[Two perspectives on Chinese dam building in Africa via chinadialogue]
Why big dams don't work
Lori Pottinger, 11 July 2012
Yesterday, Mike Muller argued that China's investment in dams is good
news for Africa. Here, Lori Pottinger writes that large dams are costly
and destructive, but Chinese experience in renewables still has a lot to
The record of Africa's large dams is one of widespread environmental
destruction to the continent's major river systems, upon which millions
of people depend for their livelihoods; forcible resettlement and human
rights abuses; corruption and cost overruns.
Large dams across the continent have left a trail of
"developmentï¿½induced poverty" in their wake. Project benefits have been
consistently overstated and inequitably shared.Africa's large hydropower
dams also disproportionately benefit industry and high-income groups,
and have done little to reduce energy poverty. Finally, because African
energy sectors are already excessively dependent on large-dam hydropower
for electricity supply, and because the majority of Africans depend
directly on rivers for their livelihoods, big dams are increasing the
continent's vulnerability to climate change.
Chinese banks and companies are heavily backing dam construction in
Africa, and have been involved in some very troublesome projects ï¿½
including the Merowe Dam in Northern Sudan, whose reservoir displaced
50,000 farmers from their lands near the fertile Nile River to harsh
desert resettlement camps; the 185-metre high Tekeze Dam in Ethiopia,
which experts believe will silt up so fast the project will quickly
become unviable; and now the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia, considered
Africa's most destructive dam project, which will dry up Kenya's Lake
Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, and impact half a million
indigenous people in two countries.
China's policy of "non-interference" in the other countries' affairs has
resulted in Chinese support for African dam projects marred by
state-sponsored violence and other human-rights violations; major
environmental destruction; and a lack of transparency in every respect.
The majority of Africans rely on the natural environment for their
livelihoods; choosing to build more large dams in Africa will cause
greater ecological degradation, damage livelihoods and diminish quality
of life for many.
Africa clearly needs energy and water-supply development. But the type
and scale of development necessary to meet the needs of the poor is
considerably different to what is generally being planned for the
continent. African governments are seeking funding for billions of
dollars worth of large hydropower proposals and the expansion of
transmission lines serving primarily urban and industrial areas. Yet 80%
o fAfrica's population lives in rural areas far from the grid.
Similarly, big storage dams are a costly and inflexible response to the
needs of the huge number of people now without a safe water supply
inAfrica. A new path is needed.
Too big to fail?
Large dams are often the major focus of energy development in many poor
countries, which can lead to an unbalanced and risky energy supply,
increased corruption, and huge debt burdens. Worse, these projects often
do little to increase energy access, because the bigger challenge is to
bring electricity lines to the rural majority, who live in low-density
villages far from national grids, and who cannot afford to use enough
electricity to justify the connections.
For example, the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam inMozambique is expected to cost at
least US$2 billion, in a country with a national income per capita of
about US$360. Most of the dam's electricity will be used by the aluminum
industry and neighbouring South Africa.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has one of Africa's least
functional governments, but hopes to build the world's largest dam, the
Grand Inga, which could produce twice the power ofChina's Three Gorges
Dam. This mega-dam is expected to cost at least US$80 billion, in a
country with an average national income of US$106. The dam's
electricity could be exported as far away as Europe, yet there is no
viable plan to increase energy access in the DRC from this project.
While countries generally get richer as they increase their use of
modern energy, the trend goes the other way for countries that depend on
hydroelectricity. Of the world's 40 richest countries, only one is more
than 90% hydro-dependent; of the world's 40 poorest, 15 are more than
90% hydro-dependent, and many of these are inAfrica. Numerous
hydro-dependent African countries have suffered drought-induced
blackouts and energy rationing in recent years.
Climate change is now altering hydrological cycles, which means that
historical data is no longer a reliable predictor of future hydrological
patterns. Many sub-Saharan countries are already over-dependent on
hydropower for their electricity, and many areas have experienced
increasingly crippling droughts that have sidelined hydropower
production and cost billions in lost production every year.
The Nile River provides just one example of a river basin vulnerable to
climate change that is also seeing huge growth in large hydro dams. In
its 2001 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated
that in the Nile River Basin, there has been "a reduction in runoff of
20% between 1972 and 1987, corresponding to a general decrease in
precipitation in the tributary basins calculated ï¿½ In recent years there
have been significant interruptions in hydropower generation as a result
of severe droughts."
Energy security means hydro-heavy African nations should diversify power
generation away from large hydropower, rather than deepening their
dependency. Diversifying the energy sector would help the continent's
climate-adaptation efforts in several key ways: it would de-emphasise
reliance on erratic rainfall for electricity; reduce conflict over water
resources; and protect river-based ecosystems and the many benefits they
bring. Similarly, most Africans would benefit more from a localised
water supply and improvements in their rain-fed agricultural systems,
rather than a massive increase in big dams for water supply and irrigation.
A better path
Africa is ripe for a major, decentralised power roll-out of renewables
and small power plants, which would build local economies from the
ground up, not the top down.
Energy activists in Africa are pressing for energy choices that directly
alleviate the energy poverty of Africa's poor; that reduce nations'
vulnerability to climate change; and that are transparently planned with
public participation. Large hydropower dams do not meet the first two
criteria, and have never yet met the last.
Energy development that invests in the local energy sector and creates
skilled jobs for Africans should be prioritised. Decentralised,
renewable technologies such as wind, micro-hydro and solar power
specifically allow for higher rates of job creation and technology
transfer. For example, a 2003 report commissioned by South Africa's
Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Project conservatively estimated
that if South Africa set a target of generating 15% of its energy from
renewable sources by 2020, it would create 36,373 new jobs in the
country's energy sector ï¿½ greater than the total employment of the
national energy utility, Eskom.
Africa has world-class solar potential, a vast belt of clean geothermal
reserves, strong winds, and great potential for micro-hydro and no-dam
hydro. A 2012 report by the European Commission Joint Research Centre
found that, for huge swaths of the continent, using solar power or
micro-hydro would be cheaper than expanding national grid services. The
continent's wind power potential is also tremendous along its large
coastlines. East Africa has the potential to generate 15,000 megawatts
of geothermal energy. But most of these resources remain almost
China has much experience with the kinds of solutions that would help
Africa's poor majority. Its experience in biogas digesters, solar panels
and solar water heating, clean stoves and wind turbines would bring much
greater value for meeting Africa's pressing development needs than a
massive investment in destructive large dams.
Lori Pottinger is director of International Rivers' Africa Program.
China brings dams back to Africa
Olivia Boyd, 10 July 2012
Chinese investors have broken a boycott on investment in African dams ï¿½
and loosened the grip of the environment lobby. This is good news for
the continent, water expert Mike Muller tells Olivia Boyd.
Mike Muller is a South African water expert, engineer and writer on
development issues. He is also commissioner at South Africa's National
Planning Commission and a visiting professor at the University of the
Witwatersrand in Johannesburg; a member of the Global Water
Partnership's Technical Advisory Committee and an advisor to the UN
World Water Assessment Programme. He was previously director general of
South Africa's Department of Water Affairs and Forestry.
Olivia Boyd caught up with him on the sidelines of a water conference in
Oxford, where he was speaking about China's role in African hydropower
Olivia Boyd: You argue that China has broken an "investment boycott"
when it comes to hydropower in Africa. Can you explain what that means?
What was the boycott, and what caused it?
Mike Muller: The multilateral organisations and a lot of the bilaterals
were essentially blocked from investing in large water infrastructure
because environmental concerns had dominated the agenda. Western NGOs
had actually constrained lending policy This is well-documented in the
case of the World Bank, but equally true for a lot of other agencies.
The arrival ofChinaas a significant investor in Africa has seen the
emergence of a bilateral discussion about China's interests and
[African] national interests. And quite often out of that, power
constraints have been identified as a priority, together with the
opportunity to address those power constraints through hydropower.
The rash of projects that have been identified as soon as that
opportunity opened is impressive and provides empirical evidence of the
obstructions that existed before. The evidence is compelling that that
it was Chinese engagement that has succeeded in removing the
obstructions. As a consequence, you now see some of the other
multilaterals, like the World Bank in Cameroon, relaxing what were
previously very onerous conditions, and beginning to invest in water
OB: What were the impacts of the boycott, in your view?
MM: It essentially ensured that Africa stayed underdeveloped in terms of
cheap and reliable and green hydropower. The figures show that Africais
the continent which has the least of its hydro-potential developed. And
in many countries, as in the case of the Bujagali dam in Uganda, that
opportunity ï¿½ by far the most sensible approach to energy development ï¿½
just wasn't available because the finance required couldn't be supported
from local countries and had to be sourced from multilaterals and they
wouldn't give it.
In the case of Bujagali, there was a five-year delay [before it could
move ahead]. We know electricity deficits caused a 2% GDP drop over that
period. We can track what the GDP drop did to poverty rates. We can
track what the poverty rates did to infant mortality. And I think it's
reasonable to say that inUganda, on that one project, 10,000 children
died because the country was prevented from using the best available
OB: You say Chinese investors in Africa have broken this damaging
pattern, but they have also come under attack ï¿½ for riding roughshod
over local interests, ignoring environment and labour standards, tying
up with harmful regimes. Are such criticisms invalid? Is Chinese
investment purely positive?
MM: No, but I think that Chinese investment has very clear rules. The
rules seem to be that "we will talk to you as partners, and we will
respect your preferences and your ideas". Now, if you have a regime that
doesn't care very much about labour standards or environmental
standards, or indeed care about the quality of work done, you'll get
poor infrastructure and you'll probably get poor performance. I think
what this does is throw the responsibility back onto Africans and their
governments to decide what they want and then to argue about how to get it.
So I don't think that all Chinese projects are good by any means. I've
driven on some fairly appalling Chinese-built roads in various parts of
the [African] continent. But equally, where countries have decided they
want a good road, they've got a very good road. And I think what the
Chinese relationship is doing, which is what the aid-effectiveness
relationship is supposed to do more globally, is forcing countries to
take responsibility for the outcomes that they get, rather than
protecting them from themselves, which just enables them to always blame
outsiders for their problems rather than looking to themselves for the
changes that they need to make.
OB: You have complained about a single-minded focus on environmental
concerns and that worries about a particular Environmental Impact
Assessment, for instance, can end up delaying a project. Presumably
your solution isn't to do away with EIAs, so how do you get the right
balance between environmental concerns and other concerns?
MM: I think that environmental protection, and more substantively the
achievement of more environmentally sustainable economic and social
arrangements, is a priority. We always forget that the Environmental
Impact Assessment was originally supposed to be an environmental and
social impact assessment. We've seen that the social element has largely
been lost. You never hear a substantive argument about the livelihood
benefits of a project, you always hear about the environmental benefits
And my concern is that we need to rebalance the discussion to ensure
that the loud voices of environmental advocates are heard, but are
balanced by equally loud advocates for social equity, which is very
important as well as for economic growth, which is a critical enabler of
social development. And I think we've lost that.
The Bujagali dam, for me, is just one extreme case where that has occurred.
OB: In China and elsewhere, many say one way to alleviate environmental
pressures is to shift to small-scale hydropower as opposed to
large-scale dams. What are your views on that?
MM: The evidence is that the proliferation of small-scale activity can
do as much, and quite often more, damage than large-scale projects.
InSouth Africa, we ban the construction of large numbers of small dams
in some areas, because of the water inefficiency that they introduce,
because of the additional evaporation. We know that problem has been
identified inIndiaas well.
So I think that "small versus large" is a complete red herring. You need
to look then at the impact of a thousand small activities, and they are
much more difficult to control and they are much more likely to be
I recently visited the Three Gorges. I visited it when it was under
construction and I've now visited when it was in operation. Quite
frankly, I think in terms of scale, in terms of the amount of green
energy you're getting, in terms of the improved transport efficiencies,
in terms of flood control, in terms of all sorts of economic benefits,
in terms of the local tourism and employment benefits, you can really
look at that project and say look at the costs and look at the benefits.
And those kinds of costs and benefits would probably not have been
achieved in small-scale projects in the same way that they were achieved
"Small versus large" is an important discussion to have. But I think it
would be more useful to look substantively at those three pillars ï¿½ the
social, the economic and the environmental ï¿½ and try to make sure that
they are balanced. And my impression is that China has made huge strides
in 10 years towards rebalancing their water resource management
discussion and I would be very sad to see them moving in the direction
of too great a focus on environment. Particularly if that's then going
to impact on their partner countries.
I find it interesting, and there is empirical evidence, that China's
re-focus has completely changed the dams and development debate. The
anti-dam advocates are now turning most of their attention to China.
They are very concerned about China, they are trying to influence it. I
think we should be celebrating China's contribution to African
development in particular, even as we warn about the dangers of careless
Again, in the debates about China's policy, we need to celebrate the
very many benefits that we are getting from it, as well as being careful
about the potential damage that it could do, if not properly managed.
But the responsibility for that lies primarily with the African
partners. And China must demand accountability and responsibility from
its African partners and vice versa.
OB: So would that be your message to Chinese investors then? Demand
MM: Demand accountability, yes. And if you don't get it think about the
consequences for yourself, and perhaps help your African partners to
think through what that means for both parties.
Olivia Boyd is managing editor at chinadialogue.
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