By Cléo Fatoorehchi
MARSEILLE, France , Mar. 19, 2012 (IPS) - Numerous non-governmental
organisations used the World Water Forum (WWF) held in Marseille last
week as an opportunity to remind the international community about the
serious global impacts of large dams all over the world.
Defined as dams higher than 15 metres or with a reservoir volume of at
least three million cubic metres, large dams number no less than 48,000
worldwide and present numerous issues, not least of which is a
considerably negative impact on the livelihoods of local populations.
Three organisations – the International Union for Conservation of Nature
(IUCN), the International Institute for Environment and Development
(IIED) and IRAM, a French institute for research and application of
development methods – recently released a study entitled "Sharing the
water, sharing the benefits", which focused on six large dams in West
Africa to highlight various population impacts.
Jérôme Koundouno, one of the report's authors, told IPS that when large
dams are built they result in massive displacement of communities, which
is a complex process.
He said that the land area required for dams necessitated "relocating
people, rebuilding houses, and giving new land to people for farming,"
which also means providing support and compensation to displaced families.
Yet, most of the dams built in the 1980s and 1990s did not bring any
kind of compensation for the displaced, provoking a slew of detrimental
Taking the example of the Sélingué dam in Mali, built in 1981, Koundouno
explained to IPS that the displaced families, who received a plot of
land on the new perimeter of the dam, had to leave shortly afterwards
because they were used to traditional irrigation techniques and could
not adapt to the new ones.
"They had to abandon the plots because they were not able to produce
enough and to reach their expected output. So those communities have
(effectively been stripped) of their plot of land," he told IPS.
Another problem sparked by the building of large dams, Koundouno
claimed, is the creation of a "genuine growth centre around the
reservoirs, whose water is shared by multiple users, leading to
conflicts over the (scarce resource). This is because water management
is unfortunately often not equitable."
The conflicts appear on one hand between the fishers, farmers, and
breeders, and on the other hand between the native population and
migrants, who are lured by the promise of employment in this new growth
The World Commission on Dams estimates that 40 to 80 million people have
been displaced by the construction of such dams worldwide.
Large dams also generate environmental impacts such as flooding,
deforestation, reduced pastureland, and a fall in the number of large
mammals – all of which threaten the food security of local populations.
Jane Madgwick, CEO of Wetlands International, told IPS the flow
reduction of the Niger River foreshadows a negative impact on the
livelihoods of people downstream who are dependent on fishing.
The conviction is thus spreading that large dams should not be
considered a "green energy alternative" if they are not planned in a
Jeremy Bird, soon-to-be director general of the International Water
Management Institute, stressed the need for increased awareness on the
sustainability of hydropower energy.
With this aim, the International Hydropower Association published the
Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol to define good practices
and try and impose them on new construction projects.
Alternatives to large dams do exist
Many experts are now starting to believe that the problems posed by
large dams outweigh their benefits – namely providing water and energy –
and should thus be replaced by other forms of renewable energy, such as
solar power and wind energy.
"In Latin America and primarily in Chile, for instance, the potential
for solar power is infinite," Juan Pablo Orrego, president of the
Chilean NGO Ecosistemas, told IPS, adding the Chilean government should
invest in this form of energy.
Alternative solutions were also debated intensively during the
Alternative World Water Forum (known by its French acronym FAME), held
last week alongside the WWF. In particular, the option of the "mini-
hydro", or small-scale hydropower, was highly promoted.
Focusing on the needs of local populations, experts who attended FAME
pointed out the effectiveness of small turbines and small dams.
Ronack Monabay, an activist with Friends of the Earth, commended the
decision of the Nepalese government to open the energy market to small
producers, in order to implement small- and medium- scale dam projects,
capable of generating up to 100 megawatts.
This decision followed a campaign spearheaded by many environmental NGOs
and pressure from civil society to halt the World Bank-sponsored project
'Arun III', a large dam that would have ravaged the Himalayan forests.
Such a process of heeding the voices of small producers and local
communities grants the stakeholders more autonomy in the decision-making
process and allows communities to agree what is best for them.
On Mar 14. International Rivers, along with other environmental
organisations, campaigned against the "corporate green-washing of dams".
They told IPS all that is needed now is more political will from
decision-makers to implement these alternatives, instead of promoting
the large dams projects that represent huge profits for multinational
The sand dam alternative
In order to avoid the social and environmental problems created by large
dams, and with the aim of providing water for everyone, semi-arid areas
use another technology, called sand dams.
The NGO Excellent came to the WWF to raise awareness on this effective
way of tackling food insecurity and lack of water around the world,
particularly in regions where rainfall is intense but over very short
periods of time.
Sand dams are able to store enough water for one thousand people to
subsist for an entire lifetime. Moreover, sand dams are built and
managed by local communities, which is a very cost-effective solution.
Simon Maddrell, CEO of Excellent, told IPS, "The thing about sand dams
is that they keep water where the people are, where people need it. Now,
the fundamental principle of a large dam isn't to keep water where
people need it, and it certainly is not a method of providing water for
people in rural areas."
While sand dams do not provide populations with energy as a large dam
does, Maddrell believes this is not a priority for the affected
communities, who first need water and food.
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