Dam it

A somewhat Onionesque story from the International Herald-Tribune says various transnational engineering firms, plus the World Bank and China, figure they’ve found the solution to a lot of Africa’s problems: gigantic hydro dams.

As the world’s political leaders debate ways to alleviate poverty in Africa, industrialists are moving ahead with their own designs for pan-African development – including the building of the world’s largest hydroelectric dam at a bend in the Congo River, between Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Called Grand Inga, this giant dam will cost $80 billion to build and will have twice the installed generating capacity of the current record-holder, the Three Gorges Dam in China. Grand Inga would produce enough electricity to serve all of the more than 500 million Africans who currently go without.

Only a few problems:

  • Running transmission lines from one spot in the heart of Africa to all the places the electricityless people live in a very large continent with a zillion different biomes
  • Concentrating all that vital generating capacity in that one spot, which happens to be in a country that’s volatile even by African standards
  • The potential for massive environmental damage
  • Gross corruption

Do we even need a list like this? Who could possibly think that an $80-billion project in D.R. Congo, nearly twice the economic output of the whole country in 2004, could end up not wrecking everything it touches? And the developed world, through the World Bank, will be underwriting it.
All the things that were wrong with hydro megaprojects before they were abandoned as a development strategy 15 or 20 years ago are still wrong, except now we care — or are supposed to care — even more about the environment and are at even greater risk from radical social movements that exist largely to screw things up for others so they can thrive on the chaos. See John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog for excellent coverage of this phenomenon, and how much such groups enjoy isolated long-chain infrastructure like a succession of transmission towers.

We’ve also learned a few things about development economics from guys like Muhammad Yunus, who figured out that little loans to microentrepreneurs, particularly women, were a lot more productive than providing fleeting labourer work to men, and we’ve come around to the realization that megaprojects aren’t much good for those of us in North America and Europe and Australia, either, so why would we inflict any more of them on Africa? Aside from the fact that there are a whole bunch of Chinese dam-builders who don’t have much to do these days, I mean.

(Speaking of which, maybe the Chinese companies “armed with a wealth of experience in constructing large hydro dams” the IHT‘s story mentions ought to be looking at their own rivers if they’re looking at anybody’s. A Grand Inga dam on a Chinese waterway could save an awful lot of coal plants.)

Small-scale local generation is more environmentally friendly, vastly more resistant to war and natural disaster, doesn’t require a battalion of trained engineers to repair when something does go wrong, and fits in with our best understanding of what makes a development project work. Naturally, we’ll ignore it.

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