Two perspectives on Chinese dam building in Africa via chinadialogue;
sorry for x-postings.
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 offer.
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 completely untapped.
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
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 energy source.
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 impacts.
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
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 sub-optimal.
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 there.
"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 project implementation.
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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