World Bank to Back African Dams in New Energy Strategy

Zachary Hurwitz
Takeze Dam in Ethiopia
Takeze Dam in Ethiopia

The World Bank's new draft Energy Strategy makes some positive advancements in creating our energy future.  For example, the Bank has tentatively made a commitment to cut lending for coal projects in all countries that do not receive funding from the International Development Agency (IDA).  Yet what the Bank promises as a trade-off for coal spells trouble for the future of rivers in Africa.

I've just come back from a meeting with Bank officials to address some of the problem language around dams in the draft strategy.  As the meeting came to a close, it was made clear to me that the draft strategy seeks to scale up investment in hydropower – especially large dams in Africa – as a trade-off for potentially cutting its lending for coal to non-IDA countries.  However, doing so would ignore a number of problems with hydropower that could create unexpected negative outcomes for future Bank investments.

First, dams are not the solution to climate change.  Increased streamflow variability and extended droughts will make hydropower projects economically unviable, increased siltation will reduce their useful lifetime, and more extreme weather events will make them unsafe.  Meanwhile, large hydropower typically causes severe impacts on freshwater biodiversity and fisheries, which are already suffering from extensive damage due to climate change.  

What's more, in recent years many countries have suffered major reductions in hydropower generation because of droughts. According to the 2010 World Bank paper “Minding the Gap:World Bank's assistance to power shortage mitigation in the developing world” (Heffner et al.), half of the 18 “notable power shortages” since 2000 were related to drought. Global climate change is very likely to increase rainfall variability and unpredictability in future, meaning that hydrological risks will increase – and will put predominantly hydropower-based economies at grave risk. Much of sub-Saharan Africa is already excessively dependent on hydropower , and many African nations have experienced the economic shocks of drought-induced energy shortages. Indeed, a new study by Funk and Williams shows that East Africa is likely to be hit by worse and more regular droughts.

Energy Emissions
Energy Emissions

Second, there is no consensus in the scientific literature over how to measure greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from dams.  Full life-cycle GHG accounting should take place for dams, not just accounting of reservoir emissions or dam construction.  Indeed, dams can act as a driver for economic growth and migration, causing land use-induced emissions in tropical areas.  While the Energy Strategy commits to establishing GHG accounting across all projects, independent methodologies for the accounting of GHG emissions from dams should be established by an independent board in the Bank's Climate Strategy.  

Third, the World Bank has not proven that dams increase energy access.  Rural Africans – who are often the poorest – often live far from centralized electrical grids.  To meet the energy needs of the poorest of the poor, African countries could benefit instead from scaled-up investments in decentralized, truly renewable energy.  Indeed, the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2010 found that it is possible to achieve universal energy access through extending decentralized renewable energy systems to 70% of the developing world's rural areas.  Further, other sources could replace large hydropower to meet the needs of grid expansion throughout Africa; dynamic investments in large-scale, grid-based solar energy, and natural gas flare tapping, could offset much of the power generation of hydropower.

The World Bank's new Energy Strategy potentially puts the Bank back into large dams in Africa, in a large way.  But large dams on the whole are not a solution to climate change nor to improving energy access.  Now is the time to contact your World Bank Executive Director and regional staff to demand that a broad mix of truly renewable energy sources – not just large dams – replaces coal as the investment of choice over the next decade at the World Bank.