#14 movement
Arnošt Štanzel

Dams - Development Or Delusion?

For many, dams are an anachronism, yesteryear’s megalomaniacal manifestation of strength and dominance, and a sign of modernity in the desire to subjugate nature. They are ideal as a symbol of changes in the development policy paradigms regarding power, structure, and – ultimately – sustainability.

The massive blocks of concrete claw their way into the landscape, dominating it from afar, and radiating a sense of immobility otherwise only familiar from mountains. They contain and hold back water. In everyday language, we speak of taming or even subjugating rivers. Dams are often seen as a symbol of stagnation.

But only at first glance. For what happens to the water that collects behind a dam? It moves turbines, since most dams are and have been built to generate electricity. Anyone who has ever stood in the turbine room of a dam will recall the slightly eerie humming and vibrations caused by the regular, rapid rotation of the turbine blades. And the electricity produced generally does not stay there; it moves through high-voltage power lines to faraway places, providing cities and factories with electricity often across thousands of kilometres and international borders. The dammed up water is set in motion by pumps and canals and transferred to irrigate fields.

It is exactly this multiplicity of motion a dam enables that has always awakened enthusiasm in the hearts of politicians, engineers and civil servants.

Last but not least, when a powerful current not navigable by ship becomes a still lake, the quiet water of the reservoir allows people to transport their wares and move around more comfortably.
It is exactly this multiplicity of motion a dam enables that has always awakened enthusiasm in the hearts of politicians, engineers and civil servants. To them, the masses of grey concrete do not represent stagnation, but rather an indication of progress, movement and modernity – the dam as a lighthouse of civilisation.

Dams as preferred prestige objects

Following the Second World War, in the context of the Cold War and decolonisation, dams became a favourite recipe of the development aid industry and the rulers of the newly independent states.

Development aid workers travelled the world propagating the construction of dams.

The dam became stylised as a panacea for regions and states considered backwards. Dams offered the promise of boom and development for the people living there as soon as one was completed. The energy generated could be used to power factories, bring lights into every village, and thanks to irrigation, hunger would also finally be conquered. Development aid workers travelled the world spreading these promises and propagating the construction of dams, often in cooperation with the World Development Bank and other development banks, which were the primary financial backers of the generally huge and therefore expensive projects. But heaping praise on the concept of the dam was not limited to the West. Under the leadership of the Soviet Union, the socialist world also sought to secure and expand its influence worldwide, and in the states involved in the Non-Aligned Movement in particular, through the export of concrete and turbines. Units of the United Nations (UN), such as the FAO and UNDP, propagated dams as the fastest path toward food security and development. The Federal Republic of Germany, with the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and companies like Siemens and Voith, was also involved in the run on dams, as did emerging nations like South Africa.

The number of large dams increased ten-fold from 1950 to 2000.

The figures published by the World Commission on Dams show how truly influential the “dam is development” equation was: the number of large dams, defined as higher than 15 meters, increased ten-fold from 5,000 in 1950 to 50,000 in 2000.

Phase of disenchantment

But like so many ideas of the late modern era – such as car-friendly cities or the atomic age – disenchantment set in around the 1970s, initially on the part of civil society in donor countries. The reasons were two-fold: Firstly, doubts began to grow about the beneficial power of infrastructures. As part of the ecology movement and growth debate, large-scale projects were increasingly criticised as useless or even detrimental. Secondly, local opposition to the displacements and interference in people’s traditional ways of life of people caused by dam construction was rising.
What weighed even more heavily with respect to development cooperation though was the fact that most of the hopes and expectations proved to be exaggerated or simply false. Instead of movement and development, dams caused stagnation and blockades in many places.

The water regimes of entire rivers were fundamentally changed.

Serious ecological consequences

The barrages prevented the regular migration of fish, taking away a source of nourishment for many riverside dwellers. Entire ecosystems disappeared in some cases, as the flood waters of the up to one-hundred kilometre long lakes engulfed the living spaces of human beings and animals. The water regimes of entire rivers were fundamentally changed. Whereas regular flooding once replenished local fields with nutrients, these were now trapped by the dams, resulting in lower yields. The dream of creating flowering deserts also often turned out to be a fallacy. Instead wide swaths of land became over-salinized or turned into marsh because of leaking pipes. And very few small-holder farmers found work in the highly technical, agro-industrial irrigation economy.

Many of the dams were built in countries under authoritarian rule and the population was hardly involved in the decision-making process, if at all.

Displacement and lack of participation

Local populations that were violently relocated to make way for the reservoirs, often without sufficient remuneration, were particularly inspired to take action. Especially given the fact that many of the dams were built in countries under authoritarian rule and the population was hardly involved in the decision-making process, if at all. This development was tolerated by donor countries, which had a vested interest in securing contracts for the highly complex technology for their domestic industry, thus driving national economies and securing a country’s position in system competition. The electricity was also often exported, as with the Cahora Bassa dam in Mozambique where the lion’s share did not help Mozambique, and was sent instead to the industrial region around Pretoria in South Africa to compensate for the immense construction costs. In other cases, the electricity remained in the country but found only one taker, as was the case with the Volta dam in Ghana and the aluminium smelter there, which did not truly benefit development in Ghana.

Protests against large projects

Driven by all these concerns, people created protest movements against large dam projects. Affected locals fought the dams, sometime even revolutionary freedom movements took up the cause, like FRELIMO in Mozambique. In Western donor nations too, civil society increasingly opposed the supposed recipe for success.

Many goals had not been achieved, and that the involvement of local populations in particular had been much too limited.

Thanks to these opposition movements, many projects were subjected to increasing scrutiny and financial backers like the World Bank began pulling out the business by the 1980s and 1990s. In 1998 the WCD, in which activists, industry, development aid workers and other stakeholders were represented, convened and its final report included a survey of the past 50 years of dam construction, and came to a primarily negative conclusion: The report claimed many goals had not been achieved, and that the involvement of local populations in particular had been much too limited. At the same time, donor countries like the Federal Republic of Germany committed to following the new criteria defined by the WCD and implementing them in their work.

Emerging nations continue to build

This did not result in a lasting cessation or slowing down of investment in large dams. In particular emerging nations like China, Turkey and Brazil continued to invest massively in expanding hydropower in the 1990s and 2000s, now in part citing climate change concerns.

Donor countries and development organisations are again increasingly propagating dams as building blocks of development strategies.

For developing countries as well, the option of building dams has become more attractive in the past five to ten years, in part because donor countries and development organisations are again increasingly propagating them as building blocks of development strategies, though now with a nod to the sustainability criteria developed by the WCD. Especially Africa, where to date only 3% of all water resources are used via dams, is falling far behind in comparison to the 52% in South Asia. This has made it an attractive goal for the global dam industry. China in particular has financed a series of new projects on the African continent in recent years.

Positive factors as well

Even with all the justified criticism, we should not forget that the construction of dams can have positive effects. The energy generated can be used for electrification programmes, and is often the only way to provide the clean drinking water so desperately needed in many large cities in the global South. Dams can also play an important role in flood protection, and hydropower can, in fact, often be considered green energy.

In countries where the rule of law is weak it is hard to implement criteria that ensure sustainability.

But in countries where the rule of law is weak, corruption is widespread, and leadership is often autocratic, it is hard to implement criteria that ensure sustainability. Here the donors are called upon to assess the projects very carefully and critically scrutinize their impact on the population and the environment. Especially in light of the fact that technologies have been developed in recent years – small-scale hydropower, wind and solar energy – that are better suited for rural electrification than centralised infrastructures like large dams. We can therefore remain hopeful that we have truly learned from the mistakes of the past and, once the activists have fallen silent, will not return to the old patterns that equated movement and progress with the amount of concrete used in construction.

Photo: “six months ago | three gorges dam” by rosava
2008 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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