Monday, April 4, 2011

World Bank to Back African Dams in New Energy Strategy

A new blog from International Rivers' Zach Hurwitz, who works on
policy issues and climate change.

World Bank to Back African Dams in New Energy Strategy

By Zachary Hurwitz

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 fossil fuels 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.

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 a non-partisan 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 a large way – in Africa. But large dams on
the whole are not a solution to climate change nor to 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.

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