Latin America is currently seeing a boom in the construction of new dams. Brazil is the world’s third largest producer of hydroelectric energy, largely thanks to its abundant water resources. Small-scale hydropower dams (locally known as PCHs) have become an attractive investment option due to simplified environmental licencing procedures and tax incentives given to private developers.

But Latin America has a long history of conflicts around dams. Dam reservoirs have flooded indigenous lands, threatening indigenous people’s culture and traditional land rights. The Chilean Ralco dam for example, completed in indigenous Pehuenche territories in 2004, caused a strong public backlash.

Those negatively affected by dams are often at the margins of their societies, leaving it to activists, journalists, and also researchers to defend their rights and tell their stories, sometimes risking their lives to do so (anti-dam activists have been murdered in Honduras). But what could be done differently? What could be done better? Beyond highlighting problems with dams, do environmental and social scientists propose any solutions?

These questions are the subject of a new research paper written by Christopher Schulz and Bill Adams from the Department of Geography at Cambridge University. Their research, published in Sustainability Science, draws on 21 interviews with environmental and social scientists from the region who were invited to share their opinions and future visions for dam planning in the region. In their paper, they outline three viewpoints on what is to be done.

Support those who are vulnerable

The first viewpoint was mainly concerned with the political economy of dam construction. Inevitably, some people benefit and some lose when a dam is built. Thus, one group of interviewees called for better support for those who lose, yet lack political agency: indigenous peoples, rural populations and women. This support could take the form of legal advice, improved access to information, and should be based on a recognition that vulnerable people do have rights that need to be respected.

Could better use of research and evidence perfect dam planning?

The second viewpoint focused on the possibility of perfecting dam planning, making use of research and evidence. This group of interviewees suggested that the best way forward is to gather as much information as possible. They felt that public consultations with dam-affected people were the most promising tool to understand social impacts, but the strong need for ecological research was also highlighted. Implementing both would ensure that negative impacts are avoided and mitigated wherever possible, and that those who are negatively affected receive appropriate compensation. If all perspectives are taken into account, then good dams can be built.

Do good dams exist?

The third viewpoint reflected the possibility of an alternative vision for future development; new dams were not a part of that vision. Some researchers were thus sceptical about the possibility that a good dam can be built at all. This group of interviewees favoured thinking about alternatives and correcting errors of the past: for example, existing dams should be optimised, their current impacts measured and mitigated. Some even proposed that existing dams should be decommissioned. Their vision for the future was one of small-scale locally driven development, in which large-scale hydropower development had no place.

The universal principle for dam planning?

Clearly, dam planning is a complicated issue, and involves a wider range of issues than the essential question of social and environmental impacts. And while the failures of the past have left some pessimistic, this research also uncovered positive visions for the future. What united all researchers interviewed for this research was their concern for the people who are affected by dams – addressing their rights and needs should indeed be a universal principle for dam planning.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of FutureDAMS as a whole.
Image: Demi Williams on Flickr (CC 2.0)

In search of the good dam: contemporary views on dam planning in Latin America

Schulz & Adams
Sustainability Science (2020)

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