04 April 2012

That dam zombie is back

At the World Water Forum in Marseille, I attended the "High Level Panel: Water Infrastructure for Development in Large Countries" in which speakers from China, Brazil, Mexico, the US and the World Bank gave their "state of the art" opinions, mostly on dams.

My (poor) recording of the speakers [2 hrs, 43MB MP3] is more complete than official videos that only lasted a few minutes here and there...

Roger Lanoue, representing the "official opposition," gave some good comments (again, listen to the MP3 to hear them all).

What most shocked and surprised me (I am still not cynical enough it seems) were the statements by Rachel Kyte of the World Bank (video of her but not the statements; listen at 1 hr 10 min on the MP3). She said (paraphrasing) that the Bank will support large scale hydropower as a response to climate change, to promote green growth, improve access to all, and fill a portfolio of sustainable energy -- a list of all things to all people that the World Bank needed to respond to especially when "access to project financing dried up in the financial crisis and the Bank had to step in, to lend."

I was horrified, not just to hear that the Bank is willing to take financial risks that others were not willing to take, but also to hear that BIG DAMS are back on the agenda. From an economic perspective, these dams are going to have worse benefit/cost ratios than existing dams (given our habit of building good projects first). From an environmental perspective, these dams are going to exacerbate the water cycle in extremes (I confirmed this with a nearby hydrologist, who said that dams which fail big when they fail offer a poor substitute to allowing natural flood plains to absorb excess water, let alone let the hydrological cycle run its course.)

I was able to ask a related question -- "why not have an anti-dam program" -- at one hr 39 min. I used the example of breaching Aswan High Dam (previous post), as a means of increasing water supply (25 percent of the water in Lake Nasser evaporates every year), improving soil fertility, healing the Nile Delta, and equalizing the distribution of water among farmers. (Note that "natural fertility" means less fertilizer, which is manufactured with natural gas). These benefits would come at a cost to "clean green power," but Egypt already wastes so much energy by subsidizing it (at a cost of 20 percent of the government budget!). The government could pay for breaching Aswan by ending the subsidies and see no shortages due to a decrease in demand with the increase in energy prices :).

I was interested to hear that the only person who gave my question a reasonable answer was Steve Stockton of USACE. He mentioned the possibility that some dams would need to be decommissioned. Although I wouldn't expect such an answer from a Brazilian minister, I was displeased to hear nothing from Kyte.

Bottom Line: The World Bank is going to waste a flood of money on dams that destroy the environment and do little to increase energy, economic or national security -- "because we must." Consulting engineers, fixers and corrupt politicians must be salivating.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am shocked to hear that. The World Bank is usually such a bastion of global ecological support!