Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Big is beautiful: Megadams, African water security, and China’s role in the new global political economy

from Oxford Univ. China Africa Network. (References online)

Big is beautiful: Megadams, African water security, and China�s role
in the new global political economy


Big dams have long fascinated scientists and politicians alike,
sitting at the intersection of water security, modernisation
strategies and nationalism. They began their ascent in the West �
remember Roosevelt's Tennessee Valley Authority � but became popular
in developing countries seeking to meet the triple challenge of state-
building, nation-building and economic development. General Franco
used dams and a powerful water-bureaucracy to re-centralise control
over a fragmented, 'backward' nation after the Spanish civil war.
Nehru saw dams as the "modern temples of India" lifting hundreds of
millions out of poverty through spectacular multiplier effects in
industry and irrigated agriculture. And Gamal Abdel Nasser advanced
his revolutionary "second Egyptian independence" through the Aswan
Dam: Africa's biggest infrastructure project controlled the Nile flood
for the first time in history and symbolically catapulted Egypt into
the club of advanced nations.

Big dams were believed to magically transform barren wastelands into
fertile acreage, elevating the nation and integrating, through
irrigation and electrification, the domestic political economy. The
World Bank provided the ideological and financial backing for the
construction of hundreds of megadams across Latin America, Africa and
Asia. Yet from the 1970s onwards, dams as development instruments were
increasingly contested. Opponents exposed huge corruption scandals
that contributed to the systematic overestimation of their benefits
and the neglect of their dark side. Paradigmatic cases like the Sardar
Sarovar in Western India4 forced the Bank to largely withdraw its
support for large-scale hydro-infrastructure: the displacement of tens
of thousands of people; devastating environmental damage to unique
ecosystems; and the undemocratic decision-making surrounding dams
triggered a re-think. Many assumed that big dams might be shipped to a
museum for 20th century illusions of development � with Western
funding drying up, their role in economic growth strategies seemed
over.Dujiang Wiers Hydraulic Project, China

Yet anno 2012, dams are staging an impressive comeback: hundreds of
new projects have commenced in the last few years. China, India and
Brazil � not coincidentally also the three most important rising
powers � are the world's top three dam-builders, each with domestic
megaprojects of its own, but also increasingly a proactive role in an
emerging global political economy of food and water. Beijing
especially is using its formidable technical expertise in hydro-
infrastructure and immense foreign reserves to resurrect dam-building
overseas: in half of all African countries, from the Sudanese desert
and the Ethiopian lowlands to the rivers of Algeria and Gabon, Chinese
engineers are involved in the planning, heightening and building of
more than 100 dams. The tens of billions of US dollars and thousands
of megawatts involved in these projects have so far remained off the
radar in the China-Africa debate6 but are possibly more consequential
for the future of the African continent than the exports of oil,
copper and other valuable resources.

As the global balance of power shifts eastwards, supply and demand
networks are restructured, resulting in tremendous pressures on
commodity prices and scarce resources. Dams are therefore no longer
merely central to the debate about economic development but also an
integral part of water and food security strategies. Food prices
especially have spiked, bringing riots in their wake; this has led
many to predict that land and water are becoming the world economy's
Achilles heel. Emerging powers are seemingly racing to secure the key
resources of the future.8 Big investments by Gulf Arab sovereign
wealth funds, purchasing strategies of land by South Korean and
Malaysian enterprises and China's involvement in African dam-building
cannot be seen in isolation from growing fears about how to ensure
water security in the 21st century.

The speed and scale with which this new global political economy of
water and food is taking shape is breathtaking. One emerging leader is
Beijing's Sinohydro, a state-owned giant claiming leadership in dam-
building with more than 50% market share of new dams erected around
the globe. Just in 2009, Sinohydro, which is lead by powerful Chinese
Communist Party loyalists, installed 20000MW of new hydropower
capacity outside China's borders. Its technical expertise is
undisputed, as is the extraordinary politico-financial backing given
by Beijing's key ministries and lending agencies so that Sinohydro can
lead China's "Go Out" strategy. Diplomats, bankers and technical
specialists are disseminating the message that China's economic
miracle relied on dazzling investment in infrastructure and that the
hundreds of dams that tame China's rivers have powered agricultural
and industrial growth rates of 10% per annum. Implicitly, the economy
and the ecosystems that feed into it are imagined as a machine that
needs to keep spinning at high speeds. Dams are argued to be a vital
switch in maintaining the machine's stability, controlling erratic
water flows and channelling it to productive ends in regions of
scarcity. It might not come as surprise that 7 out of 9 members of the
Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo are

Dams symbolise the merger of growing hard and soft power of China but
their return to prominence begs important questions about the
sustainability of the new model of growth and water security. Both on
the Chinese and on the African side there seems preciously little
interest in engaging with the criticisms of the 1980s and 1990s �
these emphasised how the benefits of big dams typically accrue to
politically influential groups with important transnational allies,
while the costs of displacement, shrinking biodiversity and
disappearance of traditional cultures fall on those outside the
political elite.10

Moreover, while Chinese-built megadams are trumpeted as the answer to
persisting water security crises in Africa, the truth is that hardly
any planning surrounding them actually takes environmental concerns
seriously. As my research in the Nile Basin shows, the impacts of
climate change are seldom factored into the building of hydro-
infrastructure and the new irrigation projects are consuming huge
quantities of water � with water intensive cash crops being exported
to wealthy economies. Instead of opting for environmentally
sustainable models of regional integration that prioritise water and
food security, some national governments maintain a simplistic view of
development and still see dams as major achievements, regardless of
their ecological impact.12 Thus, while the return of big dams may be
beautiful in the eyes of Sinohydro and the African regimes that it
partners with, their long-term contribution to water security in the
climate change era remains deeply questionable.

The author of this article won the 2012 Global Water Forum Emerging
Scholars Award.

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