The Myth of the Win-Win

Acknowledging Complexity in Water Development - By Fred Pearce

IFPRI/Ian Masias

For years, development agencies such as the World Bank have had a mantra: dams equal development. They have argued that, across much of the world, the amount of water-storage capacity behind large dams on major rivers correlates well with GDP. Because stored water provides multiple benefits such as hydroelectricity and irrigation water, buffers against drought and reduces damage from floods. — Not everyone agrees, of course.

The counter-discourse holds that dams impoverish poor rural people by flooding productive land, damaging wetland ecosystems and floodplains where the rural poor harvest natural resources, dispossess communities of their water rights, and create economic instability by placing undue reliance on unpredictable rainfall regimes. 

Even the World Bank flirted with this view for a while back in the 1990s, when it had a moratorium on funding new large dams.

The trouble is that the dominant discourse and the counter-discourse rarely meet.  Dam supporters point to a range of national economic benefits, emphasizing the flexibility of dams and the relatively positive environmental benefits as compared with other forms of energy.  On the other side—according to a recent analysis of literature on the social impact of large dams led by Oxford University geographer Julian Kirchherr—found that “the existing literature is highly biased.”  It is overwhelmingly focused on negative impacts and “the views of dam developers [are] rarely examined.”

How can we break through this impasse?

One answer has been to find a more neutral analytical framework, such as whether dams create or diminish water security.  More to the point, perhaps: what are the trade-offs associated with dams?  Do they deliver water security for all, or just for those in charge of the engineering?

Mark Zeitoun of the University of East Anglia, England, in collaboration with WLE’s Nathanial Matthews, and others have recently critiqued how these questions play out by pursuing different approaches to analysing water security and examining the question: water security for whom?

In particular, they question what they call the “reductionist approach” of the World Bank and its fellow-travellers in equating water security with a narrow range of “calculable risks”, arguing that these “underplay diversity in society and the environment.”  Or, to put it another way, the chosen metrics forget about the losers in the game of water security because they are, well, society’s losers.

The authors argue against the reductive simplicity in favour of a return to complexity.  Such complexity is, of course, difficult to convey in a short blog.  Read the full paper top get the richness of their analysis.  The paper certainly packs a punch by bringing politics back into an issue too often mired in technocratic and faux-depoliticised language.

As Nathanial Matthews states, “Poorly directed development can pose a greater risk to the water security and livelihoods of the poor and marginalized than climate change. We need to embrace systems thinking, politics, and interdisciplinary approaches even though they may not readily provide the simple solutions policy makers and development banks seek.”

While Zeitoun and colleagues acknowledge the widely-held fear that heated discourse on water security would lead to a widespread militarization of water issues—one can imagine tanks lining up along the banks of international rivers—they also acknowledge that such an escalation has not, by and large, come to pass.  Despite some sabre rattling, the predictions of “water wars” on the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, and around the Aral Sea in central Asia have not been fulfilled.   

Instead, water’s capture by bankers, investors, engineers, and blinkered policymakers—peddling their own economic versions of water security—holds perils that may be just as dangerous. 

The River Senegal, the most dammed river in West Africa

A recent environmental analysis by the OMVS, the intergovernmental agency that runs the dams that control the river, conceded that by eliminating triver’s annual floods, the structures have “made flood-recession crops and fishing on the floodplain more precarious, which makes the rural production systems of the middle valley less diversified, and therefore more vulnerable.”

This is no unfortunate accident.  As one official put it to me during a recent visit: “The agency was created to build dams for irrigation and hydropower and to regulate flows; it has no fisheries, pastures or ecosystems mandate.”

So while the benefits from these investments are real, the downsides and their impact on many communities along the river have too often been ignored. As Zeitoun and company argue, there are inevitably winners and losers and this needs to be factored into the planning and monitoring process.

As a result, the dams are estimated to have eliminated up to 90 per cent of the river’s fisheries and ended seasonal flooding of some 250,000 hectares of land where farmers planted crops as the waters receded, pastoralists grazed their animals, and forests and wildlife flourished. 

So much for water security

The prevailing reductionist approach is bad hydrology because, by reducing rivers to plumbing systems, it ignores the ecological value of water, and sidelines consideration of aquifers and soil-water.  It is bad development economics because it is blind even to the complex resource economics of pastoralism, fishing and rain-fed agriculture.  And it is bad politics, because it has no strategy for securing water rights for all.

As Zeitoun et al. note, the belief that controlling rivers brings hydrological security too often “offers little to the most vulnerable communities.”

Fred Pearce is a journalist and author based in London, UK. He writes regularly for New Scientist magazine, the Guardian newspaper and Yale e360 web site.  His books include Peoplequake, When the Rivers Run Dry and, mostly recently, The Land Grabbers.

This post has first been published on the Thrive Blog "thrive — the future of our food, water and environment" of CGIAR's Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.