Dams as lifesavers
Dams are controversial and considered as a threat to both environment and people. But Africa needs more energy and food. Building dams is the best way to achieve these goals, argues NAI researcher Terje Oestigaard.
− Dams are a triple life saver. They generate electricity, enable irrigation and mitigate consequences of climate change such as droughts and floods.
Q: Today, large dams are being built at a rapid pace in Africa. Why is this development taking place now?
There are two main reasons why dams are being built. In Africa, there is an urgent and desperate need for more energy and food. Not only are dams most often the only alternative, but in many cases dams are also the best alternative for achieving these goals.
Q: How can this be so when there is increasing criticism in the West of large dam projects?
This points to a paradox. Of course, Western energy consumption has to a large extent been based on non-renewable resources like oil, gas, charcoal and nuclear power. However, in the West and elsewhere rivers have also been dammed producing clean and green energy. In fact, more than half of the rivers in the world have been regulated by dams. In many countries, Norway for instance, the development of hydropower has been at the core of economic development. The wealth of the West has to a large extent been built on hydropower, but now there are strong voices against dam building in Africa, implicitly denying to Africa the same development path. And those arguing against dam-building are hardly in favour oil, gas or nuclear energy for Africa’s development.
Q: But those who argue against dam-building claim there are other sustainable resources like sun and wind – why not develop solar energy, particularly in the Sahara?
Logically, using the sun in Sahara sounds like a good idea. Wind, sun and water mills are often presented as alternatives, but they are not so in practice, because they can only produce a fraction of the energy needed, or otherwise come at a financial cost African countries cannot afford. Moreover, solar cells for generating electricity are highly sensitive and are easily damaged in sandstorms. Thus, both acquiring and maintaining solar cells is expensive, but new and improved technology may, of course, change this picture in the future.
Q: You say that solar power is extremely expensive, but Germany will shutter all its nuclear power stations by 2022 and replace them with sun and wind power?
Germany is very good example of the possibilities, but this comes at a very high financial cost. In comparing Germany and, for instance, Ethiopia, both countries have a population of more than 80 million, and both need more energy. Last year Ethiopia launched the Grand Renaissance Dam project, which will be Africa’s largest and the world’s 10th largest dam when completed in 2014. For various political reasons the World Bank, IMF, EU and even China would not support this dam project financially. In the end, Ethiopia decided to shoulder the whole cost itself at a staggering sum of about euro 3.8 billion. This is an immense financial investment for a developing country. Germany, on the other hand, the economic locomotive of Europe, which may also solve the euro-crises, has to invest an estimated euro 200 billion to close down the nuclear stations and turn to renewable energy. And even in Germany critics say this is too expensive and will weaken the economy. Financially, it is simply impossible to demand similar development projects in Africa. Who will pay for them? Most often then, the real alternative is dams and hydropower, which also produces green energy.
Q: Financially, dams and hydropower may be the only real alternative, at least for the time being, but you also said that in many cases they are the best?
Yes, as an imaginary example, let’s say that hydro and sun power provides the same amount of energy at the same price, dam building still has one major advantage: irrigation enhancing food security. For instance, in 1972, only one year after the Aswan High Dam was completed, the Nile had one of its lowest flows in a century. Many observers believed the dam proved its worth in just that one year. Without the stored waters, Egypt’s economy would have been crippled and it was estimated that the loss of over one-third of the country’s harvest was prevented. Dams save millions of lives. When Ethiopia was haunted by droughts in the 1980s, Egyptian farmers could cultivate their fields as if nothing had happened because they had the life-giving waters stored behind the dam. They were not dependent on unpredictable and erratic rainfalls.
Q: You mention droughts and fluctuating rainfall. Can dams play an important role in mitigating the consequences of climate change?
Absolutely, and this is another reason many dams are built today. Africa, including Sub-Saharan Africa, are places where the consequences of climate change are predicted to be felt most acutely, yet they are also the ones that have contributed least to carbon emissions. In other words, they will face the consequences of energy consumption in the West and elsewhere. And one of the biggest challenges facing policy planners with regards to climate change is this: how to develop structures that can both offset more droughts and the absence of rain and at the same time hold back devastating floods? Nobody knows for sure where and when these changes in the water-worlds will take place, but in practice dams are the only solution that can secure and provide water in years of drought and at the same time impede floods during times of excessive rain. In this perspective, dams are a triple life saver; they generate electricity, enable irrigation and secure water when there is insufficient rain and protect people from devastating flooding.
Q: You see the building of dams as a positive contribution to Africa’s development, but do you see any negative impacts and consequences?
Of course, there are numerous disadvantages and problems as well as ecological challenges and consequences. Along the Nile, for instance, there are huge losses of water through evaporation in the reservoirs. The waters of the Nile are already a scarce resource, and although more dams can produce more electricity, with an increasing numbers of reservoirs, often located in extremely hot climates and deserts, the huge evaporation losses imply less water for agriculture and consequently for food security. Moreover, with the building of dams natural habitats, cultures and archaeological sites are destroyed, and thousands of people are displaced and often poorly compensated. These are, however, part of the price many African countries are willing to pay to enhance energy and food security for millions.
Q? But if these dam constructions come at both a high economic and social cost, isn´t the solution reducing energy consumption worldwide instead of promoting such developments?
In theory one can argue along those lines. But the overall question for Africa is whether to develop its energy potential (in other words to be able to develop) or whether the West and the rest should reduce their energy use. The problem is not Africa. The continent, in my opinion, should develop its energy resources the best way it can. The real problem, however, is that much of the development is tied to the increasing needs in the West for more energy to replace oil and gas. Millions upon millions of hectares of prime agricultural land in Africa are leased to Western companies to grow bio-fuels and other industrial crops. And with such massive investments, there is greater pressure on water resources. Many of the ongoing dam projects have also to be seen in this perspective. In other words, is Africa benefitting from food and energy or is the West gaining alternative energy sources from African land and water?
Q: Do we have a double standard? Where do African engagements and independent development stand, given the colonial and post-colonial history?
This is a good question, and very complex. Dam building is in many cases seen as negative in the West, but as I have tried to show, there are many good reasons why it takes place and will continue to do so. As an historic example, Norway, which was one of the absolutely poorest countries in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, developed as a country because of dam-building and hydropower. Today, 99 per cent of the energy produced is clean and green, and in general is seen as good and sustainable. Norway developed along this path (the oil revenues came much later). Why should African countries not have the same opportunity if they choose to pursue it?