Big Dams

The disaster of global hydroelectric development

David Sims

Hoover Dam | Photo: Allan https://www.flickr.com/photos/misteral/6682237201/

Around the world, hydro dams, promoted by banks to supply industry, are disappointing in their provision for local populations. Their production is hindered by drought but their impacts on community and ecology are high.

Jim Kim, appointed by Barack Obama to the presidency of the World Bank in 2012, has left a controversial record. His support for hydroelectric development, particularly in Africa, ostensibly as a means of lifting the poorest of the poor from their plight while respecting the constraints of climate change, was described by Peter Bosshard, policy director of International Rivers as “the old idea of a silver bullet that can modernize whole economies.” Amid the worldwide boom in hydro development, the World Bank got on board, pushing projects that “had been shunned in the 1990s, in part because they can be disruptive to communities and ecosystems.”

The World Bank, which funds large development projects like dam construction in poor countries, acknowledges that hydropower is an increasingly risky bet for energy generation but has decided to move ahead anyway.

The money lenders seem undeterred by the fact that Africa is in the grips of its worst drought in 60 years. As a result of drought, the output of Kariba Dam, which provides 60 per cent of Zimbabwe’s power, has dropped to one-third of its capacity, and in 2016 Reuters reported that the dam could soon lose its ability to produce electricity at all.

Drought may impair the availability of water to generate electricity but it doesn’t seem to have dried up funding for these projects. The World Bank, which funds large development projects like dam construction in poor countries, acknowledges that hydropower is an increasingly risky bet for energy generation but has decided to move ahead anyway.

The Bank has now earmarked $12 billion for the Inga 3 Dam on the Congo River, a throwback to the “good old days” of Inga 1 and Inga 2. It has also got on board with two other billion-dollar schemes on the Zambezi River. Although it has recently suspended funding for Inga 3 pending a change in government, the project is expected to move ahead. Most of the power (85%) produced by Inga 1 and 2 is used by industrial consumers, like mines, and less than 10 per cent of the population of Congo has access to electricity.

The Amazon

In South America, particularly in the Amazon Basin, the story repeats itself – all we need do is to change the names of the players and places. Break-neck hydro development associated with drought are the keywords, with one distinction: hydro development in the Amazon will have changed that region’s rainforest to a net carbon emitter, rather than the carbon absorber and “lungs of the planet” it was once thought to be. The New Scientist points the finger at the carbon released from rotting trees and the anaerobic decomposition of vegetable matter in the bottom of the reservoirs, which is a methane emitter.

During the 2005 drought scientists estimated the Amazon rainforest to have turned from a net absorber of about two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to an exporter of some five billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Hydro development in the Amazon will have changed that region’s rainforest to a net carbon emitter, rather than a carbon absorber and “lungs of the planet” – carbon released from rotting trees and the anaerobic decomposition of vegetable matter in the bottom of the reservoirs is a methane emitter.

The Independent reports that “Scientists have calculated that the 2010 drought was more intense than the ‘one-in-100-year’ drought of 2005 .… In 2010, the Rio Negro River, which is the biggest tributary to the Amazon, was at its lowest level since records began at the start of the 20th century, so we have independent evidence of these droughts.” Brazil’s 14,000 MW capacity Itaipu dam, the second largest in the world, has seen its output drop to the point where the country had to import electricity from Argentina.

Undeterred by the potential for increased climatic effects associated with its dams, Brazil’s push for more dams remains unfettered, motivated as it is by the aluminum industry’s massive demands for more power. After China, Brazil is the world’s second largest hydropower producer. As Greenpeace sums up Brazil’s approach, “the Brazilian development vision for the Amazon seems rooted in the colonial period as the region continues to be seen – and valued – only as a rich stock of untapped energy, raw material and food-basket.”

China

 Much has been written about hydroelectric development in China. The country now tops the list of installed capacity, but even more remarkable is its meteoric rate of expansion in hydropower. In 2015 China had an installed capacity of 319,000 MW, up from 172,000 Mw in 2009.

Overall, the country has 80,000 dams, which have displaced at least 16 million people. This “hydro rush” may have been facilitated by a political culture inherited from the days of Mao – relocating 16 million people may have been less problematic politically than it would be elsewhere. Nevertheless, China’s push to develop hydro has not been without problems. Ill-conceived dams have collapsed, killing thousands. The traditional livelihoods of fishermen and subsistence farmers have been impacted and ecosystems trashed.

China’s celebrated Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the largest in the world, has a capacity of 22,500 MW – but further development could see the river produce five times as much. On the other hand, China’s dams are reported to be quite inefficient, having a capacity factor of 31 per cent. This means that at times of low water flow, supplementary power is needed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that for every major dam that is constructed, another coal-fired power station is also being built to take up the slack. Drought is also hard at work in Chinese rivers. Water levels along some stretches of the Mekong River are at 50-year lows.

High on China’s list of planned developments is an assault on the Tibet’s holy river, the Yarlong Tsangpo, also known as the Brahmaputra. The Tsangpo begins its journey at Mount Kalaish, the holy mountain of Buddhists, Hindus, Bons and others, in far Western Tibet, before flowing East. The lower reaches of the Tsangpo have, until recently, been one of the wildest places on the planet, inhabited only by the tough Pemako hill tribes. The Tsangpo Gorge, over which hydroelectric developers have been salivating for decades, has a vertical drop of 6,000 metres, triple that of the Grand Canyon. The rugged terrain and the incredible climatic zones, which vary from tropical jungle to arctic glacier within mere kilometres, have made the area inaccessible to all but the most determined adventurers.

From 2007 to 2014, Chinese development banks collectively loaned $117.5 billion to fund construction of coal-fired power plants, large hydropower dams and other energy projects in foreign countries.

Once it reaches the plains of India, the Brahmaputra flows through the northern state of Assam, nourishing the last pocket of wild grassland on the Indian continent before discharging its waters into the Bay of Bengal. Despite questionable soil stability in the Pemako Gorge, China has plans for a 38,000 MW plant – nearly 35 times the output of BC’s proposed Site C. If China has its way, it will also divert a portion of the Tsangpo to Northern China in order to fight desertification.

As with the hydro development in the other regions we’ve examined, China seems oblivious to environmental concerns or to the fact that drought remains a prominent feature of its assault on rivers. If the Yangtse River is a representative example, its answer will be to develop even more dams upstream, in order to try to alleviate the problems at Three Gorges.

Export-Import Bank of China

China doesn’t leave energy development at its own borders. Chinese banks now fund more projects in developing countries than those of the West. From 2007 to 2014, Chinese development banks collectively loaned $117.5 billion to fund construction of coal-fired power plants, large hydropower dams and other energy projects in foreign countries.

Perhaps more worrisome for some, China “does much of this funding through its state-run Export-Import Bank of China, becoming the most important financier of large dams around the world,” says Peter Bosshard of International Rivers. China is playing the same game as the West, trying to buy favour by developing energy in other countries, to allow its companies to exploit their natural resources.

Canada

Drought and forest fires are a familiar tale along the west coast of North America, and drought is certainly impacting hydroelectric facilities in California. There’s little to suggest what effect this is having on Canadian facilities at the moment; however, following the global march to the ill-advised development of mega-dams, three Canadian provinces are now on the hook to build dams – assuring them a debt-ridden future and the possible privatization of their crown corporations: BC’s Site C dam, Manitoba’s Keeyask Generating Station and Bipole III transmission line, and Newfoundland’s Muskrat Falls Generating Station.

What has spurred this spate of risky, unneeded development is anyone’s guess. It was my interest in the relationship between hydropower and climate change, particularly the question of self-induced drought (which I believe to be inherent in the energy transfers that are part and parcel of how hydro works) which led me to make this inquiry.

BC’s miserable drought-ridden summer of 2017 injected a sense of urgency to my examination of the question. The larger question of why humanity allows its financial institutions to pursue insane investments that wreck ecosystems, displace and marginalize indigenous populations, and raise havoc with the climate, all to support financial gain and what is believed to be a desirable materialistic lifestyle, is a question I’ll leave with the reader.



David Sims is a retired math/physics teacher from Clearwater BC with interests in yoga, Nature-respecting religions, mountain sports, photography, PIC programming, electronics for off-grid application, and self-sufficient living.

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