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

Two Chinese banks pump more money into the developing world than the entire World Bank. The China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China now provide more financing to developing countries than the World Bank.

This relationship is redefining the global development agenda. While the West heralds trade liberalization and financial deregulation, the Chinese model is based around strictly regulated trade and financial markets. China’s finance does not come with the same harsh conditions that many western financing institutions have. A country does not need to liberalize trade nor do they need to take on any new fiscal austerity measures to receive money from China.

In the past fifty years, China has transformed its economy and brought 600 million people out of poverty with its outstanding record of rapid and broad-based development. Yet, in a world that is becoming increasingly conscious about social and environmental issues, China’s lackluster environmental record inhibits it from becoming the global development leader. Increasingly, China’s financial institutions have been losing ground in public opinion over social and environmental concerns.

One example is the Belinga iron ore deposit in Gabon, which was contracted in 2007 between the Gabonese government and the China Machinery Energy Corporation, with financing from the EIBC. The project sparked a strike of union workers demanding better working conditions and the expulsion of foreign workers. It also sparked numerous local protests against the negative environmental effect the project would have on the region. Because of this resistence, the project has been delayed multiple times and may ultimately be denied.

Another example is the EIBC-supported Patuca hydroelectric project in Honduras. Local civil society organizations along with multiple NGOs such as International Rivers and The Nature Conservancy, have expressed significant concern over the accuracy of the project’s environmental impact assessment. The project intends to flood 42km in the Patuca national park and the Tawahka Asangni biosphere reserve.

In order to secure markets in more developed countries, China’s banks will need to adopt established international norms of environmental conservation and social aptitude. Local skepticism and protests are just a few of the environment- and socially-related political risks associated with global development. Not listening to public criticism will only result in delays or losses of projects funded by the Chinese development banks.

China is already well on its way to being the world’s foremost global development powerhouse. With its successful track record and lack of strict conditions, China could very well reach this position in the coming decade- but not before adding substantial social and environmental safeguards.

Kathryn Cassibry

Sources: The Guardian, UNDP, Business Recorder