Greenwashing Hydropower: The Problems with Big Dams

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From World Watch Magazine, Jan/Feb 2010, Volume 23, No. 1

Big dams have a serious record of social and environmental destruction, and there are many alternatives. So why are they still being built?

Big dams have frequently imposed high social and environmental costs and long-term economic tradeoffs, such as lost fisheries and tourism potential and flooded agricultural and forest land. According to the independent World Commission on Dams, most projects have failed to compensate affected people for their losses and to adequately mitigate environmental impacts. Local people have rarely had a meaningful say in whether or how a dam is implemented, or received their fair share of project benefits.

Despite these costs, a major resurgence in dam construction worldwide is now under way, driven by infusions of new capital from developing countries and a public campaign by the dam-building industry to greenwash hydropower as a source of clean energy. This article looks at the heavy dam-building activity in China, the Amazon Basin, and Africa to illustrate the risks involved.

The authors explain that the industry’s attempt to repackage hydropower as a green, renewable technology is both misleading and unsupported by the facts. In general, the cheapest, cleanest, and fastest solution is to invest in energy efficiency.

Despite alternatives, however, the promise of profits for the hydropower industry, their network of consultants, and host-country bureaucracies often trumps the impacts on people and ecosystems.

“The stakes are high, because healthy rivers, like all intact ecosystems, are priceless. The alternative, quite simply, is a persistent legacy of human and environmental destruction.”