Every year, the world’s water experts meet in Stockholm for World Water Week. Yesterday, Sweden’s King Carl Gustav presented the city’s prestigious Water Prize to John Briscoe, a former water manager at the World Bank. After many years spent in the international water bureaucracy, Briscoe says that he is “controversial and proud of it”. Indeed, the jury’s choice raises contentious questions about dams and their alternatives.
Since the turn of the century, John Briscoe has been the world’s pre-eminent crusader for large dams in Africa and other continents. In the 20th century, Europe developed approximately 80 percent of its hydropower potential, while Africa has still only exploited 8 percent of its own. It would be hypocritical, Briscoe contends, to withhold funds for more dam building in Africa now.
Africa has tried to follow Europe’s path to industrial development before. With funding and advice from the World Bank and other institutions, newly independent governments built large dams that were supposed to industrialise and modernise their countries in the 1960s and 1970s. The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi, the Akosombo Dam on the Volta and the Inga 1 and 2 dams on the Congo River are the most prominent examples of this approach.
Mega-dams have not turned out to be a silver bullet, but a big albatross on Africa’s development. Their costs spiraled out of control creating massive debt burdens, while their performance did not live up to the expectations. Their benefits were concentrated on mining companies and urban middle classes, while the rural population has been left high and dry. Africa has become the world region that is most dependent on hydropower. As rainfalls are becoming ever less reliable, this has made the continent highly vulnerable to climate change.
In 2008, mining companies consumed more electricity than the whole population in Sub-Saharan Africa. After tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid have been spent on energy projects, 69 percent of the continent’s population continues to live in the dark. Prioritising the needs of mining companies and big cities over the rural populations, the World Bank’s latest dam projects in Africa will further entrench this energy apartheid.