Political Ecology of Large Dams

Political Ecology of Large Dams
Class #3
December 12, 2012
Bill Derman
What does PE illuminate?
The materiality or biophysicality of water. The characteristics and
features of water itself, not a generalized nature. Its features
changed by both human and nonhumans. Characteristics of rivers
versus lakes
Conceptual analyses of activism toward the continued
construction of large dams or opposition to them. How are
institutions mobilized to construct dams, move people, building
power plants, etc.
Assess the role of the state particulary in regard to regulation and
redistribution. Where will benefits flow, who will bear the costs?
The vested interests of engineering companies and bureaucracies
who are dependent upon dam building
The different visions of development and the appropriate
relations among water users and the environment
Political Ecology of Large Dams
• Importance of Large Dams
• A large dam defined as those rising above 15
meters from their foundation or
• Capacity of over 3 million m3.
• There were approximately 5700 dams in 1950.
Today there are over 50,000
• 80% of the dams are in 5 countries – U.S.
China, India, Spain and Japan
Modernist Visions of Controlling
• In this view large dams are part of comprehensive
river basin development. Of course there is a
long and deep history of controlling water in the
Nile or the Yellow rivers. However, these tended
to be single or dual purpose, and not part of an
explicit development strategy.
• Control water, control nature: nature to serve
human needs based upon the hydrological cycle
• Contrast to hydrosocial view
Hydrosocial Cycles
• Water no longer flows the way it used. 80% of
waters in the northern hemisphere (N America,
Asia and Europe) river discharge is regulated or
controlled by dams. The very nature of the
circulation of water on earth, in other words, has
to be described in social as well as hydrological
terms. It is a hydrosocial cycle.
• Importance of control the basis of much
Issues in Large Dams
• Rationale for the construction of large dams:
narratives, sciences, power. Hard to break the
narrative of progress, control, cheap power.
• Foundation for Economic development
• No arid country has become developed without
exclusive investment in water retaining dams
• No Mountainous country has become rich
without tapping some or most of its hydroelectric
Urban Water Supply
Flood Management
Whose benefits count, whose losses count?
Dam planning and construction a political as well as an
economic and engineering process
Dams destroy rivers and create Lakes:
• Species in riverine environments evolve in relationship
to these environments. Human cultures have also
adapted to riverine environments, and dependent for
resource upon them. Scales are impressive – in
Cambodia 60% of populations’ protein comes from the
Tonle Sap, a flood zone in the Mekong which would be
reduced or ended by upstream dams. In the lower
Mekong, 60-70 million people depend upon fish for
Downstream of Dams
• Loss of food security.
• Species diversity, biological productivity, including
grasses for grazing. Water and nutrients flood
plain production systems can disappear taking
with them human livelihoods.
• Which fish are valued and for whom? Flood
plains are more productive than lakes behind
dams. Loss of biodiversity, reservoirs don’t
compensate for loss of riverine catches.
Downstream Issues
• Downstream fisheries – scale, composition,
dependence and value of the resource over
large landscapes making data collection
difficult and expensive. Subsistence fisheries,
often not of interest or concern plus
difficulties in data collection. Knowledge of
fish species.
Upstream Issues
Resettlement – populations who lose land,
homes to the lake created behind dam
Issues in resettlement:
Loss of homes
Loss of sacred sites
Loss of Communities
Compensation – World Bank Guidelines but
rarely followed
China and India
• In 1949 China had less than 100 large dams
• 2010 China had 22,000 dams plus a large
bureaucracy, engineering companies,
hydrologists, engineers
• India now has over 4,000 large dams and the
number is growing quickly
• The United States in comparison has around
6,000 but dam building has stopped
Thinking about the political ecology of Dams
• 1. biophysical – how dams produce changes in the aquatic
ecosystems including fisheries, vegetation, water quality,
coastal wetlands, et al. these changes are connected to
current social and power relationships,
• 2. Socio-economic: Loss of environmental resources,
homes, for many people, loss of community, burial sites,
shrines. social and power relationships between actors
• 3. Power – whose power is increased, whose decreased
through dam building
• 4. Geopolitical – relationship between countries and
regions within countries
Change in factors affecting large dams:
• Rise in global price of oil
• Relative economic advantage of nonfossil fuel produced
• Use of environmental arguments for hydropower.
• Hydropower expansion won’t hurt fisheries since already
declining – used in support of dam construction
• Flows won’t be affected by damming
• Chinese dam expertise, want to build dams, that’s what
dam building companies do!
• Shift from public construction to private, loss of influence
of NGOs. Equator Principles
• Government as regulator.
World Commission on Dams
• International Union for the Conservation of
Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the World
Bank, and 38 international specialists met in April
1997 to plan.
• Meeting included International Rivers Network
(U.S.), and anti-dam movements from India and
• Formed an independent WCD to study a sample
of dams, and make recommendations for future
Commissioned reports
Published findings, findings reviewed
Major conferences, meetings to distribute results
End of WCD
Carried on by UNEP
Division in response to report and its
• China and India rejected as did the International
Hydropower Association. Too little emphasis on
the benefits of large dams
WCD responses
• UN Agencies and several European
governments supported
• World Bank didn’t accept
• Third World Water Forum in Kyoto dominated
by the Managing Director of the IMF and
presidents of African, Asian, and InterAmerican development banks ignored WCD in
their recommendations
7 Strategic Priorities from WCD
1. Gaining Public Acceptance
2. Comprehensive Options Assessment
3. Addressing Existing Dams – solve their problems
before building new ones
4. Sustaining rivers and livelihoods
5. Recognizing entitlements and sharing benefits
6. Ensuring Compliance (with all economic, social,
environmental, requirements)
7. Sharing rivers for peace, development and
Gibe 3 Dam
• Location 300 km (190 miles) southwest of Addis Ababa, on the Omo
• Cost €1.55 billion (at current exchange rate, about US$2.11 billion).
Project costs have increased 11% since 2006.
• Dam Design: Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC) gravity dam 243 meters
(787 feet) tall – the tallest dam in Africa
• Reservoir: Storage capacity: 11.75 billion m3 (415 billion ft3)
• Surface: 211 km2 (84 miles2) Length: 151 km (94 miles)
• Transmission Line A 65-km-long (40 mile) 400 KV transmission line; a
new substation will be built.
• Electricity 1,870 MW (6,500 GWh/yr), more than doubling the country’s
current installed capacity.
• Original Timeline 2006: Construction began 2011: First power 2012: Fully
Map of Omo River and Gibe Dams
Lake Turkana
Gibe 3 Dam
• The Omo is a lifeline for 100,000 tribal people in Ethiopia and Kenya, as
well as many others who rely on Lake Turkana for their livelihood. None of
them have been properly consulted about the dam, which will
fundamentally alter the river’s flood pattern and jeopardize the tribes’
sophisticated flood retreat cultivation methods.
• The dam, called Gibe 3, is being built across the Omo River which
originates in Ethiopia and is the major source for Kenya’s famous Lake
• Kenyans have demonstrated against a hydroelectric mega-dam being built
in neighbouring Ethiopia, over fears that it will devastate hundreds of
thousands of lives in both countries.
• Led by the organization Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT), the protesters
marched this week to the Chinese embassy in Kenya, demanding Chinese
banks and companies drop their support for the dam.
Gibe 3 Dam
• The European Investment Bank and the African Development
Bank have both decided not to fund Gibe 3. Ethiopia is looking
toward China to make up some of the funding shortfall; the
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the Exim Bank of
China are both involved in aspects of the project. They have
loaned 500 million U.S. $
• FoLT, together with Survival, the Campaign for the Reform of
the World Bank, International Rivers and the Counter Balance
coalition, are gathering a petition to stop the dam.
What’s being hidden in the project?
• Allocation of the ‘tribal’ lands to the
government and to multinational companies
to grow sugar and cotton among other
irrigated crops.
• Requires expropriation of current farming and
pastoral lands
• No currrent budget for compensation
• Changes flows into Lake Turkana
Global political ecological question
• Can we sustain human life as we engage in
capital accumulation appropriating and
diminishing the stock upon which human life
depends? This is the global political ecological
question. One way of putting it for Marxists is
the following:
capitalism versus nature?
Capital’s insatiable appetite for ever-higher levels of profit
and accumulation is reinforced by the domination of
exchange value over use value, competition and the
concentration and centralization of capital. The incessant
accumulation amplifies the social metabolism of society,
increasing the demands placed on nature.
New technologies are used above all to expand
production and to lower labor costs. Capital’s social
metabolism is increasingly in contradiction with the
natural metabolism, producing various metabolic rifts and
forms of ecological degradation that have and continue to
threaten the ecosystems upon which life depends.

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