Dams will not solve all Africa’s energy problems
By Rudo Sanyanga
The world’s water experts convene in Stockholm onThursday where King Carl Gustav will present thecity’s Water Prize to John Briscoe, a Harvard professorand former water manager at the World Bank. After many years spent in the international water bureaucracy, Briscoesays he is “controversial and proud of it”.
Indeed, thejury’s choice raises contentious questions about how bestto manage water resources for the shared benefit of all.Since the turn of the century, Briscoe has been the world’spre-eminent crusader for large dams in Africa and othercontinents. In the 20th century, Europe developed about80% of its hydropower potential, while Africa has stillexploited only 8% of its own.
It would be hypocritical, Briscoe contends, to withholdfunds for more dam building in Africa now.Africa has tried to follow Europe’s path to industrialdevelopment before. With funding and advice from theWorld Bank and other institutions, newly independentgovernments built large dams that were supposed toindustrialize and modernize their countries in the 1960sand 1970s. The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi, theAkosombo Dam on the Volta and the Inga 1 and Inga2 dams on the Congo River are the most prominentexamples of this approach.
Mega-dams have not turned out to be a silver bullet,but a big albatross on Africa’s development. Their costsspiralled out of control, creating huge debt burdens, whiletheir performance did not live up to the expectations.Their benefits were concentrated on mining companiesand the urban middle classes, while the rural populationhas been left high and dry. Africa has become the worldregion that is most dependent on hydropower. As rainfallsare becoming less and less reliable, this has made thecontinent highly vulnerable to climate change.
In 2008, mining companies consumed more electricitythan the whole population in sub-Saharan Africa.After tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid havebeen spent on energy projects, 69% of the continent’spopulation continues to live in the dark. Prioritizing theneeds of mining companies and big cities over the ruralpopulations, the World Bank’s latest dam projects inAfrica will further entrench this energy apartheid.
Meanwhile, the communities that were displaced bythe Kariba and Inga dams continue to struggle for justcompensation decades after the projects were built.Because poor people pay the price but don’t reap thebenefits of these investments, the independent WorldCommission on Dams has found that dams “caneffectively take a resource from one group and allocate itto another”. The Tonga people, who were displaced bythe Kariba Dam and suffered starvation as a consequence,have to this date remained without clean water orelectricity, despite the huge reservoir on their doorsteps.
Luckily, solutions that do not sacrifice one group ofpeople for the benefit of another are available today.Wind, solar and geothermal energy have becomecompetitive with hydropower. Unlike large dams, theseenergy sources don’t depend on centralised electricgrids, but can serve the needs of the rural populationswherever they live. This is why the International EnergyAgency recommends that the bulk of foreign energy aidbe devoted to decentralized, renewable energy sources ifthe goal of sustainable energy for all by 2030 is to be met.A diverse, decentralized portfolio of renewable-energyprojects will also make African countries more resilient toclimate change than putting all eggs into the basket of afew mega-dams.
Just because Europe developed with large dams in the20th century does not mean Africa has to do the sametoday. In the telecom sector, Africa has successfullyleapfrogged Europe’s landline model and relied oncellphone companies to provide access to the majority ofthe population.
Like cellphone towers, wind, solar and micro-hydropowerprojects can be built quickly, close to where people needthem, and without major effects on the environment.Large dams may still make sense in specific situations, butAfrica’s future is lit by the sun. We appreciate that Briscoehas reinvigorated an important debate about large dams.But we hope that in the coming years, the StockholmWater Prize will celebrate the solutions of the futurerather than the past.
• Sanyanga holds a PhD in aquatic systems ecology from Stockholm University. She is the Africa Program director of International Rivers, based in Pretoria.