Here We Go Again

Jason Rainey
Thursday, September 5, 2013

A dozen years after the World Bank-backed World Commission on Dams (WCD) issued what remains the most comprehensive and inclusive assessment of the dam-building spree of the 20th century and offered a roadmap for moving forward, it seems that collective amnesia has set in at the World Bank. In announcing “we’re back” in the business of financing large and mega-dams, and specifically promoting hydro schemes that would dam the mighty Congo River, inundate the rapids below Victoria Falls, deliver the final blow to the Zambezi Delta, and dot the Himalayas with climate-risky big dams, the Bank is turning a blind eye to the prudent recommendations of the WCD.

Beyond taking aim at Africa and Asia’s great rivers and the ecosystem services they provide, there is so much that is retrogressive in the World Bank’s assertive shift to financing large hydro. In this issue of World Rivers Review we highlight key episodes in the ignoble history of the World Bank’s investments in damming rivers for electricity, critique the new hydro investment strategy, and identify the winners and losers in this so-called poverty reduction strategy. Peter Bosshard’s cover story calls into question the fundamental contradictions and the very relevance of an institution that continues to champion a “bigger is better” approach to infrastructure development in an era when more effective, smaller, faster to deploy and cheaper technologies are available for poverty reduction and energy access.

So the World Bank is advancing a lending strategy that runs counter to its stated mission of poverty alleviation and shared economic development – again. Doesn’t this all sound so familiar? 

As a student living in Zimbabwe in 1993, I learned first hand the negative impacts of the World Bank’s top-down approach to poverty reduction on rural communities. When I returned to California, I joined the student movements working to amplify the voices of civil society groups throughout the world that had come together to ask: Isn’t 50 years of this failed institution enough? 

When examining the Bank’s current strategy – its reliance on large and destructive dams, (and too little attention to scaling up true renewable and distributed technologies); its failure to demonstrate how mega-projects will actually reach the hundreds of millions of rural off-grid people compromised by energy poverty (while it focuses on electrifying industrial and extractive private corporations), and the lack of vision and creativity to promote projects that build ecological and economic resilience in an increasingly chaotic climate – it seems that 20 years of mounting evidence of the limitations and consequences of dam-generated “development” has not shaken the institution out of its memory loss. Must we really revisit the past century’s critiques of the Bank and update our past rallying cry to “70 Years is Enough”?

As much as any nation, the United States has reaped the benefits of the extractive and exploitative economic models of the past century. And the US – as well as European and other G20 nations – have an obligation to lead on climate justice and poverty alleviation. The US Government’s position and contributions in the atmospherically-focused international climate framework conventions (think of those “COP” meetings in Copenhagen, Cancun, Johannesburg) can at best be described as embarrassing; given what’s at stake for climate-vulnerable populations, many in the Global South would call the weak governmental actions criminal. 

Despite all the implications of globalization and the recent economic ascendency of nations such as China, Brazil and India, US interests still wield important influence at the World Bank. Last year President Obama selected the current World Bank President, Jim Kim, and American taxpayers (via appropriations from the US Senate) hold critical purse strings for the institution and its latest ambitions. The livelihoods of dam-threatened peoples from the rainforests of the Congo to the valleys of the Himalaya are once again in the hands of the World Bank and its donor nations. In October, International Rivers will be joining with a wide range of US-based and other international NGOs to descend upon the World Bank annual meetings in Washington, DC. Our unifying message is simple and clear: invest in Power for People. Better solutions are at hand, and the Bank has a responsibility to lead on investing in energy efficiency, on- and off-grid renewables, and community-scaled infrastructure projects that are less prone to corruption.

To support these actions – from near or from afar – you can keep posted at In the meantime, we’ll hope to see you in Washington on October 12 for our Power for People day of action because … here we go again.