Lowering the Bar on Big Dams: Making the case for WCD compliance on African dams

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Executive summary

A confusing maze of new funds, programs, and strategies (both within Africa and from abroad) is now prioritizing large dam development as a solution to Africa’s pressing needs for improved supplies of energy and water. Potentially huge amounts of money could be funnelled into African large dam projects in coming years, with the potential to greatly exceed the amounts allocated for rural electrification and water supply. Across the continent, numerous dams are being fast-tracked as priority projects, but the process by which most are prioritized and developed has been nontransparent. So who benefits? In too many places, large dams are powering multinational mining and aluminum companies with few local benefits, while the majority of citizens go without electricity.

Africa already has a sad legacy of impacts caused by existing dams: the traumatized Tonga people left high and dry by Kariba, the huge debt burden incurred for the Inga dams in DRC, increased poverty in the Lesotho Highlands, blackouts and a draining Lake Victoria caused by Uganda’s heavy reliance on (poorly designed) dams, the increase in waterborne diseases in the Senegal River basin, and dessicated rivers or erratic dam-induced flooding for multitudes of downstream dwellers in many countries. In many cases, these legacy issues are being ignored while new dams are being prioritized – projects which, in many cases, could exacerbate the very same problems that earlier dams helped create. African governments and their development partners should prioritize reversing the damages from existing dams before pursuing new mega projects on Africa’s rivers.

African nations have a wide range of standards for developing large dams, from virtually nothing to more elaborate policies and laws that could be used to address the environmental and social impacts of such projects. Often, the financing agencies bring their own standards (for example, the World Bank’s Operational Policies). Some key players, such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and China’s Export-Import Bank, have minimal or no policies on large dams, despite investing heavily in large dams across the continent.

Today, a number of African nations including South Africa and Uganda have begun to discuss the implications of the World Commision on Dams (WCD) recommendations through multi-stakeholder processes. These processes are working to incorporate the WCD’s recommendations into national policies. The various groups that have taken part in these processes deserve praise for their years of hard work, especially for bringing different, often opposing, parties to the table to discuss these difficult issues.

Even where WCD processes have gotten quite far, it’s not yet clear if they will create lasting change in how energy and water projects in Africa are developed. Fast-tracked dam projects are moving forward with too little community input, too few protections for dam-affected people, and using an “uneven playing field” for evaluating the various options for meeting those needs. Projects are still being configured behind closed doors, and communities are still left in the dark till the eleventh hour. If the solar, wind and geothermal lobbies, or the rainwater harvesting movement, were as powerful as the international dam lobby, perhaps this would not be so. In the meantime, those entering into multi-stakeholder dialogues will want to discuss ways to improve the outcomes, and ensure that the processes are not being used merely to smooth the way for more large dams.

Many of the agencies now interested in building dams in Africa – the African Development Bank, Germany’s GTZ, the World Bank, the European Union and a number of African governments – have already endorsed the WCD’s Strategic Priorities. Yet progress in implementing these priorities has been slow. The WCD is not a check-list approach, but there are benchmarks and suggestions for better practice that must be prioritized if the process of developing water and energy projects is to be improved.

The WCD came about precisely because of the sorry legacy of past dam projects and the inability of the international financial institutions to address the serious issues they raise. Its “rights and risks” approach to project decision-making, and its seven strategic priorities and supporting principles make it an invaluable tool for Africa’s energy and water planning.