What is Driving Dams in Africa?

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More than a billion people spread across 54 countries inhabit Africa, the world’s second largest continent. International Rivers is tracking nearly 150 proposed large dams across those 54 countries. People from Kenya to Ghana, from Sudan to Zambia, from Uganda to Lesotho are under threat from dam building.

Yet the immediate threat facing African rivers – including its biggest, such as the Congo, Nile, Niger and Zambezi – is relatively small compared to other basins, such as the Mekong. The limited number of dams is due to the same factors that threaten Africa’s development overall: intense concentrations of poverty, corruption, violent conflict, and political illegitimacy. Once these investment risks are lessened, Africa’s rivers could face a far greater assault by dam builders.

Large hydro is the core of Africa’s dam building and power planning today. Sub-Saharan Africa’s power infrastructure has been described as the “least developed, least accessible, least reliable, most costly to operate, and, on average, highest priced of any region in the world.” A 2010 World Bank report, African Infrastructure: A Time for Transformation, calculated that Africa’s power sector requires an annual investment of US$41 billion, far more than it currently receives.

But building large hydro dams falls far short of “lighting up Africa.” Why? Two reasons. Electrification rates in Africa lag behind every other region in the world. Most stark is sub-Saharan Africa, where only 8% of the rural population – and 26% total – have access to electricity. First, most of those without electricity live too far away to be connected to grid-based supplies. Second, for those closer to the grid, Africa’s distribution networks are disproportionately underfunded. In 2004, grid distribution needed a total of $271 billion, nearly equal to the combined investment need of supply and transmission. But most African power sector lending is earmarked for supply projects like big hydro and high-voltage transmission lines, leaving distribution networks starved for investments. Without money for distribution, new connections don’t happen.

Africa’s dam proponents have a clear message: large hydropower in Africa is a no-brainer. They say hydropower is cheap, clean, renewable and an indigenous power source.

“This is the time for Africa to harness its huge hydroenergy potential,” said African Development Bank President, Donald Kabureka, in 2007. “The main challenge is making the schemes socially and environmentally acceptable.” Kabureka has argued that climate change, the quest for cleaner energy and Africa’s need for constant power supply underscore the need for hydropower.

Many would argue the opposite: with a changing climate, and so many African nations dangerously dependent on hydropower for most of their electricity, hydropower is one of the riskiest investments in a warming world. (See map of African hydrodependency.) Safer, cleaner renewable energies are making slow inroads, but for now, big hydro is getting the lion’s share of the attention.

All Talk, No Action

In March 2006, the African Ministerial Conference on Hydropower and Sustainable Development was a potential watershed moment. Prompted by the International Hydropower Association, the South African government agreed to host the tightly controlled event. For months beforehand, civil society fought for the right to participate, finally prevailing with more than 20 invitations for some of Africa’s most earnest dam fighters. The conference would be the largest forum devoted to African dam issues since the World Commission on Dams, and an unprecedented opportunity to advance the dams debate in Africa. As the conference opened, dam builders stood poised to initiate a widespread assault on Africa’s rivers; across the aisle, civil society participants stood poised to protect rivers, rights and livelihoods.

But the years following the conference witnessed only a sputtering of momentum from Africa’s governments. The conference’s action plan to jump-start hydro projects across the continent lacked coordinated African leadership.

This was not the first action plan to sputter out. Other dam-laden plans, such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) blueprint for Africa in 2001 and the Commission for Africa’s report in 2005, brought initial excitement, then failure of homegrown political will. NEPAD’s medium to long-term term infrastructure plan and various regional energy plans have also failed to materialize, resulting in lists of “priority projects” rather than thoughtful assessment of needs and options.

International Architects

Large dams have been imbedded into Africa’s regional infrastructure plans which are then used to legitimize continued donor lending. The World Bank remains the most influential player in Africa’s energy development path, despite a limited (but growing) number of loans for dams in recent years. World Bank documents including its Africa Action Plan, Energy Sector Strategy, and Water Sector Strategy help justify widespread construction of large dams in Africa. The Bank continues to influence African state policies and lend money for dams as well as for associated infrastructure.

One of the World Bank’s influential roles is implementing the African Infrastructure Country Diagnostic (AICD), a project designed to catalogue baseline data of Africa’s existing physical infrastructure in order to monitor results of donors’ future investments. The AICD steering committee includes the African Union, NEPAD, Africa’s regional economic communities, the African Development Bank, and major infrastructure donors.

“Africa’s energy future lies in hydropower,” wrote the AICD in its 2008 flagship report Underpowered, despite noting that hydropower already accounts for 70% of sub-Saharan Africa’s power supply (excluding South Africa).

The African Development Bank, which was poised several years ago to take on a regional leadership role in implementing NEPAD projects, has muddled through years of little action. The Bank’s lead role in preparing Ethiopia’s Gibe 3 Dam found the Bank lacking due diligence and good faith in following Bank policies. The Bank is also home to the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa (ICA) which coordinates multilateral and G8 support for regional infrastructure, including dams. As of 2008, ICA reported 10 hydro dams in its pipeline. “This is an encouraging trend for Africa,” noted ICA.

In Europe, the EU Energy Initiative (EUEI) was created in 2002 to enable achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. In recent years, the EUEI devoted resources toward sub-regional plans for improving access to energy and to the three-year African Electrification Initiative. Unfortunately, these initiatives have largely failed to attract African political will at levels required to advance their implementation. The EUEI’s newest initiative, the Africa-EU Energy Partnership, intends to support the development of 10,000 MW of hydropower.

The New Dam Builders in Africa

Today, Africa’s new dams are most popularly backed by Chinese funders and dam builders. Between 2001 and 2007, China committed more than $3 billion to African hydropower projects. Since then, China has dramatically expanded its interest, now funding of all new African infrastructure, dams included. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has marked the terms of China’s official relationship with Africa for the past decade. At the 2009 FOCAC Summit, China pledged a further $10 billion in concessional lending by 2013. This Sino-African collaboration is far from selfless for the Chinese, who benefit in two key ways. First, it helps Chinese companies access Africa’s natural resources which support China’s own industries. Second, China’s domestic market is flooded with too many engineering and construction companies looking for work; Africa provides a vast market for this expertise.

India Exim Bank has made a slow but noticeable entrance on the continent, including support for the Tendaho Dam in Ethiopia, $50 million for Itezhi-Tezhi Dam in Zambia, and $60 million for Nyabarongo Dam in Rwanda.

Major dam deals by Brazilian companies Odebrecht and Camargo Corrêa Group have been made in Angola and Mozambique. In Ghana, Brazilian company Andrade was awarded a contract to build a 90 MW dam on the Oti River.

Change is Needed

The official development message that hydropower dams are critical for powering Africa ignores key realities about climate change, and could widen the continent’s energy divide, not alleviate it. Power sector investments that unlock Africa’s natural resources for exploitation are not the best path to create decent jobs, food security, or self-determination. The result is the perpetuation of its infamous resource curse, increased corruption, and a further concentration of political and economic power to those who profit from this model.

Saving Africa’s rivers for future generations will require strengthening governance and public accountability over Africa’s natural resources. We must also reshape the dams debate in Africa to recognize that large dams are harmful to Africa beyond their direct social and environmental impacts. We must talk about corruption, job creation, climate change resilience and access to energy and water.