From What a Dam Springs…And What a Dam Brings


Hydropower is, like an oil well, an extractive industry. Yes, the massive mechanical energy of a moving river is renewable as long as the waters run, yet the attending realities of the intrusive and often massive contrivances we call dams are undeniable. To produce the power, they have to leave a little less behind than was there before, whether its water quality, fish or sand; maybe it’s an endangered critter downstream or a lower agricultural yield, a bribe, a displaced community, an inflated cost estimate, an abrogated indigenous land grant.  Something.

To speak of a dam in the same breath as fossil fuels may seem a radical and willfully blind characterization given the many consequences of fossil fuel use more directly damaging to health and the environment. And truly, fossil fuels are driving us toward a dystopian world at a much faster pace than dams ever will.

However, throughout the entire life-cycle of a dam, there are many well known risks and vulnerabilities. Dams are accompanied by the same illusion of permanence, the deceptive and selective construction of national economies according to a singularly uniform vision of development as well as the environmental assaults, all while assuming a paradigm of modernity–that GDP growth and per capita energy consumption offered by hydropower must go hand in hand, that the trickle-down benefits from industrialization and rapid economic growth will inevitably bring national competitive advantage.  These exaggerated claims of productivity and efficiency are, in many cases, accompanied by large cost overruns, increased debt and as much secrecy and corruption as any other energy producing industry, often more.

In the case of dams, beyond air quality or climate stability, the sacrifice is something more subtle, deemed less valuable, less material and less commonly voiced: the generations of knowledge, the intimacy of return, immersion in an indivisible relationship with natural cycles of river, flora and fauna. These are, in many cases, replaced by dislocation, loss of livelihood, poverty, depression, the fracturing of culture and community and even suicide.

Along the way, the river itself becomes an object of exploitation furthering a vision of development, whether it’s through the appropriation of sand for use in some far away place, the fracturing of connectivity in a river basin, not unlike severing limbs from a living organism, blocking the circulation of restorative sediments and the water itself as if the ecologies of agriculture and the food sources provided by the river also become empty objects divorced from the lives of those who depend on them.

The indigenous inhabitants of river basins understand and live within change, but dams overwhelm and upset that ethos, deforming communities, cultures, politics, breeding a new and, to the global south at least, foreign ethic. In fact, that this definition of development is unsustainable has been clear for some time. Yet, in response to rising global demand for energy, the juggernaut of dam development rolls on.

Climate change is an accelerant, but it’s taken much longer to understand how this change affects the rivers than it has to build the dams. In that sense, we become an endangered species ourselves, slow to adapt to the cascade of change we initiated and to which we continue to cling. But the truth is well known. We can’t have our cake and eat it, too. We cannot have the same river after a dam is installed, no matter how many times and how hard we may try.

Governments undertake modeling, the analysis of development, the results of which may bring them into conflict with the interests of investors. In that process, the analysis may soften, the logic and language may bend a little; the process is slowed, equivocation subtly permeates the conclusions. In such reports, written by consultants, versus pure academic studies, there is a welcome certainty appearing in open declarations that a specific component of a basin-wide plan is a threat to the health and longevity of an entire region or the river system that defines it.

The Chinese practice, far from being an isolated example, of secrecy, bundling hydro investments in larger appealing economic aid packages, combined with environmental impact assessments performed by Chinese consultants, leads to environmental, ethical and political malpractice, adding corruption and further exceptions to law and lack of enforcement to the whole ensuing package.

The opposition to mega-dam projects is a microcosm of the larger climate change “debate.” The success or failure of opposition depends, as in all climate debates, on how the issue is framed and what information is employed to “educate.” It has been shown many times that urgently pointing to scientific evidence is not always the most persuasive approach to climate denial, nor to the best-laid hydropower development plans.

Early dam development may have been undertaken without the benefit of advanced comprehensive modeling and projection of effects. It’s also possible that studies of the effects of dams state their conclusions with an abundance of caution in much the same way climate studies understate the effects of climate change, which so far has meant the negative consequences of dams will be greater and come earlier than predicted.

The amount of corruption infecting this process cannot be calculated accurately. But a recent study includes a literature review on this topic, a collection of estimates compiled over nearly two decades bringing some credibility and validity to the topic.

Throughout the entire project cycle, from the analysis of options to full commissioning and operation, there are a multitude of moments at which the integrity of the process is tested. Ten years ago, the amount of money lost annually to corruption in the hydropower sector was estimated to be $5-6 billion. Another report from that same period estimates whole budget losses at 10%. Extrapolating these amounts to global annual infrastructure spending of greater then $1 trillion leads to staggering estimates of losses.

The complexity of dam building can generate a lack of accountability and opaque project management (Bosshard & Hildyard, 2008). For example, there may be separate contracts for equipment, civil works, materials, construction, management, as well as for external consultancies involving local, national and international actors, each with their own requirements. Resettlement activities[a notorious target of corruption]involving large sums of money can also create opportunities for graft (Scudder, 2008; Sohail & Cavill, 2007).

The historical record of numerous cases supports these concerns. In Lesotho, Indonesia, Thailand and Kenya, dam builders used ‘corrupt practices’ to acquire reservoir sites that were reserved for indigenous people or impinged on protected national wildlife refuges (Scudder, 2008). Government officials reportedly stole $50 million of resettlement funds appropriated for the Three Gorges Dam in China, leading to ‘the largest such corruption scandal on record’ (Haas, 2008, p. 98). Costs for the Yacyret, a dam between Argentina and Paraguay, ballooned by $2.7 billion, due in part to bribes and misappropriation of funds (Sohail & Cavill, 2007). In Malaysia, Sarawak Energy has been accused of granting $200 million worth of hydropower contracts to companies linked directly to the Chief Minister’s family (Bruno Manser Fund, 2013). Source

The industry narrative on the carbon footprint of dams leads us to assume dams do not emit greenhouse gases. However, the deforestation associated with construction of those dams does impact carbon sequestration as new greenery growing on the muddy banks of a depleted reservoir is submerged again to become a new source of methane release.  The accumulated data on this phenomenon has been enough to downgrade the designation of hydropower as a renewable energy.

In Brazil, the 8,370MW Tucuru Dam in the Amazon produces more greenhouse gases than Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo; and another dam upriver generates 11.2 million tons of carbon per year, equivalent to the annual emissions of 2.3 million cars (Fearnside, 2002). Other studies have confirmed these findings, namely that the carbon footprint or lifecycle impact of a dam can vary greatly depending on design, location and climate, maintenance and lifetime of operation (Raadal, Gagnon, Modahl, & Hanssen, 2011; Vate, 1997; World Commission on Dams, 2000).

In other words, the changes to a natural terrain to construct the storage dam convert a carbon sink to a source of methane emissions that did not previously exist along with a reduction in oxygen content of the river. As serious as these incidences may be for some locations, over its entire lifecycle, hydropower still has the lowest carbon emissions of any source of energy production.

More surprisingly, however, the question of whether hydropower projects actually decrease economic growth rates was studied among over 100 countries over three different timeframes and confirmed by Sovacool and Gotz (2018). Equally surprising results from this study indicate there is no clear and convincing data indicating hydropower reduces poverty, yet there is data indicating hydropower increases corruption.

What is often missing in the opposition literature commonly seen in the more agrarian global south is a simple and direct bottom line, a distillation of all the various known and documented minor and major consequences of damming into a clear and penetrating message. The big picture painted by touting electrification by conventional dams does include at least some of the intended benefits, but beyond the dislocation, the debt, the cost overruns, the corruption, it all comes with a verifiable trade-off too often overridden by the profit-driven inertia of anti-poverty scenarios: lowered food security.