What is a Dam, large and Mega?
It is a big cement hall, that stop the course of the river. The word seems to be related to the Greek word taphos, meaning “grave” or “grave hill”, in reality it is a tombstone for the river.
By the International Commission of Large Dams (ICOLD), a large dam is higher than 15m while a Mega dam is over 100m. Most Mega dams worldwide are used for energy production.
Mega dams have been the center of many debates, research and studies for the last decade.
Between 1930 and 1970, the boom of Mega dams was seen to be synonymous with “economic development” and a symbol of human ability to assert control over nature. But then the truth of their negative impacts started to arise, and it become the center of many debates and arguments around costs-versus-benefits, ecological impacts, social impacts, etc.
From one side the proponents claim dams as a source of energy and as such a tool for development, from another side the opponents state that those benefits are far outweighed by disadvantages such as loss of communities livelihoods and rivers ecosystems to name just some.
The late 1980s and 1990s era, were marked by large protests, and controversial debates about mega dams. Pressure and huge campaigns from civil society, social movements and communities affected by dams to stop financing mega-dams. Same financed institutions, with the pressure and information about crimes against human rights, by mega dams financed by the world bank, funds were decrease to the world Bank Dams projects. Due to such an outcry, an independent commission under the chairmanship of Kader Asmal, the South African water minister, was created in April 1997, the “World Commission on Dams (WCD)”, to research the environmental, social and economic impacts of mega Dams globally. The WCD was composed of members of civil society, academia, private sector, professional associations and government representatives. The report findings and recommendations were launched under the patronage of Nelson Mandela in November 2000. The WCD found that while “ dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and benefits derived from them have been considerable… in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment.” The study also made recommendations and provided guidelines which all dam projects should follow, including five core values and seven priorities detailed below:
Participatory decision-making and
Gaining public acceptance,
comprehensive options assessment,
Addressing existing dams,
Sustaining Rivers and Livelihoods
Recognising entitlements and sharing benefits,
Ensuring compliance and
Sharing rivers for peace, development and security.
For a while, the understanding of the large costs of Mega dams started to become a reality, but suddenly with the climate crises, they came back with the tag of “Solution for Climate change”. But it is not a solution. It is riddled with problems and earns our tag of “false solution”.
At JA’s last year climate justice meeting “Seeding Climate justice II”, held in Maputo, JA invited Rudo Sanyanga, Africa Director of International Rivers (IR), who presented the impacts of dams on the climate, and debunked the myth that mega dams are one of the energy sources to address our climate crises. Without going into the known social and environmental impacts, the presenter began her presentation by asking “Hydro dams, do they provide CLEAN energy? NO, THEY DON’T, ITS NOT TRUE! They exacerbate climate change instead”. Dams especially tropical dams can often produce a huge amount of methane and carbon dioxide from rotting biomass in the reservoir. Then there are huge impacts of droughts and floods on the energy production, and dependency of hydroelectric on a changing climate is questionable.
Rudo spoke about the breakthrough research done in 2012, “ A Risky Climate for Southern African Hydro”, there was a lot of opposition, attacked by politicians, statements that IR ‘’was scaring people, and that was not going to happen’’. But it is real, 4 years after, we see that is happen, this year, Lake Kariba never went above 20% capacity, Lesotho Katse dam was 63%, Zambia that was 80% dependent of Hydro, due to a 2 years drought is turning into solar. This is real , Zambezi Basin countries will have a decrease in stream flow, as many studies estimate and a decrease of run-off to be between 26% to 40% by 2050. No one is trying to scare people, but it is already happen and is going to only become worse.
We recall back in 2012, when Rudo come to Maputo to present the finding of this study, we were attacked by most of the government participants at the launch meeting, to the point of becoming quite an ugly and unproductive meeting.
We raised the question again, how can Mozambique build a dam as risky as it is Mphanda Nkuwa is to the environmental and communities, seismic risk, and now adding the economic and climate change risk? Those risks exist, due to extreme climate changes, and they must be included in any evaluation and decision to build or not a dam.
But as the researcher stated on their study, that government, dam builders and decisions makers, are not taking into consideration the economic risks associated to climate change, in his words “ There is been a neglect of climate risks in hydropower planning – in an approach that might be called either ‘wait and see’ or ‘head in the sand’ ”.
But it still amazes me how difficult is for people to understand and see mega dams for what they really are: a monstrosity that destroys lives, livelihoods and rivers ecosystem, to say some. In a way I can understand if you look into a coal power station, you see ugliness, you see smoke, pollution and a landscape that no one wants to live there if they have a choose. At the other end, a mega dam is an huge infrastructure that makes any engineers proud of it, a lake, and an enormous hall that splits water in amazing speed, and a sound that make you feel small in this world… for sure looks much better then a coal power station. But it is just that, a facade. Because it is not synonymous with development, just ask the 40-80 million people displaced by dams, how their lives and livelihoods have been destroyed. Neither is it a solution for climate change as it often emits methane (more in tropical areas), destroys forests for the reservoir. Neither it is good for the environmental as it block rivers and inundates forests and agricultural land , and deny downstream enough water for wetlands to operate accordingly. Neither they protect us, from flood if they are not build to do so, or a way to keep water during drought.
Why they do not protect us from floods…. Well, if they are build just for that, yes, but you do not need a Mega dam for that, a mega dam is either for energy production, irrigation or water supply. To produce energy, you need to keep as much water as possible, and then when a big flood comes, there is no space to keep all the water in, same for irrigation, and to protect us from floods we do not need mega dams, small dams are the ideal, and system that can divert water when is too much, same for drought.
JA released in 2009 a study about renewable energy sources for Mozambique, another study that was attacked by the government participants in such a way that the author had difficulties to do his presentation without being constantly interrupted, simply because that study showed that we do not need Mphanda Nkuwa, and there are other ways forward to have energy for everyone with less impacts. The magic potion is not that difficult, we need to start with decentralized energy systems, clean energy, solar, wind, even mini to small hydro dams, a mix of energy sources, which must be affordable by all people.
We can do, and we should think more on solutions to tackle and minimize climate change impacts, instead to follow a path that put us where we are…. In a crises, can we be more smart and take decisions that are smarter, at least we live in a era that we have many options, and we know what mistakes where made, that we can avoid them.
So why build mega dams, to destroy rivers systems, communities livelihoods, increase climate impacts adding the economic risk , is really a mega dam worthwhile? It is not a solution for the climate crises we are hurtling towards. Climate change will affect rivers flow, and worsen extreme and intense floods and droughts that will put a risk on the economic benefit, so why ????
For whom and what. That’s the million dollar question. Because is not for us the people, is not a solution for our climate crises, is not for the environment…. who is it for? And what is it for?
Some info on dams, from the article of 12 dams that change the world from: https://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/227-3
Chixoy: the grave on the Rio Negro
Dam-affected communities have often suffered repression and human rights abuses. In 1982, more than 400 indigenous men, women and children were massacred to make way for the World Bank’s Chixoy Dam in Guatemala. In a historic breakthrough, the country’s government in 2014 signed a $154m reparations agreement with the affected communities.
Banqiao: the dam that washed away
When dams are not properly built or maintained, they can break. In the world’s biggest dam disaster, the failure of China’s Banqiao Dam killed an estimated 171,000 people in 1975. In more than 100 cases, scientists have also linked dam building to earthquakes. Strong evidence suggests that China’s Sichuan earthquake, which killed 80,000 people in 2008, may have been triggered by the Zipingpu Dam.
Yacyretá: the monument to corruption
Large dams are often pet projects of dictators. Lacking accountability leads to massive corruption and cost overruns. On average, large dams experience cost overruns of 96% and are not economic. The cost of Argentina’s Yacyretá Dam has mushroomed from $2.5bn to $15bn. A former president called Yacyretá “a monument to corruption”.
Merowe: when Chinese dam builders went global
In 2003, the Chinese government decided to fund the Merowe Dam in Sudan as its first big overseas hydropower project. The dam displaced more than 50,000 people and caused serious human rights violations. Chinese banks and companies are by now involved in some 330 dams in 74 countries, leading an unprecedented global dam building boom.
Glines Canyon: the dam that came down
Dams have serious environmental impacts, and their benefits dwindle as they age. Since the 1930s, the United States has removed more than 1,150 dams to restore river ecosystems and particularly fish habitats. In 2014, the 64 meters high Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River in the Pacific northwest was breached in the world’s biggest dam removal so far.
Patagonia: the dams that were never built
Recent years, solar and wind energy have seen their commercial breakthrough. These renewable energy sources are cleaner than coal or hydropower and can be built were people need electricity, even far away from the electric grid. In 2014, Chile cancelled five dams in the Patagonia region under strong public pressure and approved 700 megawatts of new solar and wind farms.
Kariba: the dam that ended poverty in Southern Africa (or did it?)
The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi was built in the 1950s to power Zambia’s copper belt, as the first large dam funded by the World Bank. Kariba was considered the symbol of a “brave new world”, in which controlling nature would bring quick economic development. Yet the 57,000 people who were displaced by the dam suffered famine and are still impoverished
References on WCD and more info: