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Dams in Africa not lifting all boats

By Robert Kugonza coordinator of African Rivers Network (ARN), a network of African dam-affected peoples and non-governmental organizations working on river and dam related issues

Recently, another meeting on building large dams for Africa’s energy needs is took place in Johannesburg — a place with no major rivers to dam but plenty of darkened windows, thanks to the ongoing energy crisis. Yet Africa’s legacy from large dams is a sorry one, and we should learn from the mistakes of the past before forging on with new dams. Across the continent, dams have left a trail of misery from forced resettlement, lost livelihoods, flooded farmlands, damaged downstream ecosystems, and a huge debt load. In nearly all cases, affected people have had very little voice in these developments. And in too many cases, these dams were not even planned to supply the citizens of the nation in which they were built.

The high costs involved in large dam construction too often ends up making the power produced unaffordable for the local people, especially for the majority of Africans who are not already connected to the grid. Most of Africa’s dams were built to supply the energy-guzzling needs of mines, aluminum smelters and other big businesses, not the basic needs of the people.  

For example, here in Uganda, civil society questioned the integrity of the World Bank and African Development Bank, for their role in funding the costly Bujagali dam project, which is purportedly meant to reduce poverty but whose high price tag means it is almost guaranteed to have very little impact on either poverty or improving the majority’s connection to the grid (now at a dismal 5%).

Similarly in Nigeria communities affected by the Kainji Dam are renewing their struggle for compensation from the government, a battle they have been fighting since the dam’s commissioning in 1968. Although Kainji produces 760MW, up to 90% of the affected communities have no access to electricity – a direct failure of government to fulfill the promises made to the communities before construction. The government has also failed to fulfill other promises for good housing, roads, schools, water supply and others. The communities are calling for a percentage of the profits from the sale of electricity generated from hydropower dams to be given back to the communities for their development.

The planned Mpanda Nkuwa dam in Mozambique is being promoted as a way to cover the huge power deficits that have hit South Africa. (The regional power shortage has come at the same time that super floods have begun overwhelming the dams already built on the Zambezi, thus adding the danger of dam bursts to the already devastated lower Zambezi communities). The project’s electricity is mostly intended for export. In addition to not meeting local needs, the benefits of the foreign exchange received from the exported power is less certain in the simmering presence of corruption eating up so many African states, and so many large dam projects in particular.

The evidence of large dams throughout the world point again and again to the consistent over-estimation of benefits, the underestimation of the financial costs and the erroneous assumption that the negative impacts can or will be mitigated. On the contrary, dams fall short of the promises they make, the costs are usually far in excess of those foreseen, and the negative impacts are significant, cumulative and irreversible.

Across the continent, there is a great need for clean energy development for rural upliftment. Many parts of Africa have great untapped clean energy potential. In Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, for instance, there is geothermal potential of the East African Rift Valley.
Similarly in Ghana, there is enough wind potential to generate significant wind energy along the coastal belt, Volta and Central regions, according to a recent UN-sponsored assessment. Southern Africa, too, has big wind reserves, and the potential for tidal and wave power along its coasts. And almost everywhere in Africa there is huge solar-power potential.

Even with large dams already distributed all over, too many Africans have been left in the dark. Today, we need solutions that reach more African citizens; renewable energy can just do that and save rivers as well.