POWER ON: A surge of water signals that President Jacob Zuma has opened the control valves during the opening ceremony of the De Hoop Dam, near Steelpoort in Limpopo, earlier this week. Picture: KOPANO TLAPE, GCIS
POWER ON: A surge of water signals that President Jacob Zuma has opened the control valves during the opening ceremony of the De Hoop Dam, near Steelpoort in Limpopo in March last year. Picture: GCIS

THE world’s water experts convene in Stockholm on Thursday where King Carl Gustav will present the city’s Water Prize to John Briscoe, a Harvard professor and former water manager at the World Bank. After many years spent in the international water bureaucracy, Briscoe says he is "controversial and proud of it". Indeed, the jury’s choice raises contentious questions about how best to manage water resources for the shared benefit of all.

Since the turn of the century, Briscoe has been the world’s pre-eminent crusader for large dams in Africa and other continents. In the 20th century, Europe developed about 80% of its hydropower potential, while Africa has still exploited only 8% of its own.

It would be hypocritical, Briscoe contends, to withhold funds for more dam building in Africa now.

Africa has tried to follow Europe’s path to industrial development before. With funding and advice from the World Bank and other institutions, newly independent governments built large dams that were supposed to industrialise and modernise their countries in the 1960s and 1970s. The Kariba Dam on the Zambezi, the Akosombo Dam on the Volta and the Inga 1 and Inga 2 dams on the Congo River are the most prominent examples of this approach.

Mega-dams have not turned out to be a silver bullet, but a big albatross on Africa’s development. Their costs spiralled out of control, creating huge debt burdens, while their performance did not live up to the expectations. Their benefits were concentrated on mining companies and the urban middle classes, while the rural population has been left high and dry. Africa has become the world region that is most dependent on hydropower. As rainfalls are becoming less and less reliable, this has made the continent highly vulnerable to climate change.

In 2008, mining companies consumed more electricity than the whole population in sub-Saharan Africa. After tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid have been spent on energy projects, 69% of the continent’s population continues to live in the dark. Prioritising the needs of mining companies and big cities over the rural populations, the World Bank’s latest dam projects in Africa will further entrench this energy apartheid.

Meanwhile, the communities that were displaced by the Kariba and Inga dams continue to struggle for just compensation decades after the projects were built. Because poor people pay the price but don’t reap the benefits of these investments, the independent World Commission on Dams has found that dams "can effectively take a resource from one group and allocate it to another". The Tonga people, who were displaced by the Kariba Dam and suffered starvation as a consequence, have to this date remained without clean water or electricity, despite the huge reservoir on their doorsteps.

Luckily, solutions that do not sacrifice one group of people for the benefit of another are available today. Wind, solar and geothermal energy have become competitive with hydropower. Unlike large dams, these energy sources don’t depend on centralised electric grids, but can serve the needs of the rural populations wherever they live. This is why the International Energy Agency recommends that the bulk of foreign energy aid be devoted to decentralised, renewable energy sources if the goal of sustainable energy for all by 2030 is to be met. A diverse, decentralised portfolio of renewable-energy projects will also make African countries more resilient to climate change than putting all eggs into the basket of a few mega-dams.

Just because Europe developed with large dams in the 20th century does not mean Africa has to do the same today. In the telecom sector, Africa has successfully leapfrogged Europe’s landline model and relied on cellphone companies to provide access to the majority of the population.

Like cellphone towers, wind, solar and micro-hydropower projects can be built quickly, close to where people need them, and without major effects on the environment.

Large dams may still make sense in specific situations, but Africa’s future is lit by the sun. We appreciate that Briscoe has reinvigorated an important debate about large dams. But we hope that in the coming years, the Stockholm Water Prize will celebrate the solutions of the future rather than the past.

Sanyanga holds a PhD in aquatic systems ecology from Stockholm University. She is the Africa Program director of International Rivers, based in Pretoria.