Large dams, climate change and forced evictions

23 Jan

Dam building companies are looking to gain new subsidies through carbon financing. At the same time, they refuse to avoid projects which involve forced evictions.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 90, January 2005.




The hydropower industry has long relied on subsidies to build large dams. Hydropower proponents are now promoting dams as “climate friendly” in a desperate attempt to gain carbon financing for dams.

The International Hydropower Association (IHA), together with the World Wind Energy Association and the International Solar Energy Society, has formed the International Renewable Energy Alliance (IREA). IREA held a side event during the international climate change meeting in Buenos Aires in December 2004.

Chairing the meeting was Peter Rae, “convenor” of IREA and a board member of the IHA. For 90 minutes the audience listened politely while representatives from the wind, solar and hydropower industries did their best to persuade us that profits were of marginal interest and their companies really just wanted to save the planet. Robert Dixon, of the US Department of Energy said nothing that might have challenged this view. Henk Sa from EcoSecurities gave a presentation on the intricacies of carbon finance using the flexible mechanisms. The less profitable a project is the better in terms of financing through the clean development mechanism, according to Sa. “For hydro the clean development mechanism is a factor in making the project profitable,” he said.

IHA claims that hydropower produces very few greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuel generating options. However, IHA’s claims ignore a growing body of evidence which shows that dams and reservoirs in the lowland tropics are significant sources of methane. Patrick McCully of International Rivers Network has analysed IHA’s claims and concludes that they are “variously irrelevant, incomplete or simply wrong.” More than 260 organisations have signed on to IRN’s declaration to exclude large hydro from renewable energy initiatives.

After IREA’s presentations came a chance to ask questions. Patrick McCully started an eloquent description of the problems caused by large hydropower dams. IREA’s convenor, Peter Rae, interrupted him. “Will there be a question or are you just making a statement?” he asked.

Among the questions that McCully asked the panel was whether the hydropower companies who are members of IREA would agree in future not to take part in building dams which involve forced evictions. No one on the panel answered the question.

I thought I’d ask the question again. Peter Rae interrupted me and told me that I should not bother asking any questions that have already been asked. I ignored Rae and asked, “Will the hydropower companies in IREA agree not to take part in building dams which involve forced evictions?”

Rae replied, making no attempt to answer the question. I pointed out that all I wanted was a simple yes or no answer to the question. “I refuse to be dictated to by you”, Rae snapped. Behind me, a member of the audience said, “That sounds like a no to me.”

Instead of answering McCully’s question about forced evictions, Rae talked about IHA’s sustainability guidelines, which the association formally adopted in November 2003. “The World Commission on Dams was a good start, and IHA has gone beyond the WCD recommendations,” Rae explained.

When the World Commission on Dams process was completed in November 2000, the resulting document was more than 400 pages long. The report was backed up by two years of case studies, discussions and meetings. The report concludes with seven strategic priorities and a set of guidelines for good practice.

Not surprisingly, some people in the dam building industry did not like the results. “We don’t like the World Commission guidelines at all,” Konrad Attengruber of VA TECH HYDRO, an Austrian electomechanical equipment company and a member of IHA, told me in June 2002.

The World Commission on Dams recommendations include the principle of free, prior and informed consent for Indigenous Peoples. This gives Indigenous Peoples the right to refuse to allow proposed dams which might affect their land. It also gives them the power to negotiate the conditions under which a project can go ahead. The word “indigenous” appears only once in IHA’s sustainability guidelines in a section discussing the management of existing dams. Free, prior and informed consent is not mentioned at all.

IHA’s sustainable guidelines do mention forced eviction, although not in so many words: “Where population displacement is necessary, comprehensive resettlement and rehabilitation plans need to be developed and implemented in consultation with the affected population.”

The construction of large dams has led to the eviction of tens of millions of people worldwide. No one knows the exact figure. The hydropower industry gives every indication that it intends to carry on evicting people from their homes. The reason that Peter Rae and the other IREA members on the panel in Buenos Aires were reluctant to discuss forced eviction is simple. IHA’s sustainability guidelines do not exclude forced eviction.

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