Some of the panelists on the debate deflected serious questions about the long history of corruption that the hydropower sector faces. Suresh Prabhu, former Minister of Power of India, and John Briscoe of Harvard University sustained that dams are not a source of corruption and that some mid-income countries have higher standards than institutions such as the World Bank. Meanwhile, others took to sending pot-shots by whipping up populist sentiment that NGOs are somehow conspiring to impede development. Rachel Kyte of the World Bank admitted, in contrast, that the World Bank Group is better off as an institution, and has stronger project standards, precisely because of the decades of “being forced by civil society to look at issues that were not in the mindset of management.”
There are better options for climate resilience beyond large dam storage. Groundwater storage can be achieved with many small decentralized recharging structures and rainwater harvesting. Another huge source of water storage is soil moisture. One of the best ways in which soil moisture retention can be increased is by switching over completely to organic farming and organic fertilizers. This has a double advantage – it avoids the use of chemical fertilizers, mostly derived from fossil sources thus reducing carbon emissions, and an enhanced soil moisture regime gives much better resilience to crops, especially in the face of increasing temperatures.
It’s clear that large dams are not a solution to securing water and energy access in a world of highly unknown climate outcomes. Countries that put all of their eggs in one basket will become more – not less – vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change. There are more cost-effective, safe, and efficient solutions for today’s warming world.