and speed up implementation, 52 projects were selected, among them 13 large hydro projects. The prioritised hydro projects would increase installed generation capacity by a combined 15,000MW, at a cost of USD 30 billion. The PAP intended to deliver the prioritisedprojects by 2020. Today, with three years left, it is unlikely that this goal will be met.

In light of the controversy and scepticism surrounding large hydro dams, International Rivers carried out an analysis of eleven of the PIDA hydro projects. “Right Priorities for Africa’s Power Sector: An Evaluation of Dams Under the PIDA” assessed how the projects are structured and their potential for alleviating the energy crisis in Africa at a reasonable economic and financial cost, while promoting social welfare and environmental sustainability.[i] This article shares some of the report’s findings, and outlines important considerations about the role of large hydro dams in Africa’s energy future.

Climate Change and Large Hydropower Dams

International Rivers found that the PIDA hydropower projects ignore the risks posed by climate change. With the latest climate change models predicting increased temperatures and more frequent prolonged droughts and extreme weather events, the reliability of hydropower is significantly reduced. The 2014–2016 drought spell in eastern and southern Africa resulted in a decline in the water volumes held in many large dams, leading to reduced power generation. Many hydropower plants failed to produce their firm capacities (a measure of their ability to contribute effectively to system reliability) and some in Tanzania had to be shut down because of lack of adequate water. The Zambezi basin was particularly affected. Usable water levels in the Kariba Dam, on the Zambezi between Zambia and Zimbabwe, dropped to 14 percent. Both Zambia and Zimbabwe experienced low power generation, to the extent that industry outputs and jobs were lost in Zambia.

In 2012, International Rivers commissioned a noted hydrologist Richard Beilfuss to carry out a study on the climate change risks for both existing and planned hydropower projects in southern Africa.[ii] Among other findings, Beilfuss warned that the dams on the Zambezi River would be unable to meet energy needs as the global temperatures increased and rainfall amounts dropped in the basin. While assessments of the potential impact of climate change on dams and water resources had been carried out before, the Beilfuss study was a worthwhile addition to a growing chorus and provided a robust analysis of the issue. He concluded that the Zambezi Basin was extremely vulnerable to climate fluctuations. Under these predictions, the proposed Batoka Gorge Dam would lose as much as 32 percent of firm power during years of drought. The current reliance on hydropower is thus unsustainable and attention needs to be redirected to alternative energy technologies.

Recent studies also provide evidence that tropical dams produce large amounts of methane, thereby contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. In a 2017 study, tropical ecologist Claire Salisbury shows that all dams worldwide do emit some greenhouse gases.[iii] This work debunks previous justifications for including hydropower dams under climate funding initiatives. There is now irrefutable evidence that methane and other greenhouse gases are unintended by-products of large dams.

Large Hydro Dams Service Urban Areas and Industry

In order to reach the millions of Africans who do not have access to electricity, the geographical distribution of electricity needs to be increased to the rural areas where they reside. This is where large hydropower projects fail, as they have limited ability to distribute power widely. Their access is restricted to grid-connected consumers, mainly those in urban centres and large industries ­– most of which are extractive industries. In 2008, mining companies consumed more electricity than the whole population of sub-Saharan Africa. In the case of the Inga 3 Dam project that is planned for construction on the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 55 percent of its generation capacity of 4800MW is destined for export to South Africa, 30 percent for the copper mines in Katanga Province, and the rest for the capital of Kinshasa. No provision has been made for rural areas. Out of a national population of 72 million, the 15 percent that is destined for Kinshasa will contribute a mere 480,000 new connections. Thus, the Inga 3 project will have no meaningful impact on increasing access to electricity in the DRC.

By focusing on large dams and hydropower, the continent has missed the opportunity to develop other sources of energy that can improve access to other types of off-grid energy technologies. In its 2015 report “Speaking Truth to Power”, Oxfam noted that two-thirds of energy investment in Africa is devoted to producing energy for export, and that tackling the continent’s energy poverty will have less to do with the ambitious expansion of electricity generation capacity and more to do with delivering ambitious energy services to the poor.

No One Has Cracked the Resettlement and Compensation Issues

One of the most contentious concerns associated with the construction of large hydropower dams has been the displacement of communities that depend on rivers. This sore issue led to the establishment of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) in the late 1990s. Because poor people pay the price but don’t reap the benefits of these investments, the WCD found that dams “can effectively take a resource from one group and allocate it to another”.

Communities in Kandanji
Communities in Kandanji
International Rivers

As a result of this fundamental finding, lenders and development banks developed mitigation policies, guidelines and safeguards – but to date there is still no proven effective model of a fair and just resettlement and compensation process. In spite of the awareness and recommendations wrought by the WCD, the problems of human displacement and resettlement persist. Communities that were displaced by the Kariba and Inga 1 and 2 dams, and many other dams on the continent, continue to struggle for just compensation, decades after the projects were completed.

In addition to those physically displaced by dam construction and reservoirs, many more people living downstream are economically disadvantaged through reduced fishing and other water-based economic activities. A stark example of this is Kenya’s Lake Turkana, which gets 90 percent of its water from the Omo River that flows down from Ethiopia. With Ethiopia’s construction of the Gibe III Dam and establishment of large irrigated sugarcane plantations, Omo flows into Lake Turkana have been drastically reduced. This has had a devastating effect on the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people who rely on it for fishing. In another example, the planned Mphanda Nkuwa Dam on the Zambezi in Mozambique would further jeopardise the country’s thriving prawn industry in the Zambezi delta.

Social and Environmental Impact Assessments Are a Scam

Because large dam projects tend to cause significant irreversible impacts extending far beyond the dam footprint, they require careful planning. The implementation of Social and Environmental Impact Assessments (SEIAs) is meant to ensure good governance in project development and operation phases. These assessments should inform the planning process by verifying whether the project is feasible and fully examining real and potential impacts. Various nations have developed regulations to ensure that these assessments are transparent, are inclusive of all stakeholders, and foster accountability. In practice, impact assessment processes have failed dismally to guide sustainable development. Human right standards continue to be violated and communities are not consulted adequately, if at all.

In some cases, including Ethiopia’s Gibe III and Grand Renaissance Dams, the projects went ahead before the impact assessment studies were done. Following international complaints, superficial ex-post studies were performed after the commencement of construction. By then, it was impossible to abandon the project or to institute mitigation measures. In the DRC, the government went as far as proposing to move ahead with the Inga 3 Dam with or without a SEIA. At the Batoka Gorge Dam, it is understood that the developers confirmed that the project would go ahead before the impact study had even begun. These examples and many similar ones on the continent are disturbing. Such studies are rendered meaningless when developers undertake impact-assessment processes purely to fulfil regulatory obligations, with no intention of taking up the recommendations.

Economics of Dams: The Numbers Do Not Add Up

Mega-dams have not been the silver bullet for Africa’s economic development that they were billed to be. They have instead turned into big albatrosses. Their costs are known to spiral out of control, creating massive debt burdens for poor countries, while their performance does not live up to expectations. A 2014 report by a group of researchers at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School assessed the economic performance of 245 dams in 65 countries.[vi] It concluded that large hydro dams are uneconomic, incurring an average of 96-percent cost overruns and 44-percent time overruns. Budgets are systematically underestimated and fail to reflect actual inflation costs. Debt servicing and environmental and social costs are also grossly underestimated. The Inga 1 and 2 hydro projects failed to consider maintenance costs, as well as social and inflation costs. As a result, the DRC went into huge debt and the power stations could not afford maintenance costs for many years. The projects quickly fell into disrepair and power production plummeted. In 2007, the World Bank estimated that these projects would need USD250 million for rehabilitation. This figure skyrocketed to USD1.3 billion by 2012, before the rehabilitation was even half-complete.

An advisory report by the Dutch Sustainability Unit hosted by the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment shows that social and environmental effects of large hydro projects are often underestimated, while the economic and financial benefits are overestimated.[vii] The report also confirms that governments and business have a bias towards large dams as a way to acquire access to finance. Businesses prefer these large infrastructure projects because the large amounts of capital and length of the projects compel the states to carry the risks, while the private financiers take much less risk. This also makes large hydro projects a magnet for corruption. In the end, citizens are burdened with generational debts and yet they are not involved in the decision-making.

The establishment of Clean Development Mechanism financing under the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has further favoured large dam infrastructure at the expense of alternative energy sources.

Another aspect of the economics of large hydropower is that the promise of cheap electricity tends to be an illusion. Once projects are completed, with cost and time overruns, tariffs generally rise above the initially predicted levels as investors seek to recoup their costs. In Uganda, the consumer cost of electricity increased significantly after the Bujugali hydro project came online, with the result that many people could not afford it. They resorted to using electricity only for lighting and continued to use firewood and charcoal for cooking. This is disheartening when so many public resources were expended on the project.

Energy Transformation

Infrastructure strategies can play a significant role in delivering energy to the continent of Africa. To address the energy crisis while promoting inclusive development that takes into account climate change impacts and all the other concerns raised above, African states need to ask several questions. What kind of infrastructure do we need? And does it meet our development goals? Decision-makers need to deliberately target infrastructure for servicing the majority of people who need the energy and to define milestones to assess progress.

The 2016 “Lights Power Action: Electrifying Africa” report by the Africa Progress Panel sums up the issues very well and cautions African nations about over-reliance on grid-connected megaprojects. Launching the report, Kofi Annan said, “Traditional approaches to extending the grid are no longer viable as the main option for African countries. They [megaprojects] will take too long and will not meet the needs of our growing economies and societies”. He went further to urge governments and their partners to seize the opportunity to re-imagine their energy futures.

Worldwide, there is a growing recognition that grid-connected mega-infrastructure such as large hydro dams, while attractive for scaling-up national and regional generation, are slow to come online and far too expensive for most African nations. In a nutshell, the report affirms what International River’s study found: PIDA’s energy and infrastructure model fails to acknowledge the historically poor performance of large dams in Africa. This is certainly the time to rethink the future of Africa’s energy infrastructure.

[i] International Rivers 2015: Right Priorities for Africa’s Power Sector: An Evaluation of Dams Under the Programme of Infrastructure Development for Africa (PIDA), Pretoria.

[ii] Beilfuss R. 2012: A Risky Climate for Southern Africa: An Assessment of Hydro Dams on the Zambezi River. Available at:

[iii] Salisbury C. 2017: Counterintuitive. Global Hydropower Will Add to Climate Change,

Mongabay Series: Amazon Infrastructure, Mekong dams. Available at:

[iv] Horgath R & Granoff I. 2015: Speaking Truth to Power: Why Energy Distribution More Than Generation is Africa’s Poverty Reduction Challenge; Working paper 418, Oxfam.

Available at:

[v] World Commission on Dams 2000: Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making. Available at:

[vi] Ansar A, Flyvbjerg B, Budzier A & Lunn D. 2014: Should We Build More Dams? The Actual Cost of Hydropower Megaproject Development, Journal of Energy Policy. Available at:

[vii] The Dutch Sustainability Unit 2017: Better Decision-Making About Large Dams with a View to Sustainable Development. Available at:

[viii] Africa Progress Panel 2016: Lights Power Action: Electrifying Africa. Available at:

More information: 

Thursday, June 22, 2017