Big is beautiful: Megadams, African water security, and China’s role in the new global political economy
Posted on: 16-Oct-2012
Big dams have long fascinated scientists and politicians alike, sitting at the intersection of water security, modernisation strategies and nationalism. They began their ascent in the West – remember Roosevelt's Tennessee Valley Authority – but became popular in developing countries seeking to meet the triple challenge of state-building, nation-building and economic development. General Franco used dams and a powerful water-bureaucracy to re-centralise control over a fragmented, 'backward' nation after the Spanish civil war. Nehru saw dams as the "modern temples of India" lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty through spectacular multiplier effects in industry and irrigated agriculture. And Gamal Abdel Nasser advanced his revolutionary "second Egyptian independence" through the Aswan Dam: Africa's biggest infrastructure project controlled the Nile flood for the first time in history and symbolically catapulted Egypt into the club of advanced nations.1
Big dams were believed to magically transform barren wastelands into fertile acreage, elevating the nation and integrating, through irrigation and electrification, the domestic political economy.2 The World Bank provided the ideological and financial backing for the construction of hundreds of megadams across Latin America, Africa and Asia. Yet from the 1970s onwards, dams as development instruments were increasingly contested.3 Opponents exposed huge corruption scandals that contributed to the systematic overestimation of their benefits and the neglect of their dark side. Paradigmatic cases like the Sardar Sarovar in Western India4 forced the Bank to largely withdraw its support for large-scale hydro-infrastructure: the displacement of tens of thousands of people; devastating environmental damage to unique ecosystems; and the undemocratic decision-making surrounding dams triggered a re-think. Many assumed that big dams might be shipped to a museum for 20th century illusions of development – with Western funding drying up, their role in economic growth strategies seemed over.
Yet anno 2012, dams are staging an impressive comeback: hundreds of new projects have commenced in the last few years. China, India and Brazil – not coincidentally also the three most important rising powers – are the world's top three dam-builders, each with domestic megaprojects of its own, but also increasingly a proactive role in an emerging global political economy of food and water. Beijing especially is using its formidable technical expertise in hydro-infrastructure and immense foreign reserves to resurrect dam-building overseas: in half of all African countries, from the Sudanese desert and the Ethiopian lowlands to the rivers of Algeria and Gabon, Chinese engineers are involved in the planning, heightening and building of more than 100 dams. The tens of billions of US dollars and thousands of megawatts involved in these projects have so far remained off the radar in the China-Africa debate but are possibly more consequential for the future of the African continent than the exports of oil, copper and other valuable resources.
As the global balance of power shifts eastwards, supply and demand networks are restructured, resulting in tremendous pressures on commodity prices and scarce resources. Dams are therefore no longer merely central to the debate about economic development but also an integral part of water and food security strategies. Food prices especially have spiked, bringing riots in their wake; this has led many to predict that land and water are becoming the world economy's Achilles heel.5 Emerging powers are seemingly racing to secure the key resources of the future.6 Big investments by Gulf Arab sovereign wealth funds, purchasing strategies of land by South Korean and Malaysian enterprises and China's involvement in African dam-building cannot be seen in isolation from growing fears about how to ensure water security in the 21st century.
The speed and scale with which this new global political economy of water and food is taking shape is breathtaking. One emerging leader is Beijing's Sinohydro, a state-owned giant claiming leadership in dam-building with more than 50% market share of new dams erected around the globe. Just in 2009, Sinohydro, which is lead by powerful Chinese Communist Party loyalists, installed 20000MW of new hydropower capacity outside China's borders. Its technical expertise is undisputed, as is the extraordinary politico-financial backing given by Beijing's key ministries and lending agencies so that Sinohydro can lead China's "Go Out" strategy. Diplomats, bankers and technical specialists are disseminating the message that China's economic miracle relied on dazzling investment in infrastructure and that the hundreds of dams that tame China's rivers have powered agricultural and industrial growth rates of 10% per annum. Implicitly, the economy and the ecosystems that feed into it are imagined as a machine that needs to keep spinning at high speeds. Dams are argued to be a vital switch in maintaining the machine's stability, controlling erratic water flows and channelling it to productive ends in regions of scarcity. It might not come as surprise that 7 out of 9 members of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo are engineers.7
Dams symbolise the merger of growing hard and soft power of China but their return to prominence begs important questions about the sustainability of the new model of growth and water security. Both on the Chinese and on the African side there seems preciously little interest in engaging with the criticisms of the 1980s and 1990s – these emphasised how the benefits of big dams typically accrue to politically influential groups with important transnational allies, while the costs of displacement, shrinking biodiversity and disappearance of traditional cultures fall on those outside the political elite.8
Moreover, while Chinese-built megadams are trumpeted as the answer to persisting water security crises in Africa, the truth is that hardly any planning surrounding them actually takes environmental concerns seriously. As my research in the Nile Basin shows,9 the impacts of climate change are seldom factored into the building of hydro-infrastructure and the new irrigation projects are consuming huge quantities of water – with water intensive cash crops being exported to wealthy economies. Instead of opting for environmentally sustainable models of regional integration that prioritise water and food security, some national governments maintain a simplistic view of development and still see dams as major achievements, regardless of their ecological impact.10 Thus, while the return of big dams may be beautiful in the eyes of Sinohydro and the African regimes that it partners with, their long-term contribution to water security in the climate change era remains deeply questionable.
The author of this article was a final nominee of the 2012 Global Water Forum Emerging Scholars Award.
1. Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
2. David Lilienthal, TVA: Democracy on the March. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944.
3. World Commission on Dams, Dams and Development: a New Framework for Decision Making London: Earthscan, 2000.
4. John Wood, The Politics of Water Resource Development in India: The Narmada Dams Controversy. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2007.
5. Michael Kugelman (ed.), Land Grab? The Race for the World's Farmland. Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, 2009.
6. Harry Verhoeven, 'Climate Change, Conflict and Development in Sudan: Neo- Malthusian global narratives and local power struggles', Development and Change Vol.42, No.3 (2011), pp.679-707.
7. Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. London: Allen Lane, 2010.
9. Harry Verhoeven, 'Climate Change, Conflict and Development in Sudan: Neo- Malthusian global narratives and local power struggles', Development and Change Vol.42, No.3 (2011), pp.679-707. http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/19482_0611bp_verhoeven.pdf
10. Harry Verhoeven, 'Black Gold for Blue Gold? Sudan's Oil, Ethiopia's Water and Regional Integration', London: Chatham House, June 2011. http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/19482_0611bp_verhoeven.pdf
This blog post first appeared as an article on the website of the Global Water Forum, which nominated Dr Harry Verhoeven for its Emerging Scholars Award: http://www.globalwaterforum.org/2012/10/16/big-is-beautiful-megadams-african-water-security-and-chinas-role-in-the-new-global-political-economy/
Dr Harry Verhoeven completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford, where he teaches African Politics. His research focuses on conflict, development and environment in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region and he is the Convenor of the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN).