How a new ECOWAS directive could change the way dams are built and managed in West Africa

Guest blog by
8 August 2017

Is there such a thing as a good dam-building project? Jérôme Koundouno shares his view on why he thinks a ground-breaking new policy directive could achieve its goal – where large dams power national development while respecting the environment and bringing benefits to all. 

Guinea's Kaleta dam was completed by a Chinese company in 2015, ending chronic power shortages in the capital city, Conakry (Photo: Jamie Skinner/IIED)

Controversy has surrounded large-scale dams for decades. On one side, they provide electricity and secure food and water supplies. On the other, they can damage ecosystems and displace vast numbers of people. 

In 2009, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) launched a region-wide dialogue aimed at improving the way large-scale water infrastructure projects in West Africa are implemented. 

June of this year saw this ambitious work come to fruition with ECOWAS adopting a major new policy directive. This policy could be a significant step forward in getting countries across West Africa to put not only economic, but also ecological and social considerations front and centre when implementing large dam projects.

Through my work at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) supporting communication activities and civil society involvement, I have closely followed the process leading to the adoption of this long-anticipated directive.

The question is: will it become just another policy document that will fail to get off the starting blocks? That would be the view of the sceptics, but I am not among them. 

The quest for sustainability 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) confirmed the imperative for large dam projects to find a balance between advancing socio-economic development and protecting the environment. 

But large-scale dam building in West Africa − with at least 150 projects in total, mainly in the Niger, Senegal, Volta and Gambia river basins − has brought mixed results. 

Economic returns (where data exist) have been generally good in terms of energy generation, but agricultural components have been more disappointing. Meanwhile, the environmental damage and transformation of local societies are striking.

Yet politicians continue to justify major investments in these large-scale infrastructure projects, citing national development objectives − particularly in the absence of more profitable alternatives. Funding agencies (multilateral, bilateral and private) also continue to support these projects. 

The challenge ahead

The challenge is to find a compromise − to find a way to improve economic returns on investment in dams while reducing negative environmental impacts and strengthening social support. 

The ECOWAS policy directive should encourage these changes through concrete measures, including:

  • Research to open up alternative options that could achieve the same economic returns while minimising disruption to local populations
  • Benefit-sharing with local communities affected by the dam project (as explained in our recent animation), and
  • Generalising strategic environmental evaluations and standardising them either by sector (hydro-electricity, energy, irrigation and so on) or by region (river basin). 

Why we need cross-border coordination 

Experience shows that a country wishing to build a dam will do so with or without external partners, and with or without the environmental and social safeguards required by funding agencies or recommended by river basin institutions. 

This can be seen in some of the Chinese-funded projects that have avoided the long and demanding procedures of the World Bank, for example. 

We need better institutional frameworks for these mega-projects which often have trans-national implications. This is why the involvement of ECOWAS, a regional structure, is a strong guarantee that the directive will be implemented across West Africa.

How can we ensure the policy is put into practice? 

Governments will have to integrate this policy into their own legislation, in principle over the next three years. But what if they do not fulfil their commitments? Adding new constraints to already complicated national development programs may prove challenging, which is why the Water Resources Coordination Centre (WRCC) of ECOWAS is developing a programme of support to countries. 

Furthermore, the ECOWAS directive has been endorsed by the relevant countries and river basin organisations. Its success will rest on the ownership and involvement of all stakeholders, including civil society.

Dissemination and outreach activities will be crucial in this regard, to ensure that the policy, designed to promote good practice, to change behaviour, to strengthen the hand of advocacy, to facilitate on-site monitoring, and so on, is well understood and ultimately applied.

"We are in this together"

I have been fortunate to be able to follow this whole process on dams since 2009, and to get to know many of the different actors involved (civil society, experts, river basin organisations, ministers, donors etc). Believe me, there is a desire to do things better! 

There are and will continue to be constraints, mostly political and economic. But obstacles are made to be overcome.

There is huge potential for change, even if this has to take place over a long time. The key will be a process of learning and political will in the various spheres of power and decision-making within the countries, river basin institutions and funding agencies. 

The ECOWAS policy directive rightly stresses the roles of all the actors in the development of water infrastructure (chapter 4). In Ouagadougou, where the WRCC is based, one often hears people say "We are in this together". Even if we cannot yet build perfect dams, I believe that together, we can build better ones. 

Jérôme Koundouno (jerome.koundouno@iucn.org) is the regional coordinator of the Global Water Initiative (GWI) in West Africa, implemented by IIED and IUCN.

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