Panel discussion debates the role of dams in Africa’s development

Six distinguished speakers came together on 24 November 2014 to tackle the much debated topic of ‘Africa, Dams and Development’ in a panel discussion organised by the Oxford Water Network and the Oxford Martin Programme on Resource Stewardship.

dams panel

Dr Rob Hope, Director of the Water Programme at the Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment, chaired the event and asked the panellists, “how can dams better balance economic growth, environmental sustainability and human development in Africa?”

He pointed out that less than 10% of the hydroelectric power potential in Africa is developed. But there are major projects planned to change this, such as the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, the High Grand Falls Dam in Kenya, Inga 3 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Kandadji in Niger.

David Grey, Visiting Professor of Water Policy at the School of Geography and the Environment, said that Africa is deeply water insecure, food insecure and energy insecure. The continent faces exceptionally high variability in water both between and within years, and storage is essential for coping with this ‘difficult hydrology’, he said.

Professor Grey argued that “of course Africa needs dams”, but good dams and not bad dams. He highlighted the importance of learning lessons from the 23,427 large dams that have been built worldwide, very few of which are in Africa.

Michael Norton, a civil engineer and Global Water Director at Amec Foster Wheeler said that he supported the construction of large dams in Africa in principle. “Storing water at times when it’s plentiful for times when it isn’t is an extremely effective and sustainable technique to meet mankind’s drinking, food and energy needs,” he said. However, he urged for all forms of storage, not just dams, to be considered in terms of their costs, risks and benefits.

“Dams are simply not worth the cost” was the message given by Dr Atif Ansar, Lecturer at the Blavatnik School of Government. He presented a study of 269 large dam projects across the world which showed excessive cost overruns. The analysis revealed that actual costs more than double for two out of ten dams, and triple for one out of ten dams.

The theme of costs was continued by Dr Judith Plummer who presented her research at Cambridge University on the cost of delays in dam construction. She said that the impact of delays can be devastating for countries that actually need the dams. She also emphasised that the benefits of dams are hugely underestimated as they are difficult to value.

Jamie Skinner, who leads the Water Team at the International Institute for Environment and Development, considered the impacts of dams on biodiversity and ecosystems and asked “who will stand up for the environment?” Where government priorities favour development over environment priorities, there may be more traction in promoting the maintenance of ecosystem services of value to people, he said.

According to Skinner, African countries consider the World Bank as a donor of last resort because of their stringent requirements for ecosystem sustainability, whereas finance from China demands very few, if any environmental safeguards.

Dr David Turton, a Senior Research Fellow at the African Studies Centre, concluded the panel presentations with a case study of the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia, where the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in the lower Omo Basin will be affected by the dam.

“Dams must be made into development opportunities for the people that have to get out of the way to make them possible”, said Dr Turton. The principles for achieving this, he said, are widely accepted in theory but ignored in practice: open and transparent information sharing; meaningful consultation; and compensation, benefit sharing and livelihood reconstruction.

The presentation slides and video webcast are available online