In 2012, the World Bank approved a $203 million loan for Niger’s Kandadji Dam. This paved the way for a dozen-odd financiers to complete the $785 million financing package for the project, to be located on the Niger River. The future of Kandadji is in doubt, however, given problems with the resettlement process and construction delays following a dispute with the company hired to develop the project.
And Kandadji isn’t just any project; Kandadji was presented as a way to produce 130 MW of much-needed power to the capital, Niamey, and to harness the river’s flow to expand Niger’s irrigation potential. The World Bank’s Vice President for Africa, Makhtar Diop, described the project as “a transformational development project that will deliver significantly more opportunity to communities, more food, water, and electricity, and less poverty in the poorest region of Africa.”
The World Bank also took pains to plan for the human cost of the dam’s construction. Conscious of the troubled legacy of the impacts such projects have wrought on resettled communities, the World Bank took on the admittedly herculean task of overseeing the process to resettle over 38,000 people located around the river’s fertile banks. The compensation package would include resettling these traditionally flood recession farmers into new houses, providing access to irrigation, and sharing revenues for local development projects.
The process began in 2012 to resettle a first wave of nearly 5500 people. Many were initially optimistic about the project’s promised benefits, but their enthusiasm was short-lived. While some have seen their living conditions improve, irrigation plans for resettled communities were poorly conceived – unsurprising, as the World Bank itself has noted that irrigation schemes of this sort rarely work in Africa. The World Bank acknowledges the difficulties with the resettlement process, noting that “[t]he ongoing relocation for the first resettlement phase remains considerably delayed, and will require extensive enhancement measures.”
Meanwhile, many resettlement communities are struggling with a lack of potable water, as recorded in a new documentary on the resettlement process. In it, Haoua Harouna, from the host community of Gabou, says “I’ve been looking for water for three days in vain. I’m thirsty. I haven’t found any, nor have my friends. There isn’t enough water for the population. We used to get water from neighboring villages, but it’s become salty and undrinkable.”
The first wave of resettlement was intended in part as a test run for a much larger group of 33,000 others who will follow once dam construction begins. There is enormous anxiety among those yet to be moved, as captured in the documentary. “We’ve seen the errors committed during the first phase, where people were moved to places without water or infrastructure. This is what we don’t want to see repeated for us,” says Mohamed El Bachir, the head of a local district whose population is slated for removal. “We still don’t know where we will be moved.”
He is not alone. Informal reports have raised concern that there is not enough suitable land left to resettle the remaining 33,000 people, and that all the good lands in the area were allocated during the first wave. Reportedly, the consultant who prepared the feasibility report never verified the government’s assurance that sufficient arable land would be available. This would be a huge blow to those communities who have had their lives on hold awaiting resettlement for several years. It would also constitute a major breach of World Bank policy, and jeopardize recent efforts by the Bank to address systemic failures in its handling of resettlement. Ultimately, it’s unclear where these communities would go, though in all likelihood they would end up in the slums of Niamey.
The resettlement problems at Kandadji have been compounded by a series of operational challenges that have put the future of the project in doubt. There have been delays in identifying a new firm to build the dam after the government canceled its contract with the Russian dam developer because it failed to meet its commitments. At the same time, there is growing impatience on the part of the project’s financiers, whose loans remain undisbursed.
In the face of persistent failures by the government to meet key milestones on resettlement, and amid intense scrutiny over the World Bank’s resettlement track record, the World Bank is facing the prospect of pulling out. What that would mean for the future of the project, and whether others would follow the Bank’s lead, is unclear. In any event, withdrawal would be small consolation for the tens of thousands in Niger whose lives have been disrupted.
Meanwhile, the World Bank is supporting preparation of the Fomi Dam in Guinea near the headwaters of the Niger, over 2,000 km upstream from Kandadji. This would require roughly 50,000 people to be relocated from the dam site, with over a million people to be impacted by the dam downstream in Mali. Fomi would face the same or even greater challenges than Kandadji.
Try as it may, the World Bank appears unable to learn its hard-won lessons, and for all the Bank’s innovations, dam-affected communities are routinely left worse off. With Kandadji, another of the World Bank’s model dams is turning sour.