Dangerous waters – the world’s most controversial hydropower dam projects

11 June 2014 (Last Updated July 27th, 2020 17:21)

Big dams often cause controversy due to the widespread impact on local communities, flood areas, changes in river ecosystems, geologic hazards, and regional water disputes. Power-technology.com profiles five of the world’s most controversial dam projects, either recently completed or still under construction.

Dangerous waters – the world’s most controversial hydropower dam projects

Three Gorges dam

Three Gorges Dam, China

The world's biggest hydropower project - the Three Gorges Dam, on the Yangtze River in the Hubei Province of China became fully operational in 2012, submerging 632km2 of land and displacing over 1.5 million people. The 181m tall and 2,335m long gravity dam contains a massive reservoir 660km long and 1.1km wide, holding 42 billion tonnes of water behind the dam's wall. The Chinese Government, which was accused of poor environmental and socio-economic assessment as well as a lack of transparency regarding the planning and progress of the project, acknowledged the negative impacts of the dam for the first time in 2011.

The Three Gorges Dam received widespread criticism for alleged human rights violations during the forced displacement process as well as the catastrophic environmental and geologic disasters triggered. The dam project was held responsible for causing draughts in the upstream of Yangtze River and for increasing the frequency of landslides and earthquakes along areas next to the structure. The project also submerged a number of factories, mines and waste dumps, and few industrial centres, which are alleged to have polluted the river. Biodiversity experts believe that the Three Gorges Dam has affected hundreds of animal and plant species in the Yangtze River and threatened the fisheries in the East China Sea.

The Grand Renaissance Dam

The Grand Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia

The Grand Renaissance Dam project under construction in the Ethiopian state of Beneshangul Gumuz, on the Blue Nile River, has raised fears that downstream countries Sudan and Egypt could suffer from drastically reduced river flow - practically shutting down the Nile. While Sudan and Egypt are entitled to 90% of the Blue Nile's flow in an agreement made during the 1920s, the reality is that Ethiopia holds 86% of the river's water in its territory, allowing great geo-political leverage over the regions most important natural resource.

Environmental experts have also warned the dam project could affect up to 200km of the river course and displace over 5,000 people in nearby villages. The $4.7bn hydroelectric power project is being mostly funded by Ethiopian bonds and taxpayers after the World Bank and private investors showed unwillingness to invest. Despite an International Monetary Fund (IMF) warning that the project could place a huge burden on the country's economy, the Ethiopian Government has signalled its intention to move on their desire to create Africa's largest hydropower project with 6,000MW installed capacity. Construction of the 145m high roller compacted concrete (RCC) dam started in April 2011 and was 30% complete by March 2014, completion is expected in 2017.

Belo Monte Dam

Belo Monte Dam, Brazil

The Belo Monte Dam project, which has been under construction since March 2011 on the Xingu River in the Pará state of Brazil faced fierce resistance from the Xingu's indigenous peoples and social movements aided by International agencies.

With 11,233MW installed capacity, Belo Monte will be the world's third biggest hydroelectric project when it starts full-fledged operation in 2019. The project was first proposed in 1975 but subsequently abandoned due to stiff opposition from environmental activists and local people. It was redesigned and revived in 2003, and received partial environmental license from the Federal Environmental Agency (IBAMA) in February 2010. The redesigned project, which is being constructed with an estimated investment of $13bn, is however battling at national and international tribunals against charges of displacing thousands of indigenous people and devastating over 1,500km2 of Brazilian rainforest in the Amazon basin.

The Belo Monte project will consist of two dams, one massive canal, two reservoirs and an extensive system of dikes, and will divert about 80% of the Xingu's flow to run the dam's powerhouse, risking drying up the river's 100km long "Big Bend". It is alleged the dam project will result in forced displacement of around 40,000 people including indigenous communities and the extinction of up to a thousand fish species. The project is also alleged to negatively impact the tradition, livelihood, and health of traditional communities including the Juruna and Arara indigenous peoples living along the "Big Bend".

Environmentalists also warn that the Belo Monte project will lead to significant deforestation as well as methane gas emission by submerging a big portion of forest and decomposing the vegetation in its reservoirs.

Ilisu Dam

Ilisu Dam, Turkey

The now under construction Ilisu dam project on the banks of the Tigris River in south-eastern Turkey has grappled with opposition and resistance from both local and international activists as it threatens to submerge 310km2 of ancient Mesopotamia heritage. It is feared the 1,820m long and 135m high rock-fill dam forming a 10.4 billion cubic metre capacity reservoir will flood 300 archaeological sites including the 12,000-year-old town of Hasankeyf, and displace approximately 25,000 people along the Tigris River. In response the Turkish Government has announced most of the monuments from the affected area will be removed and preserved elsewhere, and the unmovable artefacts will be preserved in the dam's underwater area which will be converted into a tourism centre hosting water sports and diving activities.

The 1,200MW Turkish project faced strong reaction from local communities, environmental, cultural heritage and human rights groups in Turkey and abroad when its outline was finalised in the 1980s. Preliminary work on the Ilisu Dam began in the 1990s despite huge criticism, but later came to a standstill when Balfour Beatty, the British firm hired to build the dam, withdrew from the controversial project in 2002. Construction, however, was resumed in 2006 with strong insistence from the Turkish Government and continued in spite of the European financiers withdrawing export credit guarantees for the project in 2009. In January 2013, Turkey's apex administrative court ordered a halt to dam construction until an environmental impact assessment (EIA) is carried out.

The Turkish Government is however alleged to have changed the EIA regulation that provided exemption to the Ilisu Dam project, and are still going ahead with construction aiming to complete the project by 2015.

Narmada Sardar Sarovar Dam

Narmada Sardar Sarovar Dam, India

The Sardar Sarovar Dam irrigation and hydroelectric power project located on the Narmada River in Gujarat, India, has courted controversy ever since construction began in 1961. The project was halted in late 1960s due to disagreements over water sharing between the states through which India's largest westward flowing river Narmada flows. Full scale construction of the dam started in 1987 following the mutually agreeable decision by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) constituted by the Indian Government in 1969.Later in early 1990s, the project suffered a setback as Narmada Bachao Andolan/NBA (also known as Save Narmada Movement) gained momentum objecting to the displacement and resettlement of population near the dam site. Responding to a writ petition filed by NBA, the apex court of India halted construction of the dam in 1995 after the petition reached 80.3m.

The World Bank, which had committed $450m of funding, also withdrew its support from the controversial project in late 1990s succumbing to widespread criticism. Construction, however, resumed in 2000, with the courts allowing the dam to reach its originally planned height of 138m subject to the amicable rehabilitation of the displaced populace. The dam height was raised up to 121.92 metres in 2006, but construction has since been at a stand still due to resettlement issues of around 400 families in the project affected area in the neighbouring state Maharashtra.

The Gujarat Government is still awaiting approval from the Central Government instituted Narmada Control Authority (NCA) to construct the dam to the full height of 138m while the NBA continues its protest to obstruct the move.

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