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Mega-dams ‘create the illusion of climate action’

Annette Gartland photo
Annette GartlandMalaysia
Mega-dams ‘create the illusion of climate action’
Large hydropower projects are not the clean, green source of electricity that governments and corporations portray them to be. They are devastating rivers and forests, and displacing millions of people.

Governments and corporations have long portrayed mega-dams as a clean, green source of electricity, but large-scale hydropower projects are devastating rivers and forests, and have already displaced millions of people worldwide.

In a manifesto launched at the recent COP21 climate change conference in Paris, a coalition of more than three hundred civil society organisations from 53 countries called on government leaders and financiers to keep large hydropower projects out of climate initiatives.

“Climate finance for large hydropower projects creates the illusion of real climate action,” the signatories¹ said.

Mega-dam complexes emit huge amounts of methane, so actually contribute to climate change.

Large hydropower projects benefit greatly from instruments meant to address climate change. These include carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), credits from the World Bank’s Climate Investment Funds, and special financial terms from export credit agencies and green bonds.

Hydropower projects currently make up 26 percent of all projects registered with the CDM.

Mega-dams should not be getting this kind of backing, the manifesto signatories say. “Including them in climate initiatives crowds out support for true climate solutions such as wind and solar power, which have become readily available, can be built more quickly than large dams, and have a smaller social and environmental footprint.”

On average, large dams experience cost overruns of 96 percent and time overruns of 44 percent. By comparison, wind and solar projects experience average cost overruns of less than 10 percent.

The co-executive director of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), Astrid Puentes, says wind and solar power have overtaken large hydropower projects in the addition of new capacity.

The interim executive director of International Rivers, Peter Bosshard, says the effect of the greenhouse gas emissions from mega-dams is comparable to the climate impact of the aviation sector.

In some cases, hydropower projects are producing higher emissions than coal-fired power plants while generating the same amount of electricity.

There are more than 40,000 large dams in operation worldwide, and more than three hundred major dams, which are more than 150 metres high. ²

More than 3,700 hydropower mega-dams are under construction or in the pipeline. Building these dams will reduce by a further 21 percent the number of large, free-flowing rivers that remain worldwide.

Most mega-dams are built without the agreement of, or even consultation with, local communities. There is massive loss of natural habitats and biodiversity, and the rights of indigenous people are trampled upon as they see their lands and livelihoods destroyed.

The secretary-general of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), Joan Carling, said: “Large hydropower projects have serious impacts on local communities and often violate the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, cultural integrity, and free, prior and informed consent.”

When compensation is awarded, it is meagre, and resettlement areas are usually a very poor substitute for the environments in which people previously lived. And mega-dams very often operate below their claimed firm capacity.³

Corporations and governments say hydropower projects benefit poor communities, but mega-dams are most often built to meet the demands of mining, aluminium smelting, and the oil, gas and steel industries.

According to the World Commission on Dams, the structures have displaced at least 40 million people worldwide, mostly in China and India, and have negatively affected an estimated 472 million people living downstream. Sixty percent of the world’s rivers have been affected by dams and diversions.

The world’s largest hydropower project in terms of installed capacity – the Three Gorges Dam – is in China. It displaced more than 1.2 million people and flooded 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages. The project was plagued by corruption and spiralling costs and the array of environmental problems have included more frequent landslides.

Every year, rivers transport 200 million tons of carbon to the ocean, but, by disrupting the transport of silt and nutrients, mega-dams impair the rivers’ ability to do this.

Dam building has also exacerbated flood disasters in fragile mountain areas such as Uttarakhand in India.

Changing weather patterns, meanwhile, are increasing the possibility of dam breaks. Since 2010, unprecedented floods have caused more than one hundred dams to fail in the United States alone.

Belo Monte 

The recent decision by the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) to authorise the operating licence for the Belo Monte hydropower complex horrified environmentalists, but that licence has now been suspended by a judge in the federal court in Altamira.

Judge Maria Carolina Valente do Carmo ruled on January 11 that the licence should be suspended until the dam’s owner, Norte Energia, and the Brazilian government meet a requirement to bolster the regional operations of the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the government body that establishes and carries out policies relating to indigenous peoples.

Another judge had already issued an order in 2014 requiring the government and Norte Energia to carry out the FUNAI restructuring work, so Judge do Carmo fined both of them 900,000 reais (about US$222,000) for non-compliance.

Restructuring would be required for FUNAI to be able to deal with compensation and social support for indigenous groups affected by Belo Monte.

Observers say the court’s latest decision is unlikely to stop Belo Monte going into operation, but it could set a precedent for the defence of indigenous rights in the Amazon.

Raoni, a Kayapó chief, at the Trocadero in Paris, holding a petition against the Belo Monte dam in June 2011. Photo by Gert-Peter Bruch.

Belo Monte is being constructed on the Xingú river, a major Amazon tributary. If it goes into operation, it will be the third largest hydroelectric complex in the world, comprising three structures: the main dam, Ilha do Pimental; the Bela Vista reinforcement dam; and the main turbine house, Belo Monte do Pontal. There will be two artificial canals, which together will be larger than the Panama Canal.

The Xingú river basin is home to 25,000 indigenous people from 40 ethnic groups.

There are currently more than sixty cases under review in the Brazilian courts relating to alleged irregularities in the construction of Belo Monte, but construction is continuing and the complex is close to completion. At least 20,000 workers are being brought in to build it.

Antonia Melo, who leads the Movimiento Xingú Vivo para Siempre (Xingú Alive Forever Movement), said granting the operating licence for Belo Monte was a crime. “Granting the licence for this monster was an irresponsible decision on the part of the government and the IBAMA.”

On December 21 last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) launched a case against Brazil over Belo Monte.

AIDA lawyer María José Veramendi Villa says affected indigenous communities have not given their free, prior and informed consent to the project, and there has not been an adequate assessment of its environmental impact. Astrid Puentes says the project has involved widespread corruption.

According to official statistics, 19,000 people will be forcibly displaced for Belo Monte, but an independent review of the project states that the number of directly affected people could be twice the official estimate. AIDA says about 2,000 people have already been displaced in Altamira and the surrounding area.

There have, Veramendi says, been “violations of the rights to life, health, integrity, and justice of indigenous peoples, riverine communities, and residents of the city of Altamira”.

If the IACHR decides there is a case to answer, it will be tasked with establishing whether or not the Belo Monte project has caused the alleged human rights violations.

Amazon Watch says Belo Monte will be one of the most devastating infrastructure projects ever built in the Amazon. “As costs rocket above all previous estimates, and the full extent of its impacts across the region become more evident, it’s clear that Brazil doesn’t need Belo Monte, and that the project brings destruction – not development – to a precious region.”

The Belo Monte dam complex is designed to divert 80 percent of the Xingú river’s flow and will devastate more than 1,500 square kilometres of Brazilian rainforest.

According to International Rivers, the complex will affect biodiversity over an extensive area.

“The rich flooded forests of the Big Bend and middle Xingú would no longer receive seasonal floodwaters. Besides affecting endemic and migratory fish species, Belo Monte would seriously affect aquatic and land fauna, including endangered species such as the white-cheeked spider monkey and black-bearded saki monkey. Threatened turtle species downstream would lose their breeding ground.”

Environmentalists say Belo Monte will be one of the most inefficient dams in the history of Brazil, generating only 10 percent of its 11,233-megawatt installed capacity during the dry season, and an average of only 39 percent throughout the rest of the year. “The government is aware that Belo Monte’s seasonal inefficiency can only be managed by creating more dam reservoirs upstream,” Amazon Watch stated.

The Brazilian delegates to the recent World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers (WISER), held in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, talked about the effects of outside workers coming into their communities, and cited drug abuse, prostitution, violence, and health problems.

“Together with this we have pollution, the loss of forests and the loss of the river, and, when we are not in charge of our own land anymore, we lose our tradition and our identity,” Antônio Sau Munduruku said. “Companies promise us health, education, and infrastructure, but these are not coins to be used for bargaining. They are basic rights.”

Munduruku lives in the area of the Tapajós river basin, where seven dams are planned. A national and international alliance is being built up to resist the projects.

The IBAMA's green light for Belo Monte came just after a disastrous dam burst in the Brazilian city of Mariana. The catastrophe, on November 5 last year, involved two dams that impound mining waste. The Fundão dam collapsed and the Santarém dam downstream overran.

A flood of mud and toxic chemicals wiped out a village, killed at least 17 people, affected the water supply of the entire region, and destroyed flora and fauna over a vast area.

Activists risk their lives

The lives of anti-dam activists are at risk in several countries.

A Peruvian environmental leader who strongly opposed the construction of the Chadín 2 dam in the Marañón River basin was murdered recently in the town of Yagen in the Cajamarca region.

Hitler Ananías Rojas Gonzales was shot five times as he walked to his house on December 28. He had received numerous death threats over his opposition to the hydropower project, which would displace about 1,000 people and have a serious environmental impact.

The murder of Rojas Gonzales follows those of Alberto Roque Cconislla in Apurímac, Francisco Ariza Espinoza in Ancash, and Ronald Núñez Valdez in Cusco.

The Peruvian government plans to build more than twenty dams on the main Marañón river, and many more may be constructed in the river basin.

Berta Cáceres, from the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, says ten members of the council have been murdered, four of them for defending the Gualcarque river. “The military, police, and hitmen are all sent into our territory.”

Activists in Honduras have succeeded in stopping 14 hydroelectric dams, but three hundred more are planned, Cáceres (pictured left) told the Sarawak summit delegates. “The government and the corporations want to privatise almost all of the rivers of Honduras.”

During a blockade against the planned Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, there were death threats against activists, who were offered huge bribes to stop their protest. “The people didn’t give up, and the company fled,” Cáceres said. “And we convinced the World Bank to cancel a planned loan for the dam.”

The dam companies have now returned to the site, however. The military and police are also back, and have been firing shots into the air right next to a new blockade, Cáceres says.

Activists’ lives are also in danger in the Philippines. In a declaration at the end of the Sarawak summit, Filipino delegates called on their government to “end the political vilification, harassment, and red-tagging of activists, stop extrajudicial killings, and deliver justice to all victims of political killings”.

The Sarawak summit marked the two-year anniversary of the blockades against the proposed Baram mega-dam in the Malaysian state. The gathering was also attended by delegates from Indonesia, Cambodia, Brazil, and the US.

In their end-of-conference declaration, delegates demanded an end to the building of mega-dams worldwide, the removal of those that already exist, and full recognition of the rights of indigenous people. They said governments, multi-national companies, and others should stop presenting dams as climate neutral.

Delegates demanded that the Honduran government adhere to and enforce the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention169 on the rights of indigenous and tribal people.

They also called for an end to the persecution of all environmental activists in Cambodia, and the immediate release of the four activists held in detention.

Dams in Sarawak

Research carried out by the Swiss-based Bruno Manser Fund has shown that, if all of the 12 dams planned in Sarawak up until 2020 are built, 1,600 square kilometres of tropical rainforest will disappear under water, and between 30,000 and 50,000 people from 235 communities will be displaced.

The state government says the dams are required to power future industrial development, but most of the companies it wants to attract are engaged in dirty, energy-intensive heavy industries.

If the Baram dam is built, it will cover 38,000 hectares and more than 20,000 people will be displaced.

The Bakun dam, which is the second largest dam in Asia, flooded 70,000 hectares of rainforest and farmland. It is only running at half of its optimum generating capacity and most of the electricity provided is being sucked up by industrial factories.

“The government promised that there would be so many opportunities for local people that they could become millionaires,” said Hary Wing Miku, from the Kayan community. “Now most of us are bankrupt.”

The Bakun dam, under construction in 2009.

When the Bakun dam was built, 10,000 people were resettled. “The indigenous communities have lost about 23,000 hectares of fertile agricultural land,” Hary said. “We were given three acres of land per family and the land was leased to us for sixty years. After that, we have to give it back to the government.”

Hary says that, in his village, people still have no access to clean water. There is no electricity, and there are no decent roads. “There is no more forest as a source of timber, medicine, and herbs for the local communities, and it is getting harder to practise our customs and traditional culture.”

The Batang Ai dam, which was completed in 1985 and caused the displacement of about 3,000 people, is also running at 50 percent capacity.

Nicholas Bawin (pictured left), who is from the Iban community, says he still weeps about the loss of the land on which he used to hunt and fish.

Indigenous people were relocated twice, in 1982 and 1984, Bawin says. “When we were relocated, the longhouses were not completed; we had to build our own huts. There was no electricity and no water. The nearest river was an hour’s walk away.”

Those resettled lived for a year without a water supply, Bawin says. The longhouses were too small for the extended families, and there wasn’t enough land for everyone.

The Murum dam, meanwhile, has displaced about 1,500 indigenous people, who have been forced to resettle in areas with deplorable living conditions, where there is no food security, little hope of economic opportunities, and poor access to social services.

The dams planned in Sarawak are part of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) project, which covers half of the state.

Andrew Aeria (pictured left) from Sarawak University says there is already an excess of power generation in the state. “We had a buffer of between 25 and 30 percent even before Bakun.”

Aeria says the government’s eventual aim is to build 52 dams in Sarawak. It is the big companies involved in SCORE, and politicians, their relatives, and their friends, who will benefit from the project, he says, and the jobs provided will be for cheap migrant labour.

There is currently a moratorium on work on the Baram dam, but activists say this may be a vote-catching ploy by the state’s Chief Minister, Adenan Satem, ahead of state elections this year.

Already, the Samling timber company is clearing large swathes of land surrounding the Baram dam site. Other smaller companies have permits to cut down the forest, and there is also illegal logging.

Loss of biodiversity

A study conducted by researchers from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California in the US estimate that the Bakun, Murum, and Baram dams combined will cause the loss of 3.4 million birds and 110 million mammals.

The researchers say the three dam reservoirs will inundate habitat for 331 species of birds, 164 species of mammals, a minimum of 900 million trees from 2,100 species, and 34 billion arthropods from 17,700 species.

The affected species include endangered mammals such as the bay cat, the otter civet, the grey gibbon, the hairy-nosed otter, the flat-headed cat, and the smokey flying squirrel; the critically endangered Sunda pangolin; and critically endangered birds such as the Storm’s stork and the Bornean pheasant.

The researchers predict the extinction of at least one tree species and between four and seven arthropod species. “To the extent that tree and arthropod species found on Borneo are found only on the island and not elsewhere, these local extinctions will also correspond to global extinctions.”

In January, Science magazine published an assessment of the proposed hydropower dams on the Amazon, Congo, and Mekong rivers. Scientists from thirty academic, government, and conservation institutions in eight countries carried out the research and concluded that dam advocates “often overestimate economic benefits and underestimate far-reaching effects on biodiversity and critically important fisheries”.

Large dams invariably reduced fish diversity and blocked movements that connect populations and enable migratory species to complete their life cycles, the scientists said.

They also delayed and attenuated seasonal flood pulses, reducing fish access to floodplain habitats that are essential nursery areas and feeding grounds.

Trapping sediment, the scientists say, alters nutrient dynamics and other biogeochemical processes in deltas, estuaries, and marine-shelf ecosystems, which then impacts agriculture, fisheries, and human settlements.

The Amazon, Congo, and Mekong rivers are home to about one-third of the world's freshwater fish species, most of which cannot be found anywhere else.

About 450 dams are planned on the three rivers and their tributaries.

More than 42 dams are being constructed or are planned for the Sekong, Srepok, and Sesan river basin in northeastern Cambodia. The three rivers are critical tributaries to the lower Mekong.

About 70, 000 people live along the three rivers and it is estimated that the dams will lead to a loss of 312 million US$ per year in income from fishing.

Increase in malaria

There is even evidence of an increase in malaria among those living near to mega-dams.

In a report about the impact of large dams in sub-Saharan Africa, published in the Malaria Journal in September last year, the authors stated that 1.1 million malaria cases were associated with the dams each year.

The researchers said 919,000 cases were due to the presence of 416 dams in areas of unstable (or epidemic) transmission and 204,000 cases were due to the presence of 307 dams in areas of stable (or endemic) transmission.

Of 78 planned dams, sixty would be located in malarious areas and would create an additional 56,000 cases annually.

Anti-dam battles in the US

In the US, anti-dam protestors succeeded in obtaining historic restoration accords under which the four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath river, which flows through Oregon and California, were due to be demolished in the biggest dam removal in world history.

However, a main part of the proposed legislation, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), which needed Congressional approval, was blocked at committee stage and expired on December 31, 2015.

Pro-removal activists are now turning to other strategies and remain confident that the dams will eventually be torn down. There is even relief in some quarters that the agreements were not enacted as environmentalists saw drawbacks in the proposed legislation.

There are four main tribes living in the Klamath basin and one of them – the Klamath tribe in Oregon – has just won a major battle over water rights, which puts them in a very strong position.

The restoration agreements comprised three separate documents, two of which have not expired. One of these, the Klamath Hydropower Settlement Agreement (KHSA), which covered dam removal, could be authorised by a presidential executive order, so activists will be lobbying Barack Obama to take action.

Activists will also be pressing the California state water board to either refuse a Clean Water Act permit for the dams, or impose so many mitigation requirements that removal will be the only real option.

After the dams were constructed, the Klamath river was polluted by a cesspool of algae and there was a dangerous level of level of toxins in the water. In 2002, 65,000 adult salmon died in the Klamath in the biggest fish kill in history.

Worldwide, anti-dam activists continue to battle against huge odds, but, in the US, more than one thousand dams have been removed to date, including more than two hundred since 2010.

Thousands of large dams remain across the country, and there are those who ardently oppose their removal, but, having once led the world in dam construction, the US is now removing more large dams than it is building.

Dams are also being torn down in Europe, but it remains to be seen whether restoration will ever supersede destruction in such places as Borneo and the Amazon basin.

Protest against the El Portón Dam in Chile. Photo by Diego Mur.


1) The manifesto signatories include the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), AIDA, the AIPP, Amazon Watch, Carbon Market Watch, and the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation.

2) The International Commission on Large Dams defines large dams as those with a height of 15 metres or more. If dams between 10 and 15 metres high have a crest length of more than 500 metres, a spillway discharge of more than 2,000 cubic metres, or a reservoir volume of more than one million cubic metres, they are also classified as large dams.

The International Journal on Hydropower & Dams defines major dam projects as those fulfilling one or more of the following criteria: a dam height of more than 150 metres, a dam volume of more than 15 million cubic metres, a reservoir volume of more than 25 billion cubic metres, or an installed capacity of more than 1,000 megawatts. (Source)

3) Firm capacity is the amount of energy available for production or transmission which can be, and in many cases must be, guaranteed to be available at a given time. 


International Rivers Q & A

Update 28/1/2016: A federal regional court in Brazil has revoked the suspension of the operating licence for the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. The fines imposed against Norte Energia and the Brazilian government were also revoked.

Update 5/2/2016: Representatives from California, Oregon, and the federal government have announced an agreement in principle with the dams' owner, PacifiCorp, detailing plans to remove the four Klamath River dams. The new agreement in principle contains elements of the original settlement agreements and can be implemented without Congressional approval. 

Update 3/3/2016: Berta Cáceres has been assassinated. Assailants broke into her home at about midnight on March 2 and gunned her down.



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