Every year, the world’s water experts meet in Stockholm for World Water Week. Yesterday, Sweden’s King Carl Gustav presented the city’s prestigious Water Prize to John Briscoe, a former water manager at the World Bank. After many years spent in the international water bureaucracy, Briscoe says that he is “controversial and proud of it”. Indeed, the jury’s choice raises contentious questions about dams and their alternatives.
Since the turn of the century, John Briscoe has been the world’s pre-eminent crusader for large dams in Africa and other continents. In the 20th century, Europe developed approximately 80 percent of its hydropower potential, while Africa has still only exploited 8 percent of its own. It would be hypocritical, Briscoe contends, to withhold funds for more dam building in Africa now.
Africa has tried to follow Europe’s path to industrial development before. With funding and advice from the World Bank and other institutions, newly independent governments built large dams that were supposed to industrialise and modernise their countries in the 1960s and 1970s. The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi, the Akosombo Dam on the Volta and the Inga 1 and 2 dams on the Congo River are the most prominent examples of this approach.
Mega-dams have not turned out to be a silver bullet, but a big albatross on Africa’s development. Their costs spiraled out of control creating massive debt burdens, while their performance did not live up to the expectations. Their benefits were concentrated on mining companies and urban middle classes, while the rural population has been left high and dry. Africa has become the world region that is most dependent on hydropower. As rainfalls are becoming ever less reliable, this has made the continent highly vulnerable to climate change.
In 2008, mining companies consumed more electricity than the whole population in Sub-Saharan Africa. After tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid have been spent on energy projects, 69 percent of the continent’s population continues to live in the dark. Prioritising the needs of mining companies and big cities over the rural populations, the World Bank’s latest dam projects in Africa will further entrench this energy apartheid.
Meanwhile, the communities which were displaced by the Kariba and Inga dams continue to struggle for just compensation decades after the projects were built. Because poor people pay the price but don’t reap the benefits of these investments, the independent World Commission on Dams has found that dams “can effectively take a resource from one group and allocate it to another”. The Tonga people, who were displaced by the Kariba Dam and suffered starvation as a consequence, have to this date remained without clean water or electricity despite the huge reservoir at their doorsteps.
Luckily solutions that don’t sacrifice one group of people for the benefits of another are available today. Wind, solar and geothermal energy have become competitive with hydropower. Unlike large dams, these energy sources don’t depend on centralised electric grids, but can serve the needs of the rural populations wherever they live. This is why the International Energy Agency recommends that the bulk of foreign energy aid be devoted to decentralised renewable energy sources if the goal of sustainable energy for all by 2030 is to be met. A diverse, decentralised portfolio of renewable energy projects will also make African countries more resilient to climate change than putting all eggs into the basket of a few mega-dams.
Just because Europe developed with large dams in the 20th century doesn’t mean Africa has to do the same today. In the telecom sector, Africa has successfully leapfrogged Europe’s landline model and relied on cell phone companies to provide access to the majority of the population. Like cell phone towers, wind, solar and micro-hydropower projects can be built quickly, close to where people them, and without major environmental impacts.
Large dams may still make sense in specific situations, but Africa’s future is lit by the sun. We appreciate that John Briscoe has reinvigorated an important debate about large dams. But we hope that in the coming years, the Stockholm Water Prize will celebrate the solutions of the future rather than the past.