September 19, 2017

Misguided investment

Book Review: Developing Electric Power – thirty years of World Bank experience, by Hugh Collier. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1984.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 14 No. 3, June/July 1984.


This book was produced for the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, in other words the World Bank. Its most striking feature is its lack of concern for the social and environmental effects of generating electricity. Only four paragraphs are devoted to this essential issue; they are worth quoting in full:

“One of the most important changes of the past two decades to affect attitudes toward economic growth has been concern for the environment. Most economic activities affect the environment in one way or another, and some can have significantly detrimental effects unless specific measures, which usually cost money, are taken to avoid them. The possible environmental effects of development projects are now investigated as part of the Bank’s appraisal, and an Office of Environmental Affairs is responsible for providing expertise and devising guidelines for handling environmental problems.

“The economic activities which have the most impact on the environment are industrial and mining development and urbanisation. Power projects, however, can also have environmental effects: thermal power stations can cause air pollution, and the water from the cooling process can effect life in the bodies of water into which it is discharged. These can normally be taken care of without too great a cost. Hydro projects are often fairly ‘clean’, although the reservoirs they sometimes create can contribute to the spread of water-borne diseases if preventative measures are not taken.

“One potentially serious problem is the necessity to relocate the inhabitants of areas which will be in-undated by a hydro project. The involuntary resettlement of people can give rise to many socio-economic problems, particularly if whole communities are to be relocated in unfamiliar surroundings. In some of the Bank’s early operations these problems were not well foreseen or planned for and created a great deal of difficulty.

“Since then the problems of resettlement have been the subject of sociological research, and the implications are better understood. In the past decade, resettlement has been handled effectively in many instances with a minimum of danger to the well-being of the people concerned. One of the first was the Paulo Alfonso hydro project in Brazil, which involved the relocation of some 10,000 people. Detailed plans for resettlement were an Integral part of the design of the project, and the Bank’s agricultural staff reviewed the progress of this program. A great deal was learned from this experience which was used to good effect in other cases such as a water supply project in Ghana and a hydro project in Thailand. In 1980 the Bank prepared an operational memorandum for its staff, covering all aspects of in-voluntary resettlement programs.”

Needless to say, even what the Bank has published is very misleading. Indeed the above extract could even be construed as being designed to mislead in order to justify the Bank’s totally irresponsible policies. Thus it is misleading to say that thermal power station can cause air pollution. The Bank should admit that thermal power stations do cause air pollution unless vast sums are spent on scrubbers that few Third World countries can afford – indeed which America, the richest country in the world, appears unable to afford.

It is misleading to talk about the reservoirs which hydro projects “sometimes create”. A reservoir is an essential part of a hydro project. Such projects, we are told, can contribute to the spread of water-borne diseases “if preventative measures are not taken”. In fact, in tropical areas, these schemes inevitably contribute to the spread of water-borne diseases, and preventative measures, which are rarely taken, have never succeeded in controlling them.

The Bank then tries to imply that the problem of resettling people whose villages and towns have to be flooded to make way for a vast reservoir has now been solved. This is totally false. The resettlement problem is, if anything, worse today than it was 20 years ago. The world is becoming an ever more overcrowded place and when several hundred thousand people have got to be resettled there is almost never a suitable place to which they can be moved. If any area is uninhabited in most of the dry hot countries where large dams
are being built today, it is because such areas are in fact uninhabitable.

Moreover, as Third World countries get further and further into debt, less rather than more money is being made available for resettlement. The 1.5 million people, who are to be resettled as a result of the Mahaweli Scheme In Sri Lanka, for Instance, will be given a pittance to finance their proper resettlement (£90 per family). They will then be moved from the fertile humid zone in the Kandy area into arid, infertile and malaria-infested areas.

No mention is made by the Bank of all the other terrible social and environmental costs of building large dams in hot dry areas – such as the flooding of valuable agricultural land and forests; the annihilation of the local wildlife: and the premature siltation of reservoirs which, in the Indian experience, have silted up between 3 and 17 times faster than predicted. Nor does the Bank mention that by financing massive hydroelectric schemes – and a considerable proportion of the money lent to the Third World is for this purpose – they have severely exacerbated the global problems of poverty, malnutrition and disease.

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