JVE Statement on Dams and Climate Change in Africa

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dams are not solutions to climate change and Africa’s energy needs

Since their independence, developing countries have been building large hydroelectric dams to boost their economy. Due to climate change water resources are becoming scarce. But it is clear that large dams do not meet energy needs of Africa nor solve disasters related to climate change. Given the widespread concern over climate change related to greenhouse gas emissions, dam promoters are now stressing that hydroelectricity is a clean source of energy, thus being the best candidate to substitute fossil fuel-based energy sources. The existing research shows that hydropower is not only socially and environmentally destructive, but that it can also make a significant contribution to global warming, particularly.

Through the processes of growth and decay, soils, forests and wetlands continuously consume and emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, the two most important greenhouse gases. When those ecosystems are flooded by the dams' reservoirs, the pattern of fluxes of CO2 and methane with the athmosphere is totally altered. Plants and soils decompose when flooded and will eventually release almost all their stored carbon. Permanently flooding tropical wetlands will tend to increase their methane emissions as well as making them a net source of CO2.

The above should suffice to show that hydropower is not clean regarding climate change. But there's even more. A comprehensive accounting of a dam's contribution to global warming should also include the emissions from the fossil fuels used during dam construction, those from the production of the cement, steel and other materials used in the dam, as well as the changes in greenhouse gas fluxes due to the land use and other changes which the dam encourages, such as deforestation, the conversion of floodplain wetlands to intensive agriculture, the adoption of irrigation on once rain fed lands, and the increased use of fossil-fuel-based artificial fertilizers.

Africa and dams
The African continent has enormous natural resources that must be exploited for electricity production: desert, sun, oceans, and wind. All that must be used for solar power; wind power, geothermal power, biomass energy...

As pointed out by the recent IPCC report, Africa is the most vulnerable continent to climate change. At the same time, it’s the darkest in all. Due to poverty challenges, it’s important that development projects are done correctly the first time, as there are no more opportunities for piloting and later upscaling! Matter-of-factly, developers need to think twice before deciding to move ahead with dam building in Africa!  Climate change will change the hydrology of African rivers which will undoubtedly result in more droughts and inundations. Already, most of the dams in Africa are not properly maintained and should global warming add its pepper to the already salty energy soup, population’s safety and lack of drinking water are inevitable. It’s clear that in the current situation of economic crisis and climate uncertainty, pushing for hydropower can be disastrous for Africa. Pushing for hydro is the best way to lure the continent in a no-return, debt-prone and miserable situation.

The Democratic Republic of Congo though endowed with the biggest rivers ever and despite its imposing Inga dam, lags behind with only about 4 % of its populations having access to electricity. It is clear then that the problem of Africans as far as electricity is concerned is not the lack of dams but rather improper management and lack of political will. Alternatives are abundant on the continent and it’s far better for us to look up instead of focusing on the ground and it’s under it.

While hydro may be the solution in some situations, it is very important that all options are thoroughly assessed and compared to the costs and uncertainties of hydro, market oil prices and hard-to-deal with risks associated to climate change.
So, think Africa, think Small, think Close, think Durable!

Director, Jeunes Volontaires pour l’Environnement
Lomé, Togo