By Bill Adams

Recently, I have found myself wondering how far the world of dams has changed since I began my career.  Thirty years ago, I sat down to write the book Wasting the Rain.  In it, I tried to challenge the dominant approach to large scale water development in Africa.   By then, I had been working for a decade in river basin planning.  I had completed a PhD on the downstream impacts of the Bakolori Dam in Nigeria, worked for an engineering company on a dam resettlement project, and researched the economy and ecology of African floodplain wetlands.

Wasting the Rain looked at water and land from the perspective of the people who live in floodplains. It explored the skill of floodplain farmers in adjusting cropping systems to soils, flood depth and duration, and integrating cultivation, livestock, fishing and seasonal labour migration.  Floodplain communities and ways of life are built around, and sustained by, the seasonal dynamics of rain and river.  Floodplain people across Africa use the rain very cleverly, they do not waste it.    But many large-scale water projects do.

The Bakolori project in northern Nigeria was a classic in this respect.   The dam itself was expensive, but built soundly and more or less on time.  Unfortunately, the attached irrigation scheme was (like others in Africa) uneconomic, offering far lower yields and rates of return than predicted.   Meanwhile the dam had many negative impacts, on downstream farmers and those whose homes and land were inundated by the reservoir. The communities in the irrigation area itself handed over their land but had to wait until the dam and supply canal were finished before getting it back, or receiving water or agricultural inputs to restart farming.  It was a long hungry wait, and farmers protested.

When I look back now, I see that Wasting the Rain was romantic about the life of toil and poverty in the un-dammed floodplains of Africa.  I was young and naïve, but I was right to point to the effectiveness with which people worked with environmental conditions in African river floodplains.  Dam advocates promised economic ‘development’ (even if this never materialized), and they restructured the landscape to fit their blueprint.

This line of argument in the book owed a lot to the work of Ted Scudder in the 1980s.  He set out a more holistic approach to river basin planning, arguing that dams should support and improve floodplain agriculture and the lives of those affected.  He was interested in the possibility of drawdown agriculture and reservoir margin irrigation, and planned releases to make downstream floods predictable.

In 1998, Scudder became one of the Commissioners of the World Commission on Dams (WCD). His ideas (and his breadth of experience and charismatic enthusiasm) meant that his approach had quite an influence on the Commission’s findings.  One of their seven strategic priorities was ‘recognising entitlements and sharing benefits’.  In particular, the Commission suggested that ‘people adversely affected by a dam project should be among the first to benefit from the project ( p. 243).  That was classic Scudder.

When the WCD published Dams and Development in 2000, it offered an approach to dam planning that could render unexpected negative social and environmental impacts something from the past.  It did not, of course, work out like that.

So what has happened in the 30 years since I sat down to write Wasting the Rain?  Frankly, it feels like groundhog day.  There are an awful lot of new dams.  Different sources of funding and different corporations dominate the sector. The negative impacts of dams are better recognised, and there are new planning frameworks such as the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, and a growing interest in the ‘risk mitigation’ for investors in. hydropower projects.

Yet dams remain mired in controversy.   Negative social and environmental impacts are common, just as in the old pre-WCD world – downstream impacts unrecognised or ignored; people displaced by reservoirs whose resettlement left them permanently disadvantaged; grassroots movements demanding environmental justice.  Economists struggle to find a rule-based approach for navigating benefits and costs.  Large dams remain risky projects for fragile developing economies, dogged by cost overruns and negative impacts, and fuelling debt and inflation.  Irrigation schemes in Africa fail today just like their predecessors: overpromising, underperforming, and expensive.

Why has so little changed?

Every observer has their own preferred list of reasons, just as they have their own assessment of how skewed the balance between benefits and impacts of large of dams really is.  For what it is worth, here is mine.

The problem today, as in the 1980s, is that dams epitomise ‘development from above’.  They emerge from a technical development planning complex that sits outside the societies that they chiefly affect.  They are designed in terms of national or international development needs, not the needs of floodplain people.  They are conceived of as a way to increase the size of the national economy, and to bring the maximum number of people within that economy out of poverty.  Questions of the distribution of the economic pie are treated as secondary.

Too often, riverine societies are treated as eggs that have to be broken to make the omelette of development.  Dam planners essentially see the ideas of floodplain people as irrelevant to development decisions, believing that their needs and interests can and should be traded off against national need, or that by some alchemy they will be transformed into sophisticated wage workers thriving in an expanded urban economy.  To those planning dams, knowing what floodplain people think and feel about the future is only important if it is useful in negotiations to persuade them to move quietly from their land.  Their dissatisfaction, or plight, is a project risk that needs to be managed. Compensation for losses due to the project is a costly necessary evil, to be minimized to protect the positive balance of the cost-benefit analysis.

If I was naïve thirty years ago, I accept that I am cynical now – at least about dams (and irrigation schemes).  Nonetheless, it has been both shocking and depressing to come back to the dam world and find the same mix of problems, arguments and protagonists, the same kinds of impacts and injustices, as in the 1980s and 1990s.  There is too little learning from mistakes: such learning is painful and threatens too many vested interests inside and outside the country where the dam is built.

Too many dams are still being conceived and planned without adequate consideration of issues such as long-term impacts on resettled and downstream communities, reservoir methane, or the long-term sustainability of growth-based economic development models.  Their legacies will be the damage they do to the long-term productivity of floodplains and the welfare of their people, the accumulation of national debt (which will trigger further grandiloquent projects in future whose supposed benefits are calculated to repay it), and the burden of costs of dam removal at the end of their lives.  This is a Faustian bargain today, just as it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

What can be done?

Well, reading Dams and Development would be a start.  It got at least some things right.  As it said, we need an approach to dams that makes those affected into the main beneficiaries: not bought off, moved and forgotten, but treated as the key stakeholders.  We need to treat floodplains as the heart of future development, not raw material to be consumed to feed endless economic growth elsewhere.   We need joined-up thinking about rivers and their waters, not narrow attempts to find sites to build dams.

We need a river industry, not a dams industry, willing to consider rivers from an interdisciplinary perspective, and capable of holistic planning.  We need project planners who do does not assume that water is ‘wasted’ unless a river is dammed and who do not sacrifice rivers and their people in the name of a pumped-up energy grid.   We need an approach that does not see development as a transitive verb, something done to people, but instead sees it as helping people bring about change themselves.


A longer version of this essay is published on the Thinking Like a Human Blog.  Thanks to David Hulme, Chris Sandbrook, Chris Schulz and Jamie Skinner for comments: they bear no responsibility for the views expressed.

Photo by reza shayestehpour on Unsplash

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