By Barnaby Dye

The movement for dam reforms in the 1990s generated more detailed methodologies in assessing environmental and social impacts. They also advocated reform in the contracting process whereby the credentials of the prospective companies are considered with regards to their ability to deliver on required environmental standards and social responsibility protocols. Market-leading dam-building companies have also made improvements to the technical methods of dam design and construction. These efforts to improve the record of dam building arguably reached their zenith with the World Commission on Dams, but have continued with policy initiatives like the International Hydropower Association’s Hydropower Assessment Protocol.

Essentially, all these initiatives involve undergoing far longer, more detailed, more complex and expensive planning processes. They advocate careful consideration of the trade-offs entailed by dams and a more critical analysis of their expected economic benefits.

However, such processes will likely involve far higher costs and will certainly take longer. Debate therefore continues as to whether these reforms constitute the ‘right’ way forward. To consider this, I look at two topical dams featuring in the news in Africa. Their implementation and impacts are renewing debates around the process of planning and contracting, and of the merits of longer, detailed planning over shorter, cheaper processes.

The Stiegler’s Gorge Dam in Tanzania is currently being pursued by President Magufuli as a flagship infrastructure project. While some hail its planned capacity of 2,100 megawatts, others point out that this is over-double Tanzania’s current production and far more than its projected electricity needs.  A recent report by Hartmann (a researcher who is not seen as a dam critic), makes this point, adding that the country’s national grid and international interconnectors are unable to support such quantities of power. This indicates a limited degree of planning in the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam’s latest post-2016 phase. UNESCO and WWF have criticised the socio-environmental assessments as insufficient. The dam’s feasibility assessment also seems limited, having been prepared in a matter of months, primarily using studies from the 1970s.

The project raises a number of key concerns. The first relate to well-reported significant economic and ecological impacts for a UNESCO World Heritage Tourist Hotspot immediately downstream of the dam. Additionally, major rice-growing and fishing areas downriver, not to mention a Ramsar protected delta, are at risk. Another concern is the project’s costs. Hartmann predicts that these could extend to $10billion if a typical amount of over-spend and delay occurs.

Another issue raised by independent commentators, is the capability of the main contracted company, the Egyptian military-owned Arab Contractors. A review of their website shows that the company primarily constructs buildings. They have not been involved in a dam since being a subcontracted during Aswan Dam’s construction in the 1950s, and do not appear to have even undertaken civil works on other types of power station. Their technical capacity to lead what will be Africa’s joint-largest hydropower project, is a source of some bewilderment.

Arab Contractors’ appointment seems to have been part of a deal with Egypt, with President Sisi and Magufuli meeting to lay the dam’s foundation stone. However, it is unclear why Tanzania made this deal, given that there is no agreed financing from Egypt and no particular political rationale has emerged for such an alliance, other than the enabling of the dam’s construction. This also raises questions concerning the government’s ability to raise the dam’s minimum cost of $3.6billion, given there has been no external finance deals to date.

Regardless of such issues, President Magufuli wants to forge ahead with the project. Indeed, construction is supposed to be completed in 3 years. This timeframe means that the dam should be well underway by the next election in late 2020, and completed within Magufuli’s two terms (by 2025). This rapid push seems to stem from his desire to deliver on pledges to achieve rapid development, something that made him particularly popular in the last 2015 election. However, such a timescale is near-impossible. The similarly-sized Lauca dam in Angola took five years to construct, and it didn’t have to handle an environmentally sensitive area. Moreover, an Oxford University study found that large dams take and average of 8.6 years (although Stiegler’s Gorge Dam is technically a large, rather than ‘mega-dam’)

The Tanzanian government has therefore made the political decision to forge ahead with the dam without a detailed planning process and without contracting a qualified engineering company. Commentators have pointed out that the government has overlooked the existence of economically less impactful, quicker and more economically viable alternatives on upstream dams, wind and solar. The political decision to push ahead also means that the government has not appointed an overseeing owner’s engineer to maintain standards. Speed was thus prioritised over other concerns.

Such an approach entails significant risks, not least of which is the technical ability to build the dam to a functional standard, on time and on-budget. These risks are well illustrated by the Kandaji Dam in Niger.

It is a major project in the country, costing $785million for a 130 megawatt plant, which it is claimed, will provide 40,000ha of irrigation. However, the progress of the Kandaji Dam has been frequently critiqued by current President Mohamadou Issoufou’s government, because of delays and poor standards of implementation. The reasons for these costs and overruns appear to relate to a similar, process to planning and contracting as has happened for Stiegler’s Gorge Dam.

The former interim military government led by General Salou Djibo, appointed a Russian company Zarubezhvodstroy OJSC as the main contractor in 2011. However, this company’s credentials were consistently questioned, given their lack of experience in executing large projects, let alone large hydropower dams. The circumstances of the deal were also suspect, given its lack of transparency. The company announced in 2013 that it couldn’t technically complete the dam, initiating the cancellation of their CFAfr84.7bn (US$170.8million) contract.

Given the interim nature of the military government, commentators allege that this Russian deal was a deliberate looting of a state. The government realised they weren’t going to be in power for long, and so pursued short term, corrupt self-enrichment. Critics like International Rivers claim that a longer, more transparent tendering process would have avoided this, uncovering technical deficiencies in the Russian company and ensuring a longer-term perspective focused on the project’s technical delivery. Ultimately, the dam proved very costly for Niger. Not only was the dam delayed, something that FutureDAMS’ Judith Plummer evidences as costly, but it led to Niger seeking $172 million from the World Bank.

Both of these dams therefore illustrate the way governments who politically prioritise rapid single-minded implementation risk creating significant costs, schedule overruns and technical incapability. Cost overruns are likely to have long-term financial costs, as Ansar’s large-scale database shows such dams can significantly add to a country’s debt repayment burden. Academics and commentators allege that a process of careful studies and a more detailed contracting process focused on the technical capacity of companies, could prevent such outcomes. However, taking this approach also has downsides: Although it has potential to reduce costs in the long term, it is slower and includes greater upfront spending. Given its length of time, such an approach may also have to survive multiple governments.

Overall this underlines the ongoing debate about the politicisation of infrastructure projects and on the value of long, costly planning and contracting processes. Does the avoidance of negative impacts and the possibility of creating under-used, economic ‘white elephants’ make such approaches worthwhile?


Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of FutureDAMS as a whole.

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