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Mega Dams Remain Controversial Source of Energy

The Gries Lake at Nufenen Pass, Switzerland. Credit: Ray Smith/IPS.

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 6 2016 (IPS) - Although mega dams can have devastating impacts on ecosystems and indigenous communities, many of the world’s poorest countries still see them as a way to fill gaping holes in their energy supplies.

One such project is the Inga III dam, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The dam is a part of the larger Inga project, which when completed will be the biggest dam project in the world, almost twice as big as the Three Gorges Dam in China.

In March 2014, the World Bank awarded the project $73 million to carry out environmental and social impact assessments, however two years later, these assessments have yet to begin, and the advocacy group International Rivers now fears that construction of the project may be rushed ahead without them.

According to International Rivers the head of the Grand Inga Project Office, recently announced that construction of the dam was set to begin by 2017, whether or not the relevant impact assessments had taken place before hand.

The World Bank told IPS that it is “continuing dialogue with the Government of DRC about the implementation arrangements of the Inga-3 BC (Inga III) project, with the goal of ensuring the project follows international good practice.”

However Bosshard believes that the DRC’s track record of implementing mega projects, including the Inga I and Inga II projects which he said were one of the main components of a debt crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has ultimately been one of failure.

“Wind and solar aren’t the small brothers and sisters of hydropower anymore and they really have become mainstream and it’s a pity that the World Bank (hasn’t realised) that the era of mega dams, that time has passed around the world.” -- Peter Bosshard, International Rivers.

The West African country is described as being afflicted by the so-called resource curse, due to high levels of poverty and conflict despite its wealth in natural resources.

International Rivers also do not believe that the Inga III project will necessarily benefit the DRC population, 90 percent of whom have no access to electricity, but instead will largely produce energy for export markets and mining operations in the DRC.

The Inga III is not the only controversial mega dam project. Although these projects can provide a significant amount of energy, they also meet with significant resistance across the developing world, particularly from Indigenous groups whose lands are often disproportionately impacted by these projects.

The Indigenous peoples who protest these dams often pay with their lives, as was the case with Honduran Indigenous activist Berta Caceres whose protests against the Agua Zarca Dam led to her murder earlier this year.

The dams not only have environmental impacts on rivers and forests, but also pose an existential threat to indigenous groups.

Manu Ampim Director of the Save Nubia Project told IPS that ”a series of recent and current dam projects in the Sudan (have) and will continue to devastate various cultural groups,” including the Amri, the Manasir and the Nubia.

Ampim said that the impact of dams on the Nubian people is particularly concerning because “ancient Nubia is one of the most significant Nile Valley civilizations, dating back many millennia.”

Ampim said that there should be international pressure on the Sudanese government “to change plans to the use of more efficient and clean, and less destructive, sources of energy, such as solar energy, micro-hydro, and wind turbine.”

However while wind and solar projects have been increasingly significantly in capacity, Angus McCrone, Chief Editor at Bloomberg New Energy Finance told IPS that current and future dam projects still have a role to play in meeting energy needs.

“A lot of developing countries want to do both, they do want large hydro if they’ve got the resources for it and they also want wind and solar,” he said.

Yet McCrone noted that the sustainability of dam projects is variable.

“If you’re looking at sustainability some large hydro projects score well and some don’t.”

“There are some large hydro projects that are pretty heavily criticised for sustainability whether it’s causing methane release or effecting biodiversity or causing international tension between countries because of some damming up the rivers,” he said.

McCrone also noted that wind and solar have a “speed advantage” which makes them “pretty attractive to developing countries with rapidly rising energy needs.”

While the variable sustainability of mega dam projects is one reason why Bloomberg New Energy Finance does not include mega hydro in their annual reports on renewable energy trends, McCrone says that there are checks in place to ensure that the projects are sustainable.

“(When) the development banks lend to renewable energy projects they go through a decision making process on large hydro projects and in practice they support some of them and they don’t support others,” said McCrone.

However Bosshard noted that while he also is not against all hydro projects, that the severe consequences of these projects are often underestimated.

“If you could build a project of 4800 megawatts with very little displacement and possibly limited environmental impacts we would not in principle be opposed to that,” he said. “But obviously this approach doesn’t happen in a vacuum, this approach happens in a country (the DRC) that has all the experience in trying to build mega projects and has ultimately failed.”

Bosshard said that recent developments in wind and solar technologies meant that they had become much more viable alternatives to mega dams.

“At a time when wind and solar are breaking even on financial terms and you can build them in one or two years why wait 10 years for a new hydropower dam,” said Bosshard.

“Wind and solar aren’t the small brothers and sisters of hydropower any more and they really have become mainstream and it’s a pity that the World Bank (hasn’t realised) that the era of mega dams, that time has passed around the world.”

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