Oxford study warns developing countries against dam projects
Financial Times, March 10, 2014
By Pilita Clark in London
An ill-advised splurge on large dams across the developing world is
likely to saddle countries with big debts, according to Oxford
university researchers who have found such projects typically cost
nearly twice as much as first estimated and rarely finish on time.
The findings are based on a study of 245 dams built in 65 countries
since 1934, making it one of the most comprehensive analyses since a
wave of mega-dams began around seven years ago, ending a 20-year lull in
Such projects, including Brazil's Belo Monte dam in the Amazon and the
Gilgel Gibe III dam in Ethiopia, promise to boost renewable energy in
countries eager to increase their electricity supplies without burning
more fossil fuels.
However, they often arouse opposition because they can require thousands
to be uprooted from their homes and flood fragile ecosystems.
Anti-dam campaigners will be bolstered by the Oxford study, which found
large dam construction costs were on average more than 90 per cent
higher than initial budgets, while eight out of 10 suffered a schedule
It concludes the Brazilian and Ethiopian dams, and similar ones in
Pakistan, Myanmar and elsewhere, are likely to face "large cost and
schedule overruns seriously undermining their economic viability".
The research authors include Professor Bent Flyvbjerg, a prominent
critic of the optimistic assumptions behind mega-projects such as the
Olympic Games and new railway infrastructure.
"Our paper should not be seen as being against hydropower," he said,
adding there were many good examples of smaller hydroelectric projects
in countries such as Norway and Portugal that made sound economic sense.
However, the financial and economic impact of huge dams in developing
countries can be dire, Prof Flyvbjerg said, and their social and
environmental effects are "often horrendous".
"Taken together, that means it does not make much sense to build them,"
The reason so many projects do proceed is that the experts who make
forecasts about them "can be usefully grouped into 'fools' or 'liars'",
he said, explaining fools were recklessly optimistic while liars
deliberately mislead to get projects going.
Part of the problem for developing countries is they often have to
borrow a lot for imported goods or services to build big dams, putting
pressure on public finances that can be exacerbated by sudden exchange
The Itaipu dam Brazil built in the 1970s suffered a 240 per cent cost
over-run that impaired the country's finances for three decades, said
Prof Flyvbjerg. Colombia's Chivor hydropower project endured a 32 per
cent cost over-run after the peso depreciated nearly 90 per cent against
Such risks are less of a problem in wealthier countries such as the US,
home of the Hoover dam that is often cited as a success story.
Dam proponents frequently argue they have learnt from past mistakes and
can avoid the financial problems that plagued older dams.
However, the Oxford study, published in the Energy Policy journal,
suggests the magnitude of cost overruns has not declined over time and
dam budgets today are as wrong as at any time during the 70 years for
which there is data.
"If leaders of emerging economies are truly interested in the welfare of
their citizens, they are better off laying grand visions of mega-dams
aside," said Atif Ansar, co-author of the study.
(The new study is available at
www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421513010926. You will
find a review by International Rivers at http://bit.l/DamStudy.)
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