Big Dams: Bringing Poverty, Not Power to Africa

Large hydro dams do not "lift all boats"—in fact, they increase the gap between energy haves and have-nots.

Electricity passes over a village resettled for Kariba Dam, Zimbabwe
Electricity passes over a village resettled for Kariba Dam, Zimbabwe
Karin Retief

Africa’s large dams (more than 1,270 at last count) have consistently been built at the expense of rural communities, who have been forced to sacrifice their lands and livelihoods to them yet have reaped few benefits. Large hydro dams in Sudan, Senegal, Kenya, Zambia/Zimbabwe and Ghana have brought considerable social, environmental and economic damage to Africa, and have left a trail of "development–induced poverty" in their wake. Project benefits have been consistently overstated and inequitably shared. Large hydropower dams also reinforce centralized power grids, which disproportionately benefit industry and higher income groups, and widen income disparities (and energy inequities) between Africa’s poor and Africa’s elite.

Between 1998 and 2000, an unprecedented global process to review large dams and their development effectiveness took place. In its final report, the independent World Commission on Dams (WCD), which was housed in Cape Town and headed by former South African water minister Kader Asmal, found that while "dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and benefits derived from them have been considerable... in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment." The report also found that a, “lack of equity in the distribution of benefits has called into question the value of many dams in meeting water and energy development needs when compared with the alternatives.” While the WCD fulfilled its mandate to develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards for planning dams, the World Bank, the dam industry, and most governments have refused to abide by them. Sadly, this sets the stage for more destructive dam projects in Africa.

Africa clearly needs energy development. Not one of the Millennium Development Goals is attainable without greater energy development. But the type and scale of energy development to meet the needs of the poor is considerably different than what is generally being planned for the continent. With the help of foreign dam-industry consultants, African governments are seeking funding for billions of dollars worth of large hydropower proposals and the expansion of transmission lines serving primarily urban and industrial areas. These dam projects – many of which have serious environmental, social and economic drawbacks – have been put forth with little or no regard to whether they are the best option for meeting citizens’ energy needs. The spotlight needs to turn to a strategic planning process for energy development that considers both these needs.

Donors like the G8 and World Bank have said they intend to give renewed priority to the development of energy projects in Africa in coming years, and large hydro is expected to be high on their lists. The World Bank's new president, Paul Wolfowitz, told the London Times in June that he will not be shy of taking the Bank back into the kind of infrastructure projects – dams, power plants and roads – which brought it past criticism. "The Bank tended to get out of infrastructure in the 1990s," Wolfowitz said. "The development community endorsed a lot of white elephants in the 1970s which were a magnet for corruption but that doesn't mean that you don't need infrastructure." The Bank is particularly involved in the hydropower-heavy Nile Basin Initiative. The G8 has charged the Bank with directing its work in Africa.

It's not just the Bank and G8 who are pushing more dams for Africa; the home-grown New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) proposes at least 13 dam projects. Dams prioritized under NEPAD include Mozambique's Mphanda Nkuwa; the massive Grand Inga project on the Congo River in DRC; Adjarala Dam in Benin, and the Souapiti and Kaleta Dams in Guinea.

Resource-hungry China is also ramping up its connections across the African continent, offering to build and finance infrastructure in exchange for oil, minerals, and other raw materials. Chinese companies are moving heavily into African dam construction, and are currently involved in Merowe Dam in Sudan, whose 174-km reservoir will displace 50,000 farmers from the fertile Nile to harsh desert lands; the 185-metre high Tekeze Dam in Ethiopia, which is expected to increase water-borne illnesses; and a number of others. China's own poor human rights record, and its policy of "non-interference" on human-rights violations in the states it does business with, does not bode well for protecting human rights on the African dam projects in which it is involved. Indeed, on Sudan's Merowe project, people speaking out about injustices in the resettlement process have met with government repression.

Dam activists' own experience with large dams in Africa has helped shine a bright light on whether large dams are an appropriate development model for helping Africa's masses. In Uganda, for example, activists have for years worked to stop the Bujagali Dam and pressed for more appropriate energy options that would meet the needs of Uganda's majority, who cannot afford grid electricity. The Kampala-based National Association of Professional Environmentalists has made a convincing case for developing low-impact geothermal projects, which have the benefit of being more "modular" and decentralized than large hydro, as well as a sustainable fuelwood program and other rural-electrification works. The government, however, continues to press forward with the costly Bujagali Dam. Construction on the project is expected to begin in 2006.

In Mozambique, the group Justica Ambiental has been actively raising awareness with local communities about the potential impacts on their lives from a new large dam proposed for the mighty Zambezi River, the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam. This hydro dam would be built downstream of Cahora Bassa and Kariba dams, whose cumulative impacts have devastated communities and ecosystems downstream. Like Cahora Bassa's power, most of this new dam's electricity would likely flow to South Africa, despite Mozambique's widespread energy poverty. Justica Ambiental has been pressing for a national process to bring the WCD's guidelines into the realm of public policy, and to bring civil society into river-basin planning. Thus far, government officials have been unwilling to join in such a dialogue.

Energy activists in Africa are pressing for energy choices that:

  • directly alleviate the energy poverty of Africa’s poor that now hinders their lives and livelihoods;
  • reduce nations’ risks to climate change, and
  • are transparently planned with public participation.

Large hydropower dams do not meet the first two criteria, and have never yet met the last.

Alleviating Energy Poverty

Electricity and other modern energy services would bring enormous benefits for health, education and livelihoods to the majority of Africa’s population, which is rural and based in small-scale agriculture. But large hydropower will not reach the majority of Africans, who live far from the power grid. Large hydropower also increases electricity supply in big increments, and is an inefficient way to address the gradual increases in market demands typical of developing economies. Africa’s majority relies on the natural environment for their livelihoods; choosing to build more large dams in Africa will cause more ecological degradation, and will result in diminishing livelihoods and quality of life for many. Large hydro is also costly and economically risky, and contributes significantly to nations' debt-burden.

Energy development that invests in a local energy sector and creates skilled jobs for Africans should be prioritized. Decentralized, renewable technologies such as wind, micro–hydro and solar power specifically allow for higher rates of job creation and technology transfer. For example, a 2003 report commissioned by South Africa’s Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Project conservatively estimated that if South Africa set a target of generating 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, it would create 36,373 new jobs in the country’s energy sector – greater than the total employment of the national energy utility, Eskom.

Reducing Vulnerability to Climate Change

Climate change is altering hydrological cycles, meaning that historical data is no longer a reliable predictor of future hydrological patterns. Many sub-Saharan countries are already over-dependent on hydropower for their electricity, and many areas have experienced increasingly crippling droughts that have sidelined hydropower production. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that in the Nile Basin, there has been “a reduction in runoff of 20% between 1972 and 1987, corresponding to a general decrease in precipitation in the tributary basins calculated … In recent years there have been significant interruptions in hydropower generation as a result of severe droughts.”

Building more large hydropower projects will only intensify African nations’ vulnerability to climate change. Renewable, decentralized energy will give Africans greater independence to energy access and will help diversify the energy portfolio of African countries.

Way Forward

The WCD's final report recommends a public process to thoroughly assess needs and the best options for meeting those needs before prioritizing any single project. Unlike what an engineer might choose, a participative process to identify needs and choose “best options” looks not only at technical feasibility, but also considers social impacts, such as addressing specific rural needs, using local resources, and stimulating the local economy by creating skilled jobs. Too many poorly planned large dams have already failed to fulfill their goals, and Africa cannot afford any more development setbacks. Without a proper planning process, such as that outlined by the WCD, new dams are likely to be built based on skewed priorities that will continue to leave Africa’s majority behind.

Africans are already finding ways to bring improved energy services to their communities. Building on Africa’s successes in decentralized energy, training a new generation of decentralized energy technicians, and listening to average African citizens to learn what their true energy needs are, will yield the best results for all concerned.

Published in Progress Magazine The Sustainable Development Quarterly

Download this article as a PDF.