The World Bank’s Answer to Climate Change in Africa Shouldn’t Be More Big Dams

In the run-up to the COP in Paris, World Bank President Jim Kim pledged to scale up the Bank’s annual lending for climate change by a third, from $10 billion to $13 billion, by 2020.

Many welcomed the news. The World Bank has actually played a leading role among financiers in prioritizing climate change, and its leadership could have an important effect on lending institutions. Indeed, since its announcement, several other financiers have followed suit.

But the devil is, of course, in the details. The first details about how the Bank plans to meet its commitment are emerging, and they are cause for concern. 


The Africa Climate Business Plan

The first test of the Bank's climate change lending is the Africa Climate Business Plan, which the Bank launched at the end of November. With an estimated price tag of $16 billion, it promotes everything from “climate-smart agriculture” to building resilience of coastal capitals. But the proposal in fact relies heavily on the construction of large dams – a risky and misguided prospect in the face of climate change. And though the Business Plan is billed an effort to address “urgent climate needs,” some of its projects have no climate change benefits whatsoever.

First, the Plan claims it will improve climate relience through energy access, but it fails to deliver electricity to the people who need it most: energy-poor individuals across the continent. Though the World Bank (rightly) notes that people need access to electricity in order to weather climate change impacts, new hydropower proposed under the climate plan has been largely earmarked for mining companies. This includes both the Souapiti Dam in Guinea, which is is likely to power the extraction of Guinea’s rich iron ore deposits, and the $1 billion Nachtigal Dam in Cameroon, which is designed to power the expansion of aluminum smelting operations for Rio Tinto, the world’s third largest mining company. Neither improves energy access for the people who need it most.

Reservoir behind Kariba Dam on the Zambezi
Reservoir behind Kariba Dam on the Zambezi
Courtesy of Joseph McKenna

Even more puzzling, the Plan proposes developing dams in the name of climate resilience, including the Batoka Gorge Dam on the Zambezi. This in a region the Bank recognizes as "at risk of extreme drought" and that's already overreliant on the Zambezi’s hydro output, which has decreased sharply this year under drought. Dry dams do not produce energy. In fact, the Bank itself has acknowledged the “formidable challenges for planning” that climate uncertainty poses to all dams. In some cases, these new dams will cause significant harm: Planned dams on the Niger would actually exacerbate climate impacts rather than insulate against them.


Beyond the projects it directly supports, the World Bank’s Business Plan sends the false message that large dams are climate-friendly and worthy of support from climate finance initiatives like the Green Climate Fund. This notion has been roundly rejected by hundreds of civil society groups globally, who have delivered the message that climate initiatives must avoid funding large dams, given their sizeable GHG footprint and vulnerability to climate change. Civil society groups caution against devoting scarce climate funds toward dams, which will crowd out better solutions and not deliver their promised climate benefits.

To be sure, not all of the proposals in the Business Plan are problematic. The plan, for example, proposes 1 GW of new, grid-connected solar PV on the continent – an ambitious move we argue in favor of in our new report – as well as five million new off-grid solar consumers. For many African countries, harnessing abundant resources like wind and solar – either on the grid or off – constitutes the best approach to achieve low-carbon energy growth.

These are the types of initiatives that are best suited to addressing Africa’s climate challenges, rather than more big dams, which will only exacerbate them.

Sunday, December 6, 2015