Monday, August 25, 2014

Large Dams Just Aren't Worth the Cost

Large Dams Just Aren't Worth the Cost
Opinion - Jacques Leslie
The New York Times, August 22, 2014

THAYER SCUDDER, the world's leading authority on the impact of dams on
poor people, has changed his mind about dams.

A frequent consultant on large dam projects, Mr. Scudder held out hope
through most of his 58-year career that the poverty relief delivered by
a properly constructed and managed dam would outweigh the social and
environmental damage it caused. Now, at age 84, he has concluded that
large dams not only aren't worth their cost, but that many currently
under construction "will have disastrous environmental and
socio-economic consequences," as he wrote in a recent email.

Mr. Scudder, an emeritus anthropology professor at the California
Institute of Technology, describes his disillusionment with dams as
gradual. He was a dam proponent when he began his first research project
in 1956, documenting the impact of forced resettlement on 57,000 Tonga
people in the Gwembe Valley of present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Construction of the Kariba Dam, which relied on what was then the
largest loan in the World Bank's history, required the Tonga to move
from their ancestral homes along the Zambezi River to infertile land
downstream. Mr. Scudder has been tracking their disintegration ever since.

Once cohesive and self-sufficient, the Tonga are troubled by
intermittent hunger, rampant alcoholism and astronomical unemployment.
Desperate for income, some have resorted to illegal drug cultivation and
smuggling, elephant poaching, pimping and prostitution. Villagers still
lack electricity.

Mr. Scudder's most recent stint as a consultant, on the Nam Theun 2 Dam
in Laos, delivered his final disappointment. He and two fellow advisers
supported the project because it required the dam's funders to carry out
programs that would leave people displaced by the dam in better shape
than before the project started. But the dam was finished in 2010, and
the programs' goals remain unmet. Meanwhile, the dam's three owners are
considering turning over all responsibilities to the Laotian government
- "too soon," Mr. Scudder said in an interview. "The government wants to
build 60 dams over the next 20 or 30 years, and at the moment it doesn't
have the capacity to deal with environmental and social impacts for any
single one of them."

"Nam Theun 2 confirmed my longstanding suspicion that the task of
building a large dam is just too complex and too damaging to priceless
natural resources," he said. He now thinks his most significant
accomplishment was not improving a dam, but stopping one: He led a 1992
study that helped prevent construction of a dam that would have harmed
Botswana's Okavango Delta, one of the world's last great wetlands.

Part of what moved Mr. Scudder to go public with his revised assessment
was the corroboration he found in a stunning Oxford University study
published in March in Energy Policy. The study, by Atif Ansar, Bent
Flyvbjerg, Alexander Budzier and Daniel Lunn, draws upon cost statistics
for 245 large dams built between 1934 and 2007. Without even taking into
account social and environmental impacts, which are almost invariably
negative and frequently vast, the study finds that "the actual
construction costs of large dams are too high to yield a positive return."

The study's authors - three management scholars and a statistician - say
planners are systematically biased toward excessive optimism, which dam
promoters exploit with deception or blatant corruption. The study finds
that actual dam expenses on average were nearly double pre-building
estimates, and several times greater than overruns of other kinds of
infrastructure construction, including roads, railroads, bridges and
tunnels. On average, dam construction took 8.6 years, 44 percent longer
than predicted - so much time, the authors say, that large dams are
"ineffective in resolving urgent energy crises."

DAMS typically consume large chunks of developing countries' financial
resources, as dam planners underestimate the impact of inflation and
currency depreciation. Many of the funds that support large dams arrive
as loans to the host countries, and must eventually be paid off in hard
currency. But most dam revenue comes from electricity sales in local
currencies. When local currencies fall against the dollar, as often
happens, the burden of those loans grows.

One reason this dynamic has been overlooked is that earlier studies
evaluated dams' economic performance by considering whether
international lenders like the World Bank recovered their loans - and in
most cases, they did. But the economic impact on host countries was
often debilitating. Dam projects are so huge that beginning in the
1980s, dam overruns became major components of debt crises in Turkey,
Brazil, Mexico and the former Yugoslavia. "For many countries, the
national economy is so fragile that the debt from just one mega-dam can
completely negatively affect the national economy," Mr. Flyvbjerg, the
study's lead investigator, told me.

To underline its point, the study singles out the massive Diamer-Bhasha
Dam, now under construction in Pakistan across the Indus River. It is
projected to cost $12.7 billion (in 2008 dollars) and finish
construction by 2021. But the study suggests that it won't be completed
until 2027, by which time it could cost $35 billion (again, in 2008
dollars) - a quarter of Pakistan's gross domestic product that year.

Using the study's criteria, most of the world's planned mega-dams would
be deemed cost-ineffective. That's unquestionably true of the gargantuan
Inga complex of eight dams intended to span the Congo River - its first
two projects have produced huge cost overruns - and Brazil's purported
$14 billion Belo Monte Dam, which will replace a swath of Amazonian rain
forest with the world's third-largest hydroelectric dam.

Instead of building enormous, one-of-a-kind edifices like large dams,
the study's authors recommend "agile energy alternatives" like wind,
solar and mini-hydropower facilities. "We're stuck in a 1950s mode where
everything was done in a very bespoke, manual way," Mr. Ansar said over
the phone. "We need things that are more easily standardized, things
that fit inside a container and can be easily transported."

All this runs directly contrary to the current international
dam-building boom. Chinese, Brazilian and Indian construction companies
are building hundreds of dams around the world, and the World Bank
announced a year ago that it was reviving a moribund strategy to fund
mega-dams. The biggest ones look so seductive, so dazzling, that it has
taken us generations to notice: They're brute-force, Industrial Age
artifacts that rarely deliver what they promise.

Jacques Leslie is the author, most recently, of "Deep Water: The Epic
Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment."

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Why Control of a Terrifying Dam in Iraq Is Life or Death for Half Million People

Why Control of a Terrifying Dam in Iraq Is Life or Death for Half
Million People
ABC News, Aug 7, 2014
By LEE FERRAN and MAZIN FAIQ, Investigative Reporter

There are conflicting reports out today about whether the extremist
group ISIS has taken control over Iraq's largest and most dangerous dam,
which Iraqi officials had previously said was safe under the protection
of Kurdish forces.

ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, wrote on their website today
that they are in control of the two-mile-wide Mosul Dam, echoing claims
the group made over the weekend. Iraqi media reports and a Kurdish
official have supported the claim. But late Wednesday and early today,
two Iraqi government officials, one from the Ministry of Water Resources
and the other familiar with the dam's operations, told ABC News ISIS had
not taken the dam and said that it is functioning as usual.

The question of control is a critical one for the millions of Iraqis who
live downstream of the Mosul Dam all the way down the Tigris to Baghdad,
because if the dam was taken over, ISIS would be in control of what
could effectively be a major weapon of mass destruction – one that the
U.S. military said in 2006 was, without the help of brutal jihadists,
already "the most dangerous dam in the world."

It wouldn't even have to be sabotaged to fail – if an extremist group
took control and wanted the dam to break, they may be able to simply do

The gargantuan dam, built in the mid-1980s, was constructed on "a
foundation of soluble soils that are continuously dissolving, resulting
in the formation of cavities and voids underground that place the dam at
risk for failure," said an urgent letter sent from David Petraeus, then
commanding general of the U.S. Army, and Ryan Crocker, then U.S.
Ambassador to Iraq, to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2007.
[The Mosul Dam was built by the German-Italian Hochtief consortium -
International Rivers]

The dam requires "extraordinary engineering measures" – namely constant
grouting operations -- to fill in the holes and "maintain the structural
integrity and operating capability of the dam," according to a U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers (USACE) report from the same year.

For 30 years –- and through several periods of violent conflict -- the
Iraqi government has managed to keep the dam upright by continuously
pumping in literally tons of grout like an industrial version of the
little Dutch boy, as a geotechnical expert who worked on the dam put it.

But the U.S. says any failure of the dam could be "catastrophic."

"[T]he most severe impact of a dam failure would be [for] the City of
Mosul, located 50 kilometers [31 miles] downstream of the dam,"
Petraeus' and Crocker's 2007 letter says. "Assuming a worse [sic] case
scenario, an instantaneous failure of Mosul Dam filled to its maximum
operating level could result in a flood wave over 20 meters [65 feet]
deep at the City of Mosul, which would result in a significant loss of
life and property." Mosul alone is estimated to be home to more than 1.5
million people. Flood waters, albeit at a lower level, could reach all
the way to Baghdad, more than 200 miles further down the Tigris,
depending on the performance of another smaller dam further downriver.

A 2011 report written by a USACE official and published in Water Power
magazine estimated failure "could lead to as many as 500,000 civilian

The Water Power article states that Iraq is "fully aware of the
challenges facing the ageing structure," but as USACE civil engineer
David Paul told the magazine at the time, "there is no precedence for
what they are trying to achieve" in finding a more permanent solution to
the dam's problems than never-ending grouting – including the proposed
use of an incredibly large "cutoff wall" to help mitigate the seepage.
There are other measures that can be taken, such as keeping the
reservoir levels lower than the maximum to reduce pressure on the dam;
that was one of several recommendations the U.S. government made in 2007.

But none totally fix the problem and the geotechnical expert who spoke
to ABC News said that he didn't have reason to believe the dam is any
better off today than it was when the USACE report was published in 2007.

That was also before a powerful jihadist group borne of the Syrian civil
war began its deadly march across Iraq and reportedly up to Mosul Dam's
doorstep. Like today, earlier this week there were conflicting reports
about whether ISIS had taken control of the dam during a previous
24-hour offensive in the area.

Tuesday the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources circulated a statement
saying the dam was not under ISIS control but has been protected by
Kurdish peshmerga troops. The government department reiterated the claim
earlier today.

A second Iraqi official involved with the dam's operations said
Wednesday that grouting supplies were safe and there was plenty in store.

"Grouting is still ongoing and never stopped," said the official, who
asked his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak to the

But what if ISIS does eventually overtake the dam? Or what if it already

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that Mosul
Dam "has been in the sights of [ISIS] since its offensive began in June
to further threaten and terrorize the Iraqi people."

In addition to flooding concerns, the dam is also a "key source" of
power and water for the surrounding area – making it a vital piece of
infrastructure either way, another State Department spokesperson told
ABC News Wednesday. An American intelligence source agreed and said that
ISIS's potential control over and exploitation of power and water is a
focus of U.S. intelligence community.

The Iraqi official involved in the dam's operations refused to respond
to the dire hypothetical of ISIS control Wednesday, but a U.S.
government official long-familiar with the dam said it's an unsettling
idea made more so by a litany of unanswered questions. ISIS may not want
the dam to fail, considering it controls territory that would be flooded
and could leverage their control over the water and power source, but
the U.S. official said it would still be up to the jihadist group to
keep the grouting going.

"If ISIS does indeed have or gain control of the dam, will they listen
to the dam engineers who have been working there for decades and who
understand the need for constant grouting? … And then this is the
biggie: If they can't or don't want to grout, how long will the dam
last?... And if it fails, will it be a catastrophic all-at-once failure
or more of a slowly building uncontrolled release?" the official told
ABC News. "The short answer is no one knows. This is all guesswork anyway."

The official said that he is not aware of official U.S. calculations
about how long the dam would last without grouting but says he
understands it to be "on the order of weeks, not months." The
geotechnical expert agreed that "weeks" was a skeptical, but entirely
possible estimation.

"The potential for a disaster can't be ruled by and should be of great
concern to all parties involved," the U.S. official said.

The U.S. State Department told ABC News late Wednesday the department is
"monitoring the situation closely." Officials at the Pentagon did not
immediately respond to questions about whether any contingency plans are
in place in case ISIS does take over the dam.

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