Manged properly, the construction of a dam can result in a staggering, often breathtaking, feat of engineering. They can bring with them significant benefits to agriculture, provide power to small communities and major cities alike, and supply the water needed to sustain the land and its inhabitants. However, the story of a dam is often not an easy one; done poorly these projects can have a heavy price tag for people and the environment unfortunate enough to neighbour them.

“These [dam] projects aren’t just technical energy projects somewhere in a jungle,” says Benjamin Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Sussex. “They are about culture, politics, corruption, poverty, debt, strategy and the military.” He believes their story should be “humanised” to provide an insight into the immediate and long-lasting consequences that comes with larger dams.

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Measuring the impact of dams globally

Sovacool and Professor Götz Walter of the International School of Management in Germany, have worked on a comprehensive study looking at the global use of dams for hydropower, their impact and how that manifests itself across the socioeconomic sphere and climate change agenda. Dam operating countries were compared against countries that use other forms of energy generation, including OPEC countries.

“The sole motivation for the study was to find out what the very big scale, geopolitical or national level impacts of hydropower are? Hydropower literature is dominated by rich studies, but very few comparative ones,” Sovacool says. His work unpicks this under studied issue, looking at fleets of dams in major countries that rely on hydropower for the majority of their electricity.

“Can we test those impacts that you see hypothesized from the smaller studies, but never really proven?” Sovacool says. “You’ll have studies… which say ‘we know that dams cause poverty so we’ll conclude dams cause poverty’. That’s a troubling generalisation, so we wanted to go up a level.”

The study, published in The Review of International Political Economy, concluded the economies of countries that have relied on dams over the last 30 years have slowed at significantly greater rates than those that don’t, while poverty, corruption and national debt have all risen. Research included analysing data from Uppsala Conflict Data Programme, poverty gap figures, GDP per capita data, total debt stocks figures, the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, and metric greenhouse gas emissions per capita.

Dams have a social impact

Whilst it is not a given that a network of dams means a country is destined for social or economic strife, dams can be significant destabilisers. The mere proposition of such a project can be inflammatory, causing tensions among communities and with authorities. The history of dam building is littered with such devastating examples.

According to a 2017 study by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 80 million people have been displaced worldwide to date by dam building – although that figure is widely contested and thought to be much higher. More concerning, the report opens by saying: ‘Their fate is largely unknown, but evidence shows that those affected tend to become impoverished and marginalised.’

It’s a worry Sovacool and his research arguably supports. “We looked at national level economic impacts. However, we did still find a negative relationship between the dams and poverty, which implies the more dams a country has in its fleet, the less equal it is.” There is a caveat he adds: “We’re not saying dams cause this inequality, it could just be that states that have enough money to build the dams are by nature unequal and the dam reflects and entrenches that.”

Corruption is rife in dam building

That inequality is, however, often fuelled by corruption that begins even before the earth has been broken, at the pre-construction stage with the survey and clearing resources. “It’s prone to things like deforestation, illegal logging, opening up areas of the forest for other things like poaching and other corrupt livelihoods,” Sovacool continues. “The construction process itself, both because it’s complex and because the sums of money are so large, is also a syphon that can be used to mask financial flows.”

These projects are fraught with cost overruns, sometimes as much as 100% or more, according to the research. “The fact that dams are so expensive means that even if you only skim 1%, you get a lot. Some of the numbers we’ve seen show people skimming 30%, 40%, even 50% of what is supposed to go into a dam.”

That exploitation then seeps into the personal lives of locals, those already having their world turned upside down. Sovacool says often regional authorities receive money from the state to help support relocation programmes, only for some to be embellished by corrupt officials.

“Then you have the final element, when the dam becomes operational,” he says. “Sometimes corruption involves the electricity produced, such as where it goes and who is paying what; or maintenance flows. Dams, on paper, are perfectly maintained but you show up and find two turbines aren’t working. Why? Because operators and partners have taken the funds.”

The Bakun Dam experience

Constructing a dam that works for all is a major challenge; financial, environmental, and societal. Sovacool says a good example of a project that highlights those challenges is Malaysia’s 2,400MW Bakun Dam. After decades of planning and failed attempts, the controversial project finally began to generate power in 2011. He laments the process, and final outcome, saying transmission towers literally take the energy away from the local community that has suffered so much.

“It’s a good example of a major project, paid for by the government, which feeds aluminium smelters in Kuching and doesn’t do anything for [the local community]. So poverty is worse because their forests and rivers have been hit. There is sedimentation in the river, which has lead to an inability to fish, rotting vegetation and so on, it’s been a curse,” Sovacool says.

This is in addition to a contentious resettlement programme that led to huge debts for the 10,000-strong community because the government forced them to cover resettlement costs and the land they were moved to is arguably uninhabitable too. Recently authorities have appeared more willing to address these concerns but the issues aren’t likely to be resolved soon.

What is the future of dam building?

Despite the challenges this type of infrastructure present, Sovacool is hopeful for the future and optimistic hydropower can continue to be a significant weapon in the fight against climate change. But, he says, countries should look towards smaller-scale, run-of-river designs rather than mega projects.

“We get really excited about distributed solar or onshore and offshore wind power. For many decades the biggest source of renewable electricity has been hydro. It’s even a bigger sector than nuclear power,” he says. Growing support for these projects, such as that from the World Bank, has further strengthened the argument for hydropower.

However, we need to be pragmatic: “It’s about trade-offs, as are all energy systems, but these ones are particularly pronounced given the dam itself impacts so many dimensions: water, land, electricity and so on… It redistributes political and social power and what is conceived simply as an energy project becomes much more.”

Sovacool says even with the risks associated, “we just think they’re worth it”.

“What is ironic is, many of the things you and I would identify as disadvantages are seen as advantages by the host countries. The fact they could bring corruption, bring in money, line the pockets of people in counties like the Congo, that is a strength and they say ‘yes please’… If there is a simple message it is that dams are more than dams.”