Since 1985, International Rivers has re-examined dam projects across the globe to promote humanitarian and environmental values. The organization is concerned with a widespread over-dependence on hydroelectric power in developing nations, as the substantial negative externalities that accompany damming large rivers frequently go unreported. To combat this problem, the nonprofit employs a variety of methods, including grassroots organizing and political advocacy to diversify energy sources and raise greater awareness about the actual impact of specific hydroelectric projects around the world.

Large dams are an understandably attractive option for governments planning to electrify underdeveloped regions. Utilizing the inherent geophysical landscape, hydroelectric power is a relatively inexpensive energy source. However, International Rivers is one of few interested parties demanding an honest reassessment of this overly-prescribed technique. Damming disrupts the natural flow of sediment, causing devastating agricultural complications for nearby terrain. For example, the Nile lost an estimated 124 million tons of sediment every year prior to the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Today, close to 99 percent of that gravel remains behind the structure, resulting in a substantial decrease in soil productivity that has crippled Egypt’s agricultural prospects.

Large dams also disturb the natural workings of ecosystems and, as a result, estuary fish, flora and fauna are perishing alongside these persistent intrusions. Although this may appear to be a niche problem reserved for animal lovers, this over-dependence on hydroelectric power is adversely affecting local economies as well. In Ghana, clamming and sport fishing—once thriving industries—have virtually disappeared after the construction of the Akasombo and Kpong dams. Even worse, the lack of circulation and increased industrialization has proven to be a toxic combination, as pollution and water-based diseases now run rampant through the most accessed waterways of Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America

Despite these disconcerting developments, governments around the world continue to call for increased hydroelectric power. In Africa, plans to erect a number of imposing dams are in the works, including a blueprint for a massive Congolese structure that would prove to be the world’s largest hydroelectric plant. In China, there are over 80,000 dams—a number that is expected to increase as the government continues to industrialize the rural southwest region of the country. Despite the poor track record of dams in Central America, political officials continue to appease contractors that seek to capitalize on the short-term economic benefits of exploiting unindustrialized rivers.

Yet, International Rivers is fighting back. The organization is involved in numerous campaigns to stop the construction of unwarranted dams across the globe. These campaigns have partnered with human rights groups, NGOs, researchers and affected communities to broadcast the dangers associated with hydroelectric dependence. The Berkeley-based nonprofit is also researching more environmentally friendly energy sources and taking political action to implement these safer alternatives. The passage of the Electrify Africa Act is a vital fist step, as the new law helps supply geothermal, solar and wind energy sources to nations that are overly reliant on dams. However, International Rivers realizes the importance of allying with foreign governments as well, understanding that persuading the affected countries’ lawmakers is necessary to achieving lasting change.

If you would like to learn more about International River’s campaigns, check out this website.

– Sam Preston

Sources: International Rivers, PBS USGS
Photo: Panos