Dams in Africa: Combining national and local development

The economics and distribution of development benefits of large dams continue to be a source of controversy. Every dam is different, and efforts to generalise from a few (often well known, but sometimes exceptional) examples continue to cause challenges in reaching common ground on the past development contribution of the 50,000 dams worldwide today and the need for more.

Blog by
9 December 2014

Manantali dam in Mali (Photo: OMVS/SOGEM via Google license)

Fourteen years after the World Commission on Dams spent three years and $10 million USD trying to quantify the contribution of large dams to development, debate still rages. While recent research has provided new evidence, the complex and conflicting demands for water storage, energy and land in many parts of Africa create powerful arguments on both sides of the debate, as witnessed at the recent Oxford Water Network discussion on Water, Dams and Development.

One of the problems for the commission was the very small dataset of dams assessed (just ten full studies and a 125-dam survey reflecting the estimated 45,000 dams in the world at the time). Ultimately, the commission observed that trillions of dollars were being spent but the data was not being gathered to show whether, either individually or collectively, they were a "good economic investment". 

Is everyone who supports dam-building a 'fool or a liar'?

Dr Atif Ansar (Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University), partially remedied this situation, presenting data from 245 dams on the Oxford panel. His conclusion was that overall, from an economic perspective, they had not performed and had often overrun their costs – leading to his assertion that those who are in favour of building large dams are either "fools or liars". This conclusion has provoked a passionate rebuttal from the International Commission on Large Dams.

Other panel members argued that this larger sample could still only be seen as providing a "partial" picture. Professor David Grey from the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University (and previously of the World Bank), suggested that the multiple benefits of large dams are too often under-reported and overlooked. He showed direct relationships between GDP, numbers of large dams, and water scarcity and argued that more water storage is essential for Africa's development.

That Africa suffers from intermittent rainfall patterns and it would therefore benefit from more storage of highly seasonal flows is beyond hydrological dispute. More electricity to supply the 585 million people without access to electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa would also be welcome, as would more extensive and year-round irrigation to secure livelihoods.

The challenge is that water courses are already heavily populated and floodplains extensively used by local communities. Good dam sites that combine deep valleys with few people are rare, and in some West African countries (e.g. Ghana, Burkina, Mali, Niger, Gambia) non-existent.

So, who benefits from dams?

Dr David Turton from Oxford University's African Studies Centre highlighted the expected impacts of the 243m high Gibe III dam in Ethiopia on the 100,000 agro-pastoralists of the Lower Omo River and the inhabitants of Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya. There are fears that this dam may eventually reduce the lake level by up to 20m, with significant negative impacts on the livelihoods of local inhabitants who depend on farming and fishing. 

The project has been flawed, with a lack of transparency during the planning and construction phase, and criticism of the environmental impact assessment. But the dam will also provide significant electricity for the national and regional grid (1870 MW, more than the current capacity for the whole of Kenya) and gravity-fed irrigation for Ethiopian farmland, creating the potential for foreign direct investment in tens of thousands of hectares of sugarcane and other irrigated crops.

Transformative development this may be, but participatory and inclusive it is not.

The importance of safeguards

To ensure that these dams benefit the many rather than the few, we need to assess and manage the environmental and social risks and not just focus on the potential economic benefits. Largely funded by the Ethiopian government, the design of Gibe III has escaped donor-driven environmental safeguards, is far from transparent, and the Kenyan government seems content to see the lake level decline.

At the other end of the scale, Kandadji dam in Niger, which will displace 38,000 people, has been subjected to the comprehensive safeguarding policies of the World and African Development Banks.

Financed by nine international donors, the governmental project developers are cajoled, encouraged and required to meet high standards of social and environmental care. However, a severe lack of government capacity to integrate thousands of pages of consultants' reports into a coherent, integrated and manageable plan (let alone to deliver it) carries its own risks. 

Are there any 'good' dams that everyone can agree on?

The Oxford panel was tasked with citing an example of a 'good dam' (always risky given most experts are only really familiar with 10 or 15 large dams in any kind of detail). 

Professor Grey chose Manantali in Mali, citing its three government joint ownership and transboundary nature, its high hydropower generation and the fact that its investment costs had been paid off within 25 years. Yet levels of bilharzia infection in children downstream have reportedly increased significantly and the formal evaluation of the project (PDF) said that "the irrigation development of Manantali dam is below acceptable expectations… [and] … the shortage of land and the rarity of employment has created discontent among resettled people, creating tensions between the resettled and the host communities" [my translation].

Not really...

If this is what success looks like from a World Bank perspective, the bar for "good" has been set too low. It recognises that inevitably there will be losers – as acknowledged by the late John Briscoe, a strong advocate of large dams within the bank, who said: "You're never ever going to do one of these (dams) in which every single person is going to say 'This is good for me'". 

Significant arguments against the notion of "good" dams have been made by others elsewhere. The anthropologist Thayer Scudder, for example, changed his mind on large dams towards the end of his career, having initially believed that dams could be a force for development and that we would learn how to deal with the downsides for affected communities.

This apparent lack of learning around large dams was also stressed by Dr Ansar, who said that lessons have not been learnt, and that we are as incapable today (from an economic perspective) at conceiving and building dams as we were 40 years ago.

The true test of inclusive development: giving equal weight to local and national development

While Professor Grey's argument linking economic growth to water storage may well be true for Western economies, how can we deliver this same development model for Africa with its different topologies, often dense rural communities and intermittent rainfall patterns?

Where dams force relocation of tens of thousands of people, can resettlement ever re-establish livelihoods? Or are resettled and affected communities destined to suffer permanent development deficits, and if so, who decides whether such "sacrifice" in the national interest is "acceptable"?

Pastoralists on the Lower Omo have not been asked what they think of these questions, but the true test of inclusive sustainable progress lies in giving equal weight to both local and national development and not putting the interests of one group against another.

Making dams that deliver development for everyone remains a significant challenge, and it is good that the Oxford Water Network is tackling the complexities of this issue.

View the presentation on Africa, dams and development: Making impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems on IIED's SlideShare site.

Jamie Skinner (jamie.skinner@iied.org) is a principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources Group and leads the West Africa programme of the Global Water Initiative.

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