Neil Ford considers the public face of dam construction and how far hydroelectricity has come to being an accepted form of energy

WHEN most of the world’s biggest dams were built, during the 40 years after the Second World War, the main considerations in each case centred on a
project’s economic viability. How cheaply would electricity be generated? How much water would be made available to industry and households and at what cost? And did it make economic sense to spend such a large sum to avoid the flood risk?

Today, in most countries, far more consideration is given to the impact of any
particular dam project on people living within the area scheduled for flooding; on flora and fauna in the area; and on the wider environmental impact. Such considerations have meant that relatively few major dams have been built in regions like Western Europe and North America in recent years, where opposition groups are well organised and compensation costs are likely to be high. Since the early 1990s, some commentators have claimed that the era of large scale dam schemes is now behind us because public opinion in many countries now believes that the disadvantages of such projects outweigh the advantages.

Yet there are a number of factors that indicate that every case needs to be considered on its merits. Public opinion in each instance may look more favourably on a scheme where electricity is desperately needed; where devastating floods can be controlled; or where irrigation can improve the standard of living for hundreds of thousands of people. Investment levels have fallen since the World Commission on Dams report, but the World Bank is keen to resume lending to dam enterprises based on the number of lives improved by power and water supplies. It is hoped that public enthusiasm can be generated where a dam specifically aims to provide services for local people, rather than for industrial enterprises that may be many miles distant.

Carbon trading

At the same time, efforts to reduce carbon emissions must surely result in more interest in hydroelectric plants. While more research is needed into the level of greenhouse gases produced by dams and reservoirs, there is little doubt that hydroelectric power plants produce a small fraction of the carbon
emitted by their oil, gas and coal fired counterparts. As emissions trading begins to take off, it is more than likely that investment in hydro schemes will be stepped up. Power companies based in industrial nations may seek to invest in hydro plants in developing countries to compensate for their emissions at home.

There is certainly an environmental cost to most dam projects but in the future the environmental balance sheet for any scheme must take into account the impact on emissions. The traditional environmental impact assessment (EIA) tends to consider the effect upon the immediate locality of any project and, in the case of dam projects, upon the entire watercourse and watershed. Yet they may soon begin to widen their focus in an effort to examine the global impact. It is difficult to assess how a balance sheet of this type could be drawn up but methods will surely be developed and adopted once emissions trading becomes established.

Over the past decade, the Indian government has faced widespread opposition to its efforts to encourage the development of a number of major dam projects in the north of the country. Local people often opposed dam construction on the grounds that it would be the cities to the south that would benefit from greater power generating capacity, while local agricultural land would be lost. However, the government has now changed tack and has begun to argue for dam construction on environmental grounds.

Despite efforts to increase the proportion of electricity generated by gas fired plants, India remains heavily reliant upon coal plants. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) import deals have been lined up with Qatar and Iran but the plants supplied by this feedstock are only likely to account for a fraction of the new generating capacity that is required. Air pollution in some parts of the country is as bad as anywhere in the world, partly because of the reliance on coal fired plants, so the government is trying to persuade public opinion that new hydro schemes can help to cut air pollution.

At the same time, critics argue that the Kyoto Protocol is not effective because growing energy producers like India and China are not required to contain their carbon emissions in any way. The Indian government has therefore seized on the debate to insist that more electricity generated by hydroelectric plants means less electricity produced by thermal plants. New dam projects can therefore help to cut carbon emissions. It is too soon to tell whether such arguments will help to overcome opposition in rural parts of northern India, but they may well help to reduce criticism from
international environmental groups.

Chinese opposition

Environmental considerations and public opinion are becoming more important factors even in countries that were previously concerned only with providing more generating capacity. For instance, in January the Chinese government called a halt to work on a major section of the Three Gorges dam project and 24 power projects around the country because of the lack of adequate EIAs. The China Three Gorges Project Corporation was also ordered to stop building work on its Xiluodu dam. A State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) statement read: ‘Construction of these projects has started without approval of the assessment of their environmental impact… they are typical illegal projects of construction first, approval next.’

While the move was not wholly concerned with hydro schemes, it provides further evidence that China is becoming increasingly concerned with environmental matters. Air pollution standards are being gradually tightened, while those already in place are now being enforced more rigorously. In April last year, the government also stopped work on part of the Three Parallel rivers project after Thailand complained that the scheme would alter the flow of the Salween downstream.

In November 2004, thousands of people in the rural Hanyuan district held a protest over plans to build a dam in the area. They claimed that the compensation offered for the loss of farmland was inadequate and that local officials had not taken account of the effect upon their livelihoods. Although paramilitary police were used to break up the riot that broke out, the government quickly sacked a local government official and suspended construction work while it examined the protesters’ grievances. Such dissent would not have been tolerated ten years ago, but the government is increasingly taking public opinion into account.

Nevertheless, over half a million people have been relocated as a result of the US$22B Three Gorges dam project, so it would be wrong to argue that public opposition is forcing a sea of change in Chinese dam policy, but the government is now keen to be seen to be doing the right thing.

Even where projects are given the go ahead, it is vital that developers continue to take public opinion into account. The Indira Sagar dam has been the subject of one long running battle that has proved a public relations disaster. An estimated 30,000 people will lose their homes when the scheme on the river Narmada is completed. The government argues that the project will irrigate large areas, provide electricity for both local people and the country as a whole and provide drinking water to an incredible 40M people. Yet the inhabitants of the Narmada Valley claim that far too little compensation has been offered to them and their protests held up construction work for several years, before the Supreme Court allowed work to continue.

It does not help that the benefits of many projects have been overestimated. The World Commission on Dams report in 2000 concluded that the projections of electricity generation and water supply on most schemes had not been attained. Even if projects are assessed according to the number of people expected to benefit and the extent to which they will benefit from any dam venture, it is vital that developers put forward a realistic assessment of the benefits. Exaggeration may help them to gain clearance for their own schemes but this could jeopardise the chances of other projects getting off the ground. Imagine the positive publicity that could be gained by a dam project supplying more homes than expected with electricity and drinking water for the first time.

African requirements

Some also argue for dam construction on the grounds of human equality. Southern, East and North Africa are among the most water scarce parts of the world. At the same time, they are experiencing rapid population growth and a relatively small proportion of the population has access to piped water. Many people rely on subsistence farming to survive and so are vulnerable to the unpredictability of the weather. If a rainy season fails to materialise then crops inevitably fail.

In other parts of the world, farmers would have access to stored water and so it is argued that storage reservoirs should be developed where practical in Africa. Ronnie Kasrils, the South African minister of water affairs and forestry, made an impassioned plea on the subject, in response to opposition from environmental groups to the construction of the Berg river dam, which will increase drinking water supplies in Cape Town, enabling the local authorities to provide piped water to some areas for the first time.

Kasrils said: ‘As we face the challenges of climate change, I am struck by how poorly Africa is developed to cope with it. In the US, they store in dams and reservoirs 6150m3 of water for every American. In South Africa, we store only 746m3 per person; in the rest of Africa, it is only one tenth of that, 40m3 per person in Ethiopia and just four in Kenya. Yet our climate is more uncertain, arguably justifying more – not less – storage.’ Despite problems with evaporation, it seems unfair to entirely rule out dam construction in regions that are so water poor.

One area of possible growth in the dam sector is the construction and management of micro hydro projects in Africa and elsewhere. Generally characterised as hydroelectric projects with generating capacity of less than 10 or 20MW, micro projects can have many of the same benefits of large schemes in terms of generating electricity and storing and supplying drinking water, but without the need to flood vast areas. In addition, many small scale dams are built in relatively isolated areas in developing countries, where electricity and water supplies would not otherwise be available because they are not connected to regional or national grids.

Moreover, electricity and water is usually supplied to local people, so the benefits are accrued by the same people who experience any disadvantages. This overcomes one of the biggest objections to large scale dam
projects, that marginalised people bear the negative costs of dam construction but are not able to take advantage of the benefits. As a result, micro hydro projects are regarded as a renewable energy source by most environmental groups.

Political problems

Public opinion over dam projects can also be swayed by political considerations. Cross-border conflicts can become particularly intense when the control of natural resources is at stake. The struggle for control of water resources is the most common form of such disputes, as many of the world’s major rivers that are used in hydro schemes pass through several states. In the case of the conflict between India and Pakistan for the sovereignty of Kashmir and Jammu, public opinion over the construction of the Baglihar dam on the river Chenab is strictly divided.

The Indian government and some Kashmiris hope that the project can greatly improve electricity supplies to the two thirds of Kashmir that is controlled by India. Those who oppose Indian rule, however, argue that India is attempting to seize control of the Chenab in order to stem the flow of water to Pakistan.

Talks between the two governments have broken down and Karachi has appealed to the World Bank to intervene, as the organisation helped arrange the water sharing agreement between the two countries that is still in force. Once nationalism and national self interest become wrapped up in resource conflict, the economics and benefits of dam projects can be lost.

The future

While there are a number of positive benefits associated with dam projects, public opinion can also turn against hydro schemes for a variety of reasons. Lack of local consultation and low compensation are inevitably high up on the list but the lack of perceived benefits for local people comes to the fore time and time again. When the benefits in terms of improved electricity and water supplies are only supplied to people hundreds of kilometres away, the inhabitants of an area scheduled for flooding can become incensed. Creating a closer link between the benefits and people expected to lose their land and homes seems the obvious solution. Compensation is one answer but a greater focus on micro schemes appears to be the best resolution, by closely linking the benefits to the project. Such schemes may not supply the steep increases in power generating capacity that are required, but they can be more effective at providing irrigation and drinking water and they are likely to become an increasingly important source of work for those engaged in dam development.