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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Damming the Developing World

Air Date: Week of

Tucurui dam in Brazil. (Courtesy of International Rivers)

While interest in building hydro-electric dams is waning in the United States, developing nations are increasingly turning to their rivers to power their growing economies. Hydropower is finding financial help from China and carbon offset traders, but critics question the environmental and societal advantages of large-scale dams. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with International Rivers Director Patrick McCully about dams in the developing world.


GELLERMAN: Well the World Bank used to finance many big dam projects, but citizen action and environmental concerns have changed that policy. Yet many developing nations still see hydropower as an untapped renewable source of clean energy. International Rivers monitors dam building around the world. Patrick McCully is executive director of the conservation group, and he says there’s no shortage of cash to fund big dam projects.

MCCULLY: What’s happened is that countries like Brazil, India, China, now they have a lot more of their own resources so they don’t need international money so much, and one other really major factor in dam building around the world at the moment is that China actually is going around the world and writing checks for big dams without any types of environmental or social policies, and in many ways replacing the role that the World Bank and other Western funders used to play.

Brazil first proposed damming the Xingu River in the Amazon Basin in the 1970s. After canceling previous plans, it now plans to build the Belo Monte Dam, what could be the world’s third largest dam when built.
Credit: (Courtesy of International Rivers)

GELLERMAN: Why would a country like China be interested in financing these kind of projects?

MCCULLY: Partly it’s promoting their own industries. So when China is funding, for example, a big dam in Sudan that they’ve been building which is very controversial, and their Chinese construction companies get all the contracts, so that’s an obvious reason for the Chinese to want to promote it. But there’s also geopolitical reasons. So, again, use Sudan as the example, China is very keen to have good relations with Sudan because they want to get Sudanese oil, so building a dam is a good way of cementing relationships.

GELLERMAN: It’s ironic that worldwide there’s this resurgence of dam building, and yet here in the United States, there are a lot of river restoration projects and the removal of dams, going back to, well, about 1999.

Tucurui dam in Brazil. (Courtesy of International Rivers)

MCCULLY: Yeah, for quite a few years now, we’ve had more dams being removed from the rivers of the U.S. than are being built. Something similar is happening in various parts of Europe. In other parts of the world there are a lot of dams being built; there is a very big global dam lobby. They have a lot of different reasons for promoting big dam projects. Obviously there is a massive demand for electricity around the world, and growing very fast. But we can see some of their projects being promoted at the moment are not very rational, let’s say, and the great example of that is this Grand Inga project in the Congo in central Africa, where you have a dam with a price tag of about 80 billion dollars.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, I understand that would be the largest dam in the world – much bigger than the Three Gorges Dam in China.

MCCULLY: Yea, by far, more than twice as big as Three Gorges Dam, and with a price tag several times as big, being built in one of the most unstable and conflict-ridden and corrupt countries in the world. The record of these big projects is that they spark off lots of corruption and can lead to conflict of various types.

GELLERMAN: What role, if any, do carbon offsets play in the construction of dams – that is, if they build a dam, they get credit towards polluting carbon dioxide in other places?

Patrick McCully, executive director of International Rivers, says large hydropower dams can emit as much greenhouse gases as coal plants.
(Courtesy of International Rivers)

MCCULLY: Yeah, that’s a very good question. There’s a massive scam going on at the moment whereby hundreds of dams around the world have received or are applying for carbon credits under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism, which is part of the Kyoto Protocol. The whole idea of these carbon credits is that they’re supposed to go to projects which wouldn’t happen otherwise, so they’re supposed to represent genuine emission reductions, and then polluters in industrialized countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol – they can use those offsets, so they don’t have to reduce their own emissions. But these credits are all going to dams that are being built anyway – most of them are completed by the time they actually get the credits, so there’s no way that the credits are in any way making the dams happen. Basically the consumers and taxpayers of Europe and Japan and the global climate are suffering because of this system.

GELLERMAN: But Mr. McCully, what’s wrong with a dam? I mean, they don’t emit greenhouse gases, they do produce electric power – what’s wrong with that?

MCCULLY: Well, biggest problem usually is these big dam projects is that they displace huge numbers of people and cause great harm to their livelihoods. When you build these great mega-projects, their power lines go off to the cities and the mines and the industries, and they don’t provide benefits to local communities, and they do great harm to riverine ecosystems. But beyond that, the argument that they are by their nature climate friendly is very simplistic. In fact the big reservoirs in the tropics can have very large greenhouse gas emissions, because basically flooded vegetation and soils, and that produces methane, and that’s a very powerful greenhouse gas. So the big Amazonian reservoirs, for example, can have much higher global warming impact than fossil fuels, even than coal plants.

GELLERMAN: I’m wondering, personally, you know, you’re up against some of the biggest corporations and countries in the world. Do you ever feel like that little Dutch boy with the finger in the dike, you know, trying to hold this thing back?

MCCULLY: (chuckles) Yeah, sometimes it’s – sometimes it’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed, but at the same time we have a great global network of organizations that we work with. There’s also in the rise of renewable energy, falling price of solar, the increasing feasibility of wind power in many places. So the clean energy alternatives are much more viable that they used to be, which is a great thing for us.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. McCully, thanks very much. I appreciate it.

MCCULLY: It’s a pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Patrick McCully is executive director of the conservation group International Rivers.



To learn more about International Rivers, click here


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