Sharing the benefits of large dams

Planners and donors for a new wave of African dam projects should learn lessons from the past and not treat local people as mere obstacles, argues Jamie Skinner.

It’s been nearly 50 years since the Akossombo dam was built in Ghana in 1965, flooding the lands and homes of 80,000 people, creating the largest manmade lake in the world, and securing Ghana’s electricity supply.

Since then, west African countries have built more than 150 large dams. Like Akossombo, many have stimulated national development while also bringing considerable environmental and social challenges. Some local grievances have even passed down through the generations, clogging up government offices and courts with complaints over the way ageing dams were built. 

Large dam construction largely went out of fashion among major donors after 1990, as global concern grew over local impacts. But the past decade has seen the World Bank and other major multilateral banks renew their support for large dams in the face of increasing energy and food demand. Can these projects avoid repeating history? 

As part of the Global Water Initiative (GWI), the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) set out to help communities and governments learn from past experience to improve dam planning, benefit sharing and resettlement practices in west Africa. Their findings, published in a study at the end of last year, show that large dams could bring greater benefits to local populations. 

Currently, more than 60 large dams are being built, or are on the drawing board, across Africa, 39 in west Africa. The new dams face a very different economic and political climate from those built before 1990. The 1983 Sélingué dam in Mali was constructed under military dictatorship, for example, whereas region-wide decentralisation and democratisation surround the country’s latest dam project, at Taoussa. Donors’ policies have also evolved to give much more attention and funding to safeguard the environment and people.

Yet flawed planning can still cause tragedies, and donor-funded megaprojects like dams lack the financial flexibility to respond to unexpected social consequences. Lessons from past projects could radically improve the impacts of dams being planned now, which might start construction in five years and stand for another hundred. And while authorities sometimes resist addressing the legacies of dams built 20 years ago, many are more open to considering better ways forward. 

Between 2008 and 2011, GWI and local researchers reviewed documents from west African dams and talked with people who had to move out of the dams’ paths. Focusing on six large dams in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal, we asked about the effects of resettlement, the dams’ perceived benefits and who profited from them. Could these benefits be shared more fairly and effectively to allow development for all, and give affected people a stake in the project throughout its lifetime? 

National workshops, involving both government and local actors discussed the emerging stories and drew out lessons for national policy. One broad message was that governments and donors should put dams’ local development objectives on an equal footing with national objectives. Large dams are built for nationwide goals such as supplying electricity or irrigation, and people living near dam sites have often been seen as mere obstacles – needing to be moved and then compensated for their losses.

Disputes over compensation and resettlement lands dragged out and sometimes turned violent. Claims from Akossombo are still being submitted to land tribunals, for instance, while in Bagré, Burkina Faso, local chiefs are trying to protect what they regard as their customary land, ejecting immigrants attracted to new jobs and markets around the dam. 

Instead of bearing the costs of conflicts – in both money and lost development opportunities – governments could channel a portion of resources created by dams to displaced communities, ensuring local people gain directly from the projects.

For example, GWI is now helping authorities in Niger design a local development fund receiving 2% to 3% of hydropower revenues from a new dam. Over the dam’s 100-year life, this fund can meet the changing needs of local people – such as additional schooling, investments in agriculture or better water supplies – and provide flexible support that reduces dependence on the government to resolve resettlement conflicts. Besides hydropower revenues, shared benefits might include access to irrigated land, a share of electricity, or a structured fishery. 

The research shows another crucial step is to codify legal rights to the land, houses and other resources that dams redistribute. Local people affected by dams need their rights protected by written agreements to avoid accusations of broken promises, conflict within host, resettled and immigrant communities and litigation around compensation.

In many cases, such as at Sélingué, immigration has added pressure on resources, and the transition from customary resource tenure (rights to resources held through long local custom, rather than positive law) to modern legal rights has been complicated. Decades into a dam project, traditional chiefs who allocated land to immigrants or watched the government do so may come to believe their own groups were left behind in the resettlement process.

In oral cultures, colourful predictions by government speakers can also sow tensions. A resettled village head at Sélingué recalled, “We were told there would be so much rice that we’d be able to eat it and sell it to buy millet if we ever needed any.” In reality, irrigated rice plots proved harder and more expensive to cultivate than rain-fed millet. To ensure that plans for land rights, compensation and benefit sharing are clear and binding, governments must put them in writing. 

GWI’s research has shown that better sharing of the benefits from dams is in everyone’s interest – government, local communities, private sector and donors. Supporting local development alongside a dam’s national goals is not costly or complicated, and prevents protracted disputes that drain government resources over the long term.

The GWI initiative is working with dam development authorities, civil society and local communities to build these lessons into dam plans in Guinea, Mali, and Niger. It also contributes to thinking by international river basin agencies and the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), on good practice for large water infrastructure in West Africa. And with the new wave of African dam building still gathering momentum, there is more need than ever for projects to learn from the past.

Jamie Skinner is a principal researcher at the IIED and co-author of the report, "Sharing the benefits of large dams in West Africa".

Download the full report here

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