The World's Most Controversial Hydropower Dam Projects

If rivers are fully utilized, they can produce enough electricity to power the entire world. Despite being green energy, hydro is far from perfect.

Hydroelectric power is one of the cleanest and oldest forms of energy. Watermills powered sawmills and grain mills during the Industrial Revolution and played a crucial role in developing the United States and Europe. The medieval wheel has since been replaced by powerful turbines that produce electricity to power an entire country. Hydroelectricity is the most preferred source of renewable energy and accounts for 15% of global electricity compared to 4% generated by other renewable sources. Each megawatt produced prevents the emission of greenhouse gases that would have been produced should thermal sources be used. If rivers are fully utilized, they can produce enough electricity to power the entire world. Despite being green energy, hydro is far from perfect. Large dams and hydroelectric facilities harm the ecosystem. But it does not have to be this way, the La Esperanza Hydroelectric facility in Honduras is proof that dams and the environment can coexist amicably. The hydro project utilizes facilities linked to an older dam, thus causing minimum impact to the ecosystem. The facility became the first of its kind to sell carbon credits. 

The Growing Demand For Hydropower

There are about 3,500 hydropower dams in planning or under construction, and by 2030 the number of large dams will double from the current 57, 000 to about 110,000. Brazil has the highest number of dams, but China produces the most electricity from hydropower. The LA Plata river basin in South America is the most damned in the world, followed by Ganges-Brahmaputra. The Belo Monte dam in Brazil and Grand Renaissance dam in Ethiopia are just but a few of the large dams under construction. The Mekong river has five complete dams, two are under construction, and a further ten are in planning. The World Bank was heavily involved in financing mega dams until the 1990s when public pressure and environmental concerns forced it to withdraw from such projects. 

China Leads The World

China has experienced significant growth in the past five decades to become the second-largest economy in the world. In addition, it is the world’s most populous country. These factors combined to make China the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. There is mounting pressure for the state to reduce its carbon footprint. In response, it resorted to solar and hydroelectric sources. Today, China generates more hydroelectricity than any other country and twice as much as the United States. All the rush to produce clean energy is devastating to the environment and communities. Thousands of acres of land are cleared while millions of people are displaced to make way for mega dams. The following are some controversial dams ever built. 

Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges Dam is the largest hydropower project in the world. It was built on the Yangtze River in China’s Hubei province. The dam covers an estimated 244 square miles and displaced over 1.5 million people during construction. Its reservoir holds about 42 billion tons of water. The Chinese government was accused of neglecting an environmental and socioeconomic study as well as withholding crucial information regarding the planning of the project. The Three Gorges Dam was widely criticized for human rights violations during the displacement process as well as geologic and environmental disasters. The project reduced the flow of water upstream resulting in droughts and increased frequency of earthquakes and landslides. It also submerged several mines, waste dumps, factories and industrial centres. Biodiversity experts claim that the dam has affected plant and animal species along the river and threatens the fishing industry. 

The Grand Renaissance Dam

The Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia’s Benishangul Gumuz state will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power project upon completion. There are fears that downstream countries Egypt and Sudan could suffer from the reduced flow. An agreement signed in the 1920s entitles Egypt to 90% of river Nile’s water, but in reality, 86% of the flow originates from Ethiopia. Ecological experts also warn that the dam could affect up to 150 miles of the river course and displaced over 6,000 people in neighboring villages. In 2018, Egypt cautioned that it had considered destroying the dam should it interfere with its share of the Nile River. The Ethiopian government was forced to finance the entire project after private investors, and the World Bank pulled out. IMF warned that the project would place a heavy burden on the country’s budget, but the Ethiopian government proceeded undeterred. The dam is expected to generate about 6,000 megawatts of electricity upon completion. 

Narmada Sardar Sarovar Dam

The Sardar Sarovar hydroelectric and irrigation dam is built on the Narmada River in Gujarat state, India. The project consistently attracted controversy since its construction began in the early 1960s. In the late 1960s, construction was halted after states disagreed on a water-sharing formula. The government set up a tribunal to find a working agreement to allow the project to continue. Construction resumed in 1987, but a few years later the Supreme Court of India stopped the project following a petition by people objecting forceful displacement. The World Bank subsequently withdrew its $450 million funding. In 2000, construction resumed following an amicable agreement between the government and the locals. Population growth and demand for electricity prompted the government to re-plan the project. 

Ilisu Dam

The Ilisu hydroelectric dam project is located on the Tigris River in Turkey. The project has grappled with resistance and opposition from international and local activities as it threatens to submerge ancient cultural and Mesopotamia heritage. It began filling in 2018 and archaeologists fear that in full capacity it will submerge over 300 archaeological sites including ancient settlements. It also displaced more than 25,000 people along the Tigris River. The Turkish government plans to relocate monuments from affected areas. Preliminary work on the dam began in 1990 despite criticism from human rights groups, environmental and local communities. In 2002, Balfour Beatty, the British firm contracted to build the reservoir withdrew, bringing the project to a standstill. European and other international financiers also withdrew from the project, but the Turkish government persisted in its effort to continue. In 2013, the Supreme Court of Turkey halted its construction until an environmental impact assessment was conducted, but the government changed the laws and provided an exemption to the project.  

Belo Monte Dam

The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Brazil has faced constant criticism since its construction began in March 2011. The dam is built on Xingu River in Para state. Local indigenous people, social movements, environmentalists, and international agencies objected to the project citing degradation of the environment. Belo Monte is one of the biggest hydroelectric dams in the world with a capacity of 11, 233 megawatts. The project was proposed in 1975 but was abandoned due to stiff opposition. It was revived in 2003 following a partial approval by the Federal Environmental Agency, but international and national tribunals waged a new battle against the displacement of indigenous communities and the destruction of the Amazon forest. The project consists of two dams, two reservoirs, one canal, and a comprehensive system of dykes that divert more than 80% of the river’s flow. About 40,000 people were displaced during construction while thousands of fish species while locked out of their feeding and breeding habitats. 

Banqiao Dam

When dams are not properly maintained or built, they can break and cause massive damage. The Banqiao dam in China collapsed and killed more than 171, 000 people in 1975. Environmentalists and structural engineers had raised concerns over the safety of the dam. Scientists have linked more than 100 earthquakes to dam construction. Evidence suggests that the Zipingpu Dam may have triggered the Sichuan earthquake that killed over 80,000 people in 2008. 

About the Author

Victor Kiprop is a writer from Kenya. When he's not writing he spends time watching soccer and documentaries, visiting friends, or working in the farm. 


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