South Africa will host a high-profile conference next week that aims to unlock the “hydropower potential of Africa as a major energy option to promote sustainable development, regional integration and poverty eradication in Africa in support of NEPAD.” But as Frank Muramuzi of the African Rivers Network points out, civil society participation - and the voice it gives to communities who have been devastated by the big dams needed for hydro power – has not been a given. Meanwhile, the World Com...read more
South Africa will host a high-profile conference next week that aims to unlock the “hydropower potential of Africa as a major energy option to promote sustainable development, regional integration and poverty eradication in Africa in support of NEPAD.” But as Frank Muramuzi of the African Rivers Network points out, civil society participation - and the voice it gives to communities who have been devastated by the big dams needed for hydro power – has not been a given. Meanwhile, the World Commission on Dams (WCD), which provides a tool for dam projects to better meet needs, for greater transparency and for equitable sharing of benefits, is still largely standing by.
Next Monday, 6 March, African governments and the hydropower industry will gather for an event that will weigh heavily on the future of dams in Africa. ‘The African Ministerial Conference on Hydropower and Sustainable Development’, hosted by the South African government and planned in close collaboration with the International Hydropower Association, has a single objective: "to unlock the hydropower potential of Africa as a major, renewable energy option to promote the sustainable development, regional integration and poverty eradication in Africa in support of NEPAD." Conference organisers have a clear plan to present an African declaration on hydropower mid-March at the World Water Forum in Mexico.
The conference planning process has been fraught with resistance to civil society participation. But things are looking brighter as a shift in the planning has opened up, albeit late in the process, to civil society inclusion. What space will be given for the voice of civil society at the conference remains to be seen.
However, the conference may serve as a gateway for the significant funding earmarked for African development which received high priority by financial institutions and northern governments in 2005. But without critical analyses of projects, this support may deliver ill-chosen infrastructure selected without fair consideration for more equitable and sustainable options. Large dams rank among the most notoriously flawed development projects. In Africa, as elsewhere around the world, large dams have too often failed to deliver promised benefits while impoverishing rural communities in their wake.
The story may sound like a broken record to many Africans, but it does not have to be played into the future. A tool for planning energy and water development including large dams, the World Commission on Dams (WCD), has been standing by for five years; it could result in projects that better meet local needs, while also leading to more transparent planning processes, less corruption, and more equitable sharing of benefits.
On November 16, 2000, Nelson Mandela and other notables including the president of the World Bank launched the report of the WCD report at a glitzy ceremony in London. The report, “Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making”, was the result of two years of intense research and analysis. Initiated by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), and run by a team of commissioners from all sides of the big-dams debate, the report was the first independent evaluation of the performance of the world’s large dams.
The WCD found that large dams provide important water and power supply services, but that their social, environmental and economic costs are often unacceptable. The Commission estimated that large dams have displaced a total of 40 to 80 million people, and that many of these people were impoverished in the process. The WCD managed to find consensus through a process that brought conflicting interests -- the dam industry, governments, affected communities, and civil society organizations - to the table. It was hailed as a new model for resolving international conflicts. Its lessons could readily apply to much of Africa’s resource conflicts.
Dam projects such as the Kariba (Zambezi River) and Manantali (Senegal River) have shown that the environmental, social and economic costs of large dams are often higher than predicted, while benefits to everyday Africans have been overstated. The World Bank-financed Kariba Dam, the largest man-made reservoir in the world at the time of its construction, neglected the 57,000 Tonga people forced to move for the project. Their lives and livelihoods, and those of their children, have been diminished by the project, and today they are poorer than they were before the dam. Two more large African dams, High Aswan (Egypt) and Akosombo (Ghana), were similarly constructed at the expense of displacing tens of thousands of Africans.
Akosombo was built for an energy-intensive aluminum smelter, yet a great majority of Ghanaians still lack access to electricity. Today, Cameroon wants to build the Lom Pangar and Nachtigal dams for the Canadian aluminum company Alcan, but Cameroonians who are not yet on the grid will continue to wait in the dark for modern energy services. The livelihoods of those downstream of such dams as Cahora Bassa (Mozambique), Tiga and Challawa (Nigeria), Lesotho Highlands Water Project (Lesotho) and Manatali have seen their economic livelihoods squeezed as the river ecosystem on which they depend is degraded, their health impacted as water quality is reduced, and their communities broken apart by the flooding from large reservoirs. Across most of Africa, the lessons of these projects - which informed the WCD report and its recommendations - have not yet been translated into African water and energy planning processes.
But the picture has changed from 50 years ago, and civil society is speaking out against bad development projects with an ever-louder voice. Today, communities in Sudan are struggling to obtain proper compensation and rehabilitation for the 50,000 people now being resettled for the Merowe Dam. In Mozambique, Uganda, and Cameroon, communities and NGOs are fighting for access to project information and to have public concerns addressed. In South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ghana, communities are working to get reparations for the past injustices they have suffered because of dam projects.
The WCD offers a people-centred approach that will avoid yesterday’s impacts and fulfill the water and energy needs of Africans without sacrificing communities and the environment. The report’s recommendations are a blueprint for international best practice against which all new projects are being measured. Key to better projects is to first assess the needs -be it energy, water supply, or irrigation needs - and assess all available options in a balanced, transparent and participatory manner. Policy, regulatory, and new project options should all be considered to find the most effective solutions. New projects, such as dams, should only go ahead if they find demonstrable public acceptance, and if the rights of affected people are guaranteed. By creating a level playing field and involving all legitimate interest groups, the recommendations of the WCD offer the best way to select water and energy development solutions.
The WCD report did not fade away after its launch. Today, it influences the decision-making of many institutions. Governments (including those from South Africa, Germany, Sweden and Nepal) initiated national processes to translate the report’s recommendations into policies. Multi-stakeholder dialogues are now being launched in more countries, including Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Uganda. Many financial institutions are committed to considering the report’s recommendations in their future water sector lending. Communities affected by large dams have started to insist on respect of their rights as recognized by the WCD. A conference to commemorate the 5th anniversary was held in Berlin on November 16, 2005. Its focus: implementing the recommendations of the WCD.
The broad coalition that supports the WCD approach sees that its use will improve the planning processes for water and power projects. Yet critical actors are missing. After the WCD dissolved, the World Bank, a key financier of dams, walked away from the report that it had initiated, and announced that it would not follow its recommendations. Instead, the Bank embarked on a strategy to build more dams, which completely disregarded the WCD’s findings. The World Bank’s new dam strategy ignores 70 years of experience with corrupt decision-making, ruined rivers, impoverished communities, and unpayable debts. Dam builders are hoping that the Bank’s dam strategy will inject new lifeblood into their ailing industry.
The World Bank is now considering financing Bujagali Dam in Uganda, and keeping its eye on Lom Pangar Dam in Cameroon, as well as a few dams proposed under the Nile Basin Initiative. With the World Bank doling out the G8 funds for Africa, large-scale infrastructure such as dams will surely be big winners. Without applying the lessons learned from past flawed projects and the recommendations for improved planning by the WCD, the majority of Africans will once again surely be losers.
Organisations from across Africa, linked through the African Rivers Network, are anxious to work with governments and dam builders who are ready to follow the model of the WCD. African governments, NEPAD, the World Bank and the dam industry should fully embrace the approach of the WCD, which offers the best chance to avoid the costly and painful mistakes of the past. These entities should work to align their decision-making processes with the WCD recommendations, help rectify the outstanding injustices done by dams in Africa, and ensure that future dam projects in Africa comply with the WCD.
* Frank Muramuzi is coordinator of the African Rivers Network, a network of African dam-affected communities and NGOs working for justice in Africa’s energy and water development. For more information on ARN, please contact: [email protected] For the official conference website: www.hydropowerconference2006.co.za
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