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PGM Thema

MARCUS NSSER
Political Ecology of Large Dams:
a Critical Review with 4 figures
Dedicated to Prof. Dr. ECKART EHLERS
on the occasion of his 65th birthday

Politische kologie von Hochdmmen: Ein kritischer berblick


Zusammenfassung: Die Diskussion ber die weit reichenden kologischen Wirkungen und soziokonomischen Konsequenzen
groer Staudammvorhaben wird seit Jahrzehnten kontrovers gefhrt. Insbesondere in den Lndern des Sdens sind Bau und
Betrieb groer Staudammprojekte mit fundamentalen Entwicklungsfragen verknpft. In der gegenwrtigen Diskussion gelten
Groprojekte wie der Sardar-Sarovar-Damm in Indien oder das Drei-Schluchten-Projekt in China als prominente Symbole in die-
sem Konflikt. Mangelnde Umweltvertrglichkeit sowie ungengende materielle Kompensation und fehlende konomische Per-
spektiven fr die von Umsiedlungsmanahmen betroffenen Bevlkerungsgruppen bilden die wichtigsten Probleme. Trotz der
anhaltenden Kontroverse um Grodmme wird die Debatte zwischen Befrwortern und Gegnern in den letzten Jahren auch
durch Bemhungen um gemeinsame Lsungen und die Suche nach einem Ausweg aus dem Dilemma unterschiedlicher Ent-
wicklungsperspektiven gekennzeichnet. Der vorliegende Beitrag beleuchtet den gegenwrtigen Diskussionsstand und zeigt die
wesentlichen Umwelt- und Entwicklungsprobleme am Beispiel des Wasserbauprojektes im Hochland von Lesotho (LHWP), eines
der grten technischen Infrastrukturprojekte im subsaharischen Afrika.
Schlsselwrter: Staudmme, Wassernutzung, Entwicklung, Umweltfolgen, Umweltkonflikte, Politische kologie, Lesotho,
Sdafrika
Abstract: Ecological impact and social consequences of large dam projects are discussed in a highly controversial manner.
Particularly in the countries of the South, construction and operation of large dams are among the most prestigious but also
sensitive development issues. Presently, mega-projects such as the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India or the Three Gorges Project
in China serve as prominent symbols of the conflict. Economic interests of dam-building for hydropower and water supply are
generally linked to far-reaching and often negative environmental and social consequences. Among the most common socio-
economic problems are insufficient material compensation to people adversely affected or dislocated by dam-building and the
subsequent lack of economic perspectives available to many rural communities. Despite ongoing controversy over large dam
projects, the discussion of the last years is also characterized by efforts to find common ground between advocates and op-
ponents, and to possibly find a way out of the dilemma of different development perspectives. This paper reviews the con-
temporary discussion on large dams. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), the largest civil engineering and infrastructure
project in sub-Saharan Africa, is used as an example to illustrate some of the most important environmental and developmental
issues.
Keywords: Dams, water use, development, environmental impacts, environmental conflicts, political ecology, Lesotho, South
Africa

1. Introduction: problems and the Second World War, many large dams were built in
controversial perspectives the Soviet Union, following STALINS concept of a trans-
formation of nature into a machine for the communist
Large dams are among the greatest single structures built state. Subsequently, widespread construction of large
by humanity. They serve as powerful symbols of mod- dams started in the developing countries, with India and
ernization, national prestige, and of human dominance China as the most prominent examples of dam-building
over nature (MCCULLY 1996). Despite the long history of nations (MCCULLY 1996, GLEICK 1998). By the year 2000,
water management in human civilization by means of the world has built over 45,000 large dams and ap-
dams and reservoirs, extensive construction of large proximately 500,000 km2 of land surface has been arti-
dams did not commence until the middle of the twen- ficially inundated by reservoirs (International Commis-
tieth century. Large dam-building paralleled with im- sion on Large Dams 1998, World Commission on Dams
provements in engineering skills, construction technol- 2000). Generation of hydropower is among the most
ogy and progress in hydrologic analysis. The big dam prominent purposes of large dam construction. In the
era started in the United States with the construction of 1990s, about 640,000 megawatts of installed hydro-
Hoover Dam on the Colorado River in the 1930s. After electric capacity produced nearly 20 % of the worlds

20 Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, 147, 2003 / 1


Entwicklungsforschung
total supply of electricity (GLEICK 1998). Other basic pur-
Large dams: classificatory aspects and definitions
poses of large dams include the seasonal or annual
Dams and reservoirs serve a variety of functions. The most
storage of water for human consumption, agrarian and
important purposes are irrigation, water supply, hydro-
industrial production and for the reduction of flood power generation, flood control and navigation. Multi-pur-
peaks. pose dams meet at least two of these objectives. The two
Besides their global economic importance, large main categories of dams are reservoir storage projects,
dams have become the focus of intense debate be- which impound water for seasonal or annual storage and
cause of their frequently severe environmental impact run-of-river dams, which create a hydraulic head in the
river to divert some portion of the drainage to a canal or
and socioeconomic consequences. Whilst advocates of
power station. There are three main types of dam design,
dam construction generally stress arguments of mod- embankment, gravity and arch, which are selected mainly
ernization, technological progress and water supply in according to site topography and geological setting. Em-
drought-prone regions as incentives for regional or na- bankment dams (e. g. Nurek in Tajikistan, Tarbela in Paki-
tional economic development, opponents emphasize a stan, Tehri in India, Mohale in Lesotho) are built of exca-
whole range of negative environmental aspects and high vated natural materials and they are usually triangular in
cross-section. These most massive structures can be con-
socioeconomic and political costs of involuntary reset- structed on soft and unstable riverbeds because their broad
tlement. Depending on their specific mode of opera- base distributes weight over a wide area. Gravity dams
tion, the main environmental impacts of dams include (e. g. Grande Dixence in Switzerland, Bhakra in India) are
fragmentation of riverine ecosystems, changes in flow constructed of concrete and / or masonry. The basically
patterns, modification of erosion and deposition proces- thick walls mainly rely on their own weight and internal
strength for stability. Mostly they are built across relatively
ses, species extinction in freshwater and wildlife habi-
narrow valleys with firm bedrock. Concrete arch structures
tats, and loss of water by evaporation and contamina- (e. g. Katse in Lesotho) with their curved heads facing up-
tion. The social costs of involuntary resettlement due to stream are limited to narrow canyons with strong rock walls.
large-scale hydro projects are as dramatic as the eco- Important structural features of dams are spillways that
logical ones. It is estimated that 40 80 million people are used to discharge water when the reservoir threatens
worldwide are forced of their settlements, agricultural to become dangerously high. The tailrace is a pipe or chan-
nel through which turbined water is discharged into a river
lands, forests and other resources due to dam related
downstream from a dam.
flooding (World Commission on Dams 2000). In addition In order to define large dams, the International Commis-
to the displaced population, other people affected by sion on Large Dams (ICOLD), offers a set of criteria. A large
dam construction include rural dwellers residing down- dam is one whose height exceeds 15 m or whose height is
stream from such dams. They are often neglected in proj- between 10 and 15 m, if it meets at least one of the follow-
ect assessments because it is assumed that they will ing conditions: the crest length of the dam is not less than
500 m, the spillway discharge potential exceeds 2,000 m3
benefit from the project; however, there are frequently per second; or the reservoir volume is not less than 1 mil-
significant negative downstream impacts (SCUDDER 1997). lion m3. According to these criteria, there are about 45,000
A large number of case studies in developing countries large dams, all but 5,000 of them built since 1950. A major
provide evidence that the adverse impacts of large dams dam is defined by ICOLD as a dam meeting at least one of
have fallen disproportionately on subsistence farmers, the following four requirements: the dam is at least 150 m
high, the dam volume exceeds 15 million m3; the reservoir
indigenous peoples, and ethnic minorities, who often
storage capacity exceeds 25 billion m3; or the installed elec-
rely on common property regimes of resource utilization. trical generation capacity is at least 1000 megawatts. With
Reservoirs inundate floodplain soils, woodlands, wild- a height of 300 m, the Nurek Dam in Tajikistan, completed
life, fisheries and forests, which many local communi- in 1980, is currently the worlds highest dam. The Volta Res-
ties subsist and depend on to secure their livelihoods. ervoir behind Akosombo Dam in Ghana forms the largest
Especially in mountain environments, dams force dis- artificial lake on Earth (8,500 km2). It flooded more than
5 % of the country and displaced 80,000 people (MCCULLY
placed inhabitants into the upper valleys, where they may
1996, 2001, GLEICK 1998, World Commission on Dams
cause further degradation of natural resources. More- 2000).
over, drastic natural hazards include reservoir-induced
seismicity which may lead to dam collapse and cata-
strophic floods (CHAO 1995).
The severity of the aforementioned impacts have as Brazils Tucurui Dam, Pakistans Tarbela Dam and
inevitably generated long lasting conflicts concerning Thailands Pak Mun Dam are discussed in detailed case
specific results of dam-building and general develop- studies by the World Commission on Dams (2000). Ear-
ment perspectives associated with the construction of lier projects such as the Aswan High Dam in Egypt (com-
large dams. Prominent examples of current controversy pleted 1970) or the Akosombo Dam in Ghana (com-
are the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River in pleted 1965) remain contentious in terms of their long-
China (FEARNSIDE 1988, GLEICK 1998, MCCULLY 2001), the term impacts on the environment, demography and
Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in India economy of their surrounding regions. A number of crit-
(MORSE & BERGER 1992, GADGIL & GUHA 1994), the Ralco ical analyses and overviews on the dam-building de-
Dam on the BioBio River in Chile (SEARS & BRAGG 1987, bate have been published during the past 20 years (e. g.
ORREGO 1997) and the Southeast Anatolia Project in GOLDSMITH & HILDYARD 1984, PETTS 1984, MCCULLY 1996,
Turkey (KTEM 2002). Other controversial projects such 2001).

2003 Justus Perthes Verlag Gotha GmbH 21


NSSER

2. The main actors National states and governments are among the most
important actors in large dam planning. In many cases,
in the large dam debate
large dams have become symbols of nation-building in
The deep-seated differences between various interest developing countries, or icons of the ruling autocratic
groups cannot be simplified as modernized hydro poli- regimes. Powerful parastatal agencies and bureaucratic
tics versus environmental fundamentalism. Analyzing the institutions were established in order to plan and realize
conflicts and development models associated with dam such big projects (e. g. Pakistans Water and Power De-
construction using an actor-orientated approach of po- velopment Authority, Lesotho Highlands Development
litical ecology seems more appropriate (e. g. BLAIKIE 1995, Authority). Apparently, such centralized authorities and
1999, BRYANT & BAILEY 1997, BRYANT 1999). The contro- bureaucracies have a vital self-interest to continue their
versy between advocates and opponents of large dams dam-building business for the purpose of maintaining
takes place in a politicised environment (Fig. 1). Central their power and prestige. The dam-building industry, con-
to the concept of a politicised environment (BRYANT & sisting of multinational engineering, consultant, equip-
BAILEY 1997) is the recognition that environmental prob- ment manufacture and construction corporations is the
lems and various dimensions of environmental conflicts most important driving force outside the developing
cannot be understood in isolation from the political and countries. These companies and professional groups are
economic context within which they emerge. Thus, prob- organized in associations such as the International Com-
lem-orientated studies need to focus on the role of place- mission on Large Dams (ICOLD), established in 1928.
based and non-place-based actors involved in environ- The leading association constitutes an active lobby for
mental change and land use conflicts. The key types of the propagation of dams by holding international meet-
actors in the discussion on large dams are national ings and congresses and by the creation of technical
states and governmental institutions, dam-building in- committees of experts in dam-building. Advantages of
dustry associations and engineering companies, multi- technology transfer and subsequent economic progress
lateral funding institutions, environmental non-govern- are frequently expressed motivations for dam-building
mental activist groups, and the adversely affected peo- in developing countries. Feasibility studies and environ-
ple. Both advocates and opponents of large dams form mental impact assessments are carried out by consult-
coalitions in order to strengthen their position and influ- ant companies, some of which are also directly involved
ence in the planning and implementation phase and to in dam-building. Dependent electricity-intensive indus-
reinforce their perspective. tries (i. e. aluminium smelters) and agribusiness inter-
ests are intimately linked to the dam-
building lobby.
Fig. 1 The main actors in the controversial large dam debate
Die Hauptakteure in der kontroversen Debatte um groe Staudmme The World Bank is the most im-
portant international public institution
and multilateral financing agency in
Advocates the dam-building industry. During the
National states past decades, the World Bank ap-
Governments
Multinational Multilateral proved loan packages for a large
Bureaucratic institutions
dam-building industry funding institutions number of dams, including some of
Industry associations World Bank
Manufacture and construction Economic
relations
Economic
relations
Development banks the worlds most controversial mega-
corporations
Engineering companies Modernization Aid and export
credit agencies projects. In order to react to the mas-
Consultants Nation-building Modernization
Power and prestige
sive and well-publicised protests of
Technology transfer Economic development
environmental non-governmental or-
cised environment
P o liti
ganizations and social activist groups,
Feasibility studies Cost-benefit analyses
Environmental the Operations Evaluation Depart-
impact assessments
ment (OED) of the World Bank be-
gan a review of large dam projects
Conflicts Conflicts
completed between 1960 and 1995
(World Bank 1996). The dams were
Controversy Controversy classified according to their eco-
nomic justification. Further, it was
Requirements for independent Requirements for changes evaluated whether or not the dams
reviews of dam projects in dam-funding policy
satisfied the impact mitigation and
Requirements for environmental Requirements for improved
mitigation measures
Declarations
material compensation management policies existing at the
Public anti-dam time of their approval, and whether
campaigns
Non-governmental Adversely affected they could have been planned so as
organizations people
Environmental, human rights
Support oustees
to satisfy the more demanding poli-
and social activist groups
Grassroots actors
Social movements
Displaced population cies that the World Bank had intro-
Opponents duced over the intervening years.
Whereas 90 % of the dams reviewed

22 Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, 147, 2003 / 1


Political Ecology of Large Dams: a Critical Review

28 00 E FOURIESBURG Outlet 29 00 E
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27 00 E 28 00 E

Fig. 2 The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP; Sources: Lesotho Government 1994, LHDA 1995, MAFAKANE 1999; Cartography:
G. BRUER-JUX, M. NSSER)
Das Lesotho-Hochland-Wasserprojekt (LHWP; Quellen: Lesotho Government 1994, LHDA 1995, MAFAKANE 1999; Kartographie:
G. BRUER-JUX, M. NSSER)

met the standards applicable at the time of approval, America, as well as the bilateral aid and export credit
only about 25 % were implemented so as to comply agencies of most industrialized countries.
with the World Banks current guidelines and policies. Since the mid-1980s, the international anti-dam move-
On the other hand, the review concluded that mitigation ment, a network of environmental and human rights
of the adverse social and environmental consequences groups, plays an important role in the debate. Their
of large dams would have been feasible and economi- basic demands include independent impact assess-
cally justified in roughly 75 % of the cases (World Bank ments of projects and participation of affected people
1996, DORCEY et al. 1997). As a significant consequence in the planning process. Working together with local
of recent policy changes, the World Bank has cut the groups, these grassroots actors are able to launch
number of dams it is funding to well under half of its peak powerful public opposition campaigns and declarations
level of the early 1980s (MCCULLY 2001). Other major fund- such as the Manibeli Declaration (1994), which calls for
ing institutions involved in dam-building are the multi- a moratorium on World Bank funding of large dams
lateral development banks for Africa, Asia and Latin until a number of conditions are met. Non-governmen-

2003 Justus Perthes Verlag Gotha GmbH 23


NSSER

tal organization such as the International Rivers Network hydro-electric power and considerable infrastructure for
(IRN, www.irn.org) based in Berkeley and Narmada Lesotho. LHWP-related road building und upgrading in-
Bachao Andolan (save the Narmada Movement) in India cludes the Southern Access Road from Thaba Tseka to
occupy key positions in this context. The remaining ma- the Katse Dam and the Northern Access Road from the
jor actors in the debate include the adversely affected lowlands to the Katse site (Fig. 2). Infrastructure facili-
people who suffer negative economic, social and cul- ties of the project also comprise large base camps for
tural effects by construction works, impoundment, and labourers and contractors working at the construction
alteration of fluvial systems. Social scientists increas- sites and electric power transmission lines (Fig. 3).
ingly use the term oustees for the displaced popula- The concept of capturing Lesothos rainfall through
tions. dams and transferring the water to the metropolitan
Despite ongoing controversy between advocates and heartland of South Africa can be traced as far back as
opponents of large dam projects, discussion during the the mid-1950s. After diverse negotiations, South Afri-
last years is also characterized by efforts to build a com- cas apartheid government and a military regime in Le-
mon understanding among stakeholders and to find a sotho signed the treaty on the LHWP in 1986 (HORTA
way out of the dilemma of different development per- 1995). The project consists of four proposed phases,
spectives. Founded in 1997, the World Commission on intended to successively increase water supply by inte-
Dams (WCD, www.dams.org) addresses the conflicting grating further components. Construction started in
viewpoints on large dams. The participating represent- 1991, with phase 1 A comprising the Katse Dam (Figs. 3
atives of governments, industry, financial institutions, and 4) and reservoir (1,950 million m3) in the central high-
non-governmental organizations and affected peoples lands, an 82 km transfer and delivery tunnel system reach-
organizations comprise the main actors in the debate. ing to the Ash River across the border in South Africa,
The commissions final report (World Commission on and the Muela hydropower plant (72 MW). This phase
Dams 2000) provides the first comprehensive global and was commissioned in 1998 and an average of 17m3 / sec
independent review of the performance and impacts of water is now being delivered to South Africa. Phase 1 B,
dams and presents a new framework for water and en- comprising Mohale Dam and reservoir (958 million m3),
ergy resources development with criteria, guidelines and some 40 km south-west of Katse, a 32 km transfer tun-
procedures for future decision-making. nel between Mohale and Katse reservoirs, and a diver-
sion weir on the Matsoku River are under construction
(Fig. 2). Completion of these components is scheduled
3. The mountain Kingdom of Lesotho: for 2003. Further project phases will involve the con-
water tower for southern Africa struction of additional large dams on the lower reaches
of the Senqu River, together with a series of pumping
The case of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) plants and interconnecting water conveyance tunnels.
between the landlocked mountain Kingdom of Lesotho If all phases would be completed in 2020, the scheme
and the Republic of South Africa may serve as a case would transfer over 70 m3 of water every second to
study to illustrate the general set of economic and po- South Africa and the total cost is expected to exceed
litical problems associated with large dams. The project U.S. $ 8 billion. However, the viability of the forthcom-
is one of the worlds largest and most sophisticated in- ing phases will be reconsidered as growing concern
ter-basin water transfer schemes currently under con- about the serious economical, social and ecological ef-
struction. The Lesotho Highlands receive the highest fects has been expressed by various actors, including
rainfall in the region and are the origin of some of the the World Bank.
most important rivers in southern Africa. By damming The LHWP is managed by the Lesotho Highlands
the headwaters of the southwest-flowing Senqu River Development Authority (LHDA), which is responsible for
(Orange River in South Africa), the LHWP is designed to resettlement and compensation issues, environmental
divert about 50 % of the water from the Senqu basin protection, and overall construction management. In an
northwards into the Vaal River system for use in Gau- effort to prevent the permanent impoverishment of dis-
teng, the metropolitan and industrial heartland of South placed people, the governments of South Africa and
Africa. Located ca. 300 km north of Lesotho, Gauteng Lesotho promised that affected people will be assisted
includes the major cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, to maintain a standard of living which is not inferior to
containing about half of South Africas industry and gen- that obtained at the time of first disturbance (LHDA
erating almost 80 % of the nations mining output (NEL & 1990). Critics of the controversial highland-lowland proj-
ILLGNER 2001, NSSER 2001). ect, mostly by non-governmental organizations, point
The main objective of the World Bank supported to a number of unsolved problems. These include the
multi-purpose LHWP is to ensure sufficient water sup- loss of arable or grazing land and the involuntary reset-
ply for urban expansion and industrial development in tlement of a large number of people. Formerly remote
South Africa. On the other hand, royalties from the sale mountain communities are still faced with dramatic
of water (called white gold by project authorities) will changes in livelihood conditions, combined with insuf-
be the largest single source of foreign exchange for Le- ficient and delayed compensation. Evidence suggests
sotho. Furthermore, the project is designed to provide that standards of living for the majority of project-af-

24 Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, 147, 2003 / 1


Political Ecology of Large Dams: a Critical Review

Fig. 3 Katse Reservoir is located in the Lesotho Highlands. Sophisticated technology of dam construction and surrounding infrastruc-
ture contrast vividly to the traditional settlement and land use patterns (Photo: NSSER, July 2002).
Der Katse-Stausee liegt im Hochland von Lesotho. Hoch entwickelte Technologie im Bereich des Staudammbaus und umgebende Infra-
struktureinrichtungen bilden einen starken Kontrast zu traditionellen Siedlungs- und Landnutzungsmustern (Foto: NSSER, Juli 2002).

Fig. 4 With a height of 185 m and a crest length of 710 m, the Katse Dam is the highest dam in Africa and one of the most spec-
tacular arch structures of its type in the world (Photo: NSSER, September 2000).
Mit einer Hhe von 185 m und einer Kronenlnge von 710 m bildet der Katse-Damm den hchsten Damm Afrikas und eine der weltweit
spektakulrsten Bogenstrukturen dieses Dammtyps (Foto: NSSER, September 2000).

2003 Justus Perthes Verlag Gotha GmbH 25


NSSER

fected people are in fact declining. Meanwhile, few af- (WCD) propagate equity, efficiency, accountability, sus-
fected people have been able to re-establish livelihoods, tainability and participatory decision-making. In weight-
and many displaced people have been resettled with- ing, WCD postulates that governments should give the
out access to safe drinking water and other basic re- same significance to social and environmental aspects
sources (GLEICK 1998). Despite explicit requirements im- as to technical, economic and financial factors. It also
plemented in the recent World Bank policy, resettled calls for negotiations in which all stakeholders should
people received no compensation prior to their displace- have equal opportunities to influence decisions from the
ment. The loss of natural resources such as grazing beginning of the planning process. Whether or not the
land, fuel wood and thatch grasses was not adequately economic benefits provided by increased generation of
compensated. Such concerns have led to large pro- electricity or improved water supply justify environmen-
tests over the large dams in Lesotho. The realisation of tal impacts and social costs of dam-building, ultimately
the aforementioned additional phases is thus bound to remains a political decision. The policy of the World
be contentious. Bank towards specific large dams (e. g. withdraw fund-
ing for Sardar Sarovar in 1993) demonstrates their flex-
ible response strategy because of increasing public pres-
4. Conclusions and perspectives sure.
The case study of the Lesotho Highlands Water Proj-
To meet the challenge of understanding the complexity ect demonstrates prominent economic and political in-
of the large dams debate, it is necessary to focus on the equities between states. The LHWP has brought water
different development perspectives of the main advo- revenues, hydro-electric power and major infrastruc-
cates and opponents of dam-building. The actor-orien- ture to Lesotho, and water to Gauteng in South Africa.
tated approach of political ecology provides a frame- While the benefits to South Africa are clear, the moun-
work to identify the character and scope of the contro- tain people of Lesotho have lost arable and grazing land.
versy between bureaucratic state agencies and techno- Many remote mountain communities have experienced
cratic engineering companies on the one hand and en- drastic negative changes in livelihood conditions. Ade-
vironmental, non-governmental activist groups and ad- quate compensation and appropriate subsistence strat-
versely affected people on the other. Whether or not to egies for displaced people are largely absent. Evaluat-
construct a dam requires careful consideration and bal- ing the project against the guidelines and criteria of the
ancing of costs and benefits. Dam-planning implies World Commission on Dams provides a negative result.
adequate information, transparency and intense debate Therefore, the completion of projected phases in the
by the affected people and the general public. The guide- future remains contentious, mainly due to the envisaged
lines and criteria of the World Commission on Dams political and social conflicts.

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