“World Bank President, hear our plea: no more dirty energy! … No more mega-dams, that’s for sure – clean local energy for the poor! … Don’t return to the bad old days – building more dams is not the way!”
These were some of the chants finance ministers heard as they convened for the World Bank’s annual meeting in Washington DC on October 12. Some 60 activists from around the world had gathered at the Bank’s doorsteps on a grey and windy day to call for a shift from destructive fossil fuel and dam projects to clean local power for poor communities. With colorful signs, rhythmic chants and impassioned statements, the protest marked the start of the new Power 4 People campaign.
After two decades of relative caution, the World Bank is plunging back into funding mega-dams with a vengeance. Since spring, the Bank had signaled that it planned to return to funding large hydropower and gas projects particularly in Africa. At the annual meeting, Bank managers left no doubts that they were serious about this. “We will build dams, dams, dams and more dams in Africa,” one Executive Directors told environmental activists. In a new paper, the Bank presented the Inga 3 Dam on the Congo River and other mega-dams as examples of what it intended to fund through IDA 17, its finance window for the poorest countries. The manager of the Bank’s energy department called large hydropower projects one of the “sweet spots” of future World Bank lending. Bank staff even nicknamed President Kim “Mr. Hydropower” for his enthusiasm for large dams.
The Bank’s sweet spot will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of the people who currently don’t have access to electricity, and who stand in the way of the proposed mega-dams. A new paper from Oilchange International shows that less than 1 percent of the Bank’s funding for large hydropower and gas projects in 2013 expanded access to energy for the 1.3 billion people who currently lack it. In a country where more than 90 percent of the population doesn’t have access to electricity, the Inga 3 Dam will generate power for mining companies and the urban middle classes of South Africa.
At the annual meeting, finance ministers endorsed the World Bank’s official goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030. The new plans for the energy sector show that this is just public relations. In a meeting with NGOs, Executive Directors confirmed that the new dams will be built to benefit private investors, not the rural poor.
Speakers from Chad, Pakistan, Panama and the United States denounced the World Bank’s support for destructive energy projects at the protest on October 12. Jamil Junejo of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum reported that mega-dams on the Indus River had “destroyed ecosystems and impoverished millions of people. Energy conservation and decentralized renewable energy sources”, Junejo said, “are the best ways to bring power to the people.” Delphine Djiraibe from Chad’s Public Interest Law Center warned that “the Bank has learned little from its experience and is proposing to do still more massive projects where the risks are placed squarely on the most vulnerable populations.” The Power 4 People platform calls for a “fundamental shift” in energy finance from destructive projects to the clean local sources that expand access for poor communities and protect the climate.
The protest in Washington DC offered an inspiring start for the Power 4 People campaign. Similar events took place in the DRC, in India and Malaysia. Yet NGOs and civil society movements need to strengthen their cooperation and do much more to avert a further abuse of public funds for destructive energy projects. By December, governments need to pledge their contributions to the IDA 17 fund, from which the World Bank plans to finance the Inga 3 Project and other mega-dams. This provides an opportunity to pressure our governments to shift their support for the energy sector from the World Bank to institutions that prioritize energy access for the poor.
If you would like to express your support for the Power 4 People campaign, you can do so by sending an e-mail message to World Bank President Kim, and on Twitter. More than 1000 people have already done so.
Peter Bosshard is the Policy Director of International Rivers. He tweets at @PeterBosshard and blogs at www.internationalrivers.org/blog/227.