Doing dams differently can mean development for all

Development is a messy, often inequitable business. Investments and policies usually favour some people or sectors over others and the playing field of opportunity is rarely flat. Should development be just for the majority or is it possible to ensure development for all? Nowhere is this choice more visible than in the approaches governments take to resettlement and downstream impacts from large dams.

Jamie Skinner's picture
Blog by 
Jamie Skinner
30 August 2013
Sélingué dam in Mali (Photo: Moustapha Diallo)

Sélingué dam in Mali (Photo: Copyright Moustapha Diallo)

Dams transform the waterways on which they are built. They reduce floods, store water for irrigation or hydropower and stabilise downstream flows. This creates downstream opportunities for some (often farmers who want year-round irrigation) – but can spell disaster for others (such as fishers and pastoralists whose livestock graze seasonal floodplains).  

These divides reflect a recurring development fault-line, across which the 'modern' can grind up against the traditional. For policymakers, these sides can represent stagnation versus progress. In many semi-arid countries this plays out as strategic choices, where more irrigation means less pastoralism, or more intensive, large-scale irrigated agribusiness ousts smallholder farms in a quest for higher yields, "modern" agriculture and national food security.

Is it not possible to have inclusive development, and not have to choose who should benefit but ensure that everyone does? This would take more time —and perhaps cost more— to achieve, but ultimately it would be less divisive and more equitable. Can you make an omelette without breaking eggs? Our work on dams in Niger suggests you can.

"Backward" to "Modern"

Mention dams and development in Africa and many people’s minds will turn not to Niger but to Ethiopia or perhaps the Congo basin. Both have hit the news recently, the first for the geo-political implications on Egypt of the downstream impacts of its huge Renaissance dam, and the second for the sheer size of the planned Inga hydropower plant. It will be nearly twice as large as China’s Three Gorges dam, with up to 42000 MW of installed capacity. Both reflect an Africa-wide push for secure energy supplies.

Ethiopia aims to become a major hydropower exporter. Another of its dams, the Gibe III under construction on the Omo River, shows that in some countries little has changed in the development paradigm. For centuries, nomadic pastoralists have grazed the semi-arid land through which the Omo flows south from the Ethiopian highlands towards Lake Turkana in Kenya. They depend on the river’s seasonal floods, which create lush grasslands. Now, with the dam due to be completed in 2014, change is on its way.

The Ethiopian government plans to turn 170,000-245,000 hectares of that land over to large-scale industrial irrigation projects that will attract foreign investors. It aims to modernise and transform the local economy to promote opportunities for farmers and businesses.

Both Survival International and Human Rights Watch are concerned that Ethiopia regards the traditional livelihoods of the pastoralists as backward and uncivilised, and will ‘develop’ the herders, without taking their views into account or letting them participate in the decision-making process. Another 20,000 households of farmers, who grow crops on 11,000 hectares of flood recession land along the waterways, will also lose their resource base.

This government move to appropriate communal land on a large scale and its repackaging and development by particular interest groups is not unfamiliar. In Britain, the process of formally and legally enclosing the commons for the benefit of particular land owners and at the expense of “commoners” was regular practice 150-300 years ago. The argument advanced then was the same as now: only when land is clearly owned and managed will good stewardship, investment and productive exploitation result. And while Ethiopia follows that historical pathway and paradigm, which benefits certain actors over others, on the other side of Africa, Niger shows that another way is possible.

Recognising Rights

Unlike elsewhere in West Africa – where governments often legally own the land and local people have customary rights to use it – Niger has gone further over the last twenty years to enable rural people to register their traditional farmland as private property. This approach builds on community customs. It recognises their past and the way in which rural people historically settled and used land, rather than promoting a swift and sweeping transformation from ‘backward’ to ‘modern’.

The government will compensate all 38,000 people that the Kandadji Dam will affect with a land for land swap. They will receive intensive plots on new irrigation schemes to replace traditional rice and millet fields lost to the dam reservoir. In this way, local people have a long term stake in the project.

The Howard G Buffett Foundation is supporting IIED and IUCN through the Global Water Initiative to work with the Niger Government and local communities to draft a new legal framework for these plots that will legally recognise farmers’ rights to sell, rent, inherit or mortgage this land as part of their production or livelihood strategy through a 50 year (renewable) lease. At present farmers are not allowed to do these things on existing government schemes where they have few secure rights. But with these rights secured they will have long term flexibility in using this key asset to develop their family’s livelihoods.

This equitable development outcome arises from the confluence of two practices: first, the social cohesion of Niger and the historic national practice of seeking negotiated, rather than imposed, outcomes, and second, the application of World Bank safeguards which require "just and prior" compensation for flooded land. IIED and IUCN have worked in close consultation with local partners to identify what "just" means in the local context.

Niger’s process is undoubtedly slower and more expensive than that in Ethiopia but it significantly reduces the scope for long term social conflict and impoverishment by providing development opportunities and secure assets and rights for all. The fate of the rural communities in the southern Omo, and around downstream Lake Turkana into Northern Kenya appears much less certain.

Jamie Skinner leads IIED Water Team. He will be presenting work at World Water Week in Stockholm (1-6 September 2013) in the following two sessions: Water Management and Peacebuilding: Connecting the Local to International Policy and Walking the Talk: In the Footsteps of Local Integrated Water Resource Management.

Photo credit: Inga-1 Hydroelectric Dam (Wikipedia/Alaindg).