Still Wasting the Rain?

It is exactly 30 years since I started to write the book that became Wasting the Rain (eventually published in 1992).  I have been thinking about this book a lot in the last couple of years, as Chris Schulz and I have been working on the history of the World Commission on Dams as part of the FutureDAMS project.  How different, I finding myself asking, is the world of dams today to that three decades ago?

When I sat down to write Wasting the Rain, I had been working for more than a decade in dam construction, river basin planning and irrigation.  I had done a PhD on the downstream impacts of the Bakolori Dam in Nigeria on floodplain agriculture, worked for an engineering company on a dam resettlement project, and studied the economy and ecology of African floodplain wetlands.  I had seen several dam projects and irrigation schemes from the inside.  I knew a little about the way development projects worked, and why sometimes they didn’t.  I had learned what the people affected by large-scale development projects thought of them, and how they responded to the changes the projects caused.

The title of Wasting the Rain was taken from the comment of a young civil engineer in Nigeria on the ways in which floodplain people used seasonal river flows.  The drylands of northern Nigeria were rainless for about nine months of the year, and the river was in spate only during the short rainy season.  To my friend, this floodwater simply ran to waste.  It seemed obvious to them that a dam was needed to hold it back, so it could be properly used, both for irrigation through the long dry season and for hydropower.  Enter the helpful engineers stage right, with hydrological models, design blueprints, the surgically accurate application of concrete and steel, their dams, canals, roads and power stations, to make all new, and better.

Wasting the Rain was written to offer an alternative view of people, rivers and development in Africa.  It looked at water and land from the perspective of the people who live in floodplains. It focused on the ingenuity of floodplain farmers in adapting cropping systems to variations in floodplain soils and flood depth and duration, and their skilled integration of agriculture, fishing, livestock and off-farm income around the annual flood.  In Africa, as elsewhere, floodplain communities and ways of life are built around, and sustained by, the seasonal dynamics of rain and river.  Floodplain people across Africa do not waste the rain at all, they use it very cleverly.  They do not build dams (at least, not large concrete ones), but they build adaptively on the opportunities offered by river, soils and rain. 

By contrast, the book argued that the true wastage too often lay in the construction of dams.  Dams are expensive, complicated and exciting projects to build.  In a country like Nigeria in the 1980s, after a decade of drought in the North, the federal government was looking for ways to invest spiralling oil revenues from the South: dams and irrigation schemes looked like a perfect development solution, a one-shot inoculation of modernity that would transform the country.  There were also rich pickings, both legal and illegal, from the many contracts to study, design and build projects. 

The Bakolori project in northern Nigeria was a classic in this respect.   Its dam was technically effective, built soundly, and more or less on time and to budget.  But the irrigation scheme that it was built to supply was (like other large scale irrigation schemes then being developed in Africa) completely uneconomic, offering far lower yields and rates of return than had optimistically been promised in the cost-benefit analysis.   Meanwhile the dam had the range of social impacts on floodplain people that have become depressingly familiar.   Those farming the floodplain upstream, whose homes and land were flooded by the reservoir, were moved to resettlement villages built on barren laterite hills above the dam, and promised irrigation water once the project was finished.  Those living for hundreds of kilometres downstream found the floods they depended on changed – floods came late (because the reservoir was filled before water was released), were smaller than previously, and unpredictable in timing.  The communities in the irrigation area itself, below the dam, had their land bulldozed as irrigation canals were put in, but had to wait until the dam and supply canal were finished before getting it back, or receiving water and staring to farm again.  It was a long hungry wait, and there were angry blockades of the dam in protest, and an undocumented number of protestors were killed.

When I look back now, I see that Wasting the Rain was romantic about the life of toil and poverty in the un-dammed floodplains of Africa.  I was young and naïve, and arrogant in presuming to write from the perspective of the people I had met working the land along Nigerian rivers.  But I think I was right to point to the effectiveness with which local people adapted to the spatial and temporal variability of environmental conditions in African river floodplains.  The way they used land contrasted sharply with the ideas that drove dam projects.  At Bakolori, the project’s designers promised economic ‘development’ (even if this never materialized), and in its name they completely restructured the landscape to fit their blueprint. They tried to lock future development into a straightjacket of concrete, and gtheir plans did not work.

This line of argument in the book owed a lot to the work of Californian Anthropologist Ted Scudder, who had studied dams and irrigation projects all over the world.  He started by working with Gwembe Tonga people of the floodplain of the Zambezi displaced by the Kariba Dam in the 1950s.   From the 1960s, he and Elizabeth Colson followed evacuees in Zambia through from one generation to the next.  In the process they, and their students, showed how long the negative impacts of resettlement could last.  In the 1980s Ted began to set out a more holistic approach to river basin planning, building in particular on studies of the River Senegal.  Ted was not opposed to dams in principle, but urged that they be used to support and improve floodplain agriculture rather than to attempt to transform it.  He argued that dam projects should be designed to address the needs of both reservoir evacuees upstream and those suffering from disrupted floods downstream.  He became very interested in the idea of drawdown agriculture and irrigation  around reservoir margins, and planned releases to provide predictable floods for downstream farmers (drawing in particular on the work of Jackie King, and what have become known as ‘environmental flows’). 

In 1998, Ted Scudder became one of the Commissioners of the World Commission on Dams (WCD), and his ideas (and his breadth of experience and charismatic enthusiasm) meant that his approach had quite an influence on the Commission’s findings.  One of their seven strategic priorities was ‘recognising entitlements and sharing benefits’.  In particular, the Commission suggested that ‘people adversely affected by a dam project should be among the first to benefit from the project ( p. 243).  That was classic Scudder.

When the World Commission on Dams’ report,  Dams and Development, was published in 2000, I felt that at last there was a clearly laid out approach to dam planning that could render unexpected negative social and environmental impacts something from the past. It did not, of course, work out like that. 

After 2000, my own research took me away from water and dams to look at the social dimensions of biodiversity conservation projects.  It has been very interesting to turn back to dams as a member of the FutureDAMS consortium.  So what has happened in the 30 years since I sat down to write Wasting the Rain?

Frankly, it feels like groundhog day.  After a short lull after 2000, dam planning and construction surged in the developing world, and there are an awful lot of new dams.  Some things have changed.   Different sources of funding dominate the sector, and different corporations (notably from China) are designing and building dams. The negative impacts of dams are better recognised, and there are new frameworks for dam planning to guide dam developers to avoid them, notably the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol.  There is a growing interest in the identification and management of ‘risk’ in hydropower projects from lenders and investors.

However dams are still mired in controversy.   Negative social and environmental impacts have not gone away.  Far from it.  New large dams come with all the problems familiar from the old pre-WCD world – downstream impacts unrecognised in technical planning, or ignored; people displaced by reservoirs whose resettlement left them permanently disadvantaged; grassroots movements demanding environmental justice; economists struggle to find a rule-based approach for navigating benefits and costs.  Irrigation schemes in sub-Saharan Africa today are failing to deliver in just the same ways as their predecessors: overpromising, underperforming, and expensive. 

Why has so little changed?  Every observer has their own preferred list of reasons, just as they have their own assessment of how skewed the balance between benefits and impacts of large of dams really is.  For what it is worth, here is mine.

The problem today, as in the 1980s, is that dams epitomise ‘development from above’.  They emerge from a technical development planning complex that sits outside the societies that they chiefly affect.  They are designed in terms of national or international development needs, not the needs of floodplain people.  They are conceived of as a way to increase the size of the national economy, and to bring the maximum number of people within that economy out of poverty.  Questions of the distribution of the economic pie are treated as secondary. 

Too often, riverine societies are therefore treated as eggs that have to be broken to make the omelette of development.  Dam planners essentially see the ideas of floodplain people as irrelevant to development decisions, believing that their needs and interests can and should be traded off against national need, or that by some alchemy they will be transformed into sophisticated wage workers thriving in an expanded urban economy.  To those planning dams, knowing what floodplain people think and feel about the future is only important if it is useful in negotiations to persuade them to move quietly from their land.  Their dissatisfaction, or plight, is a project risk that needs to be managed. Compensation for losses due to the project is a costly necessary evil, to be minimized to protect the positive balance of the cost-benefit analysis.

Politically, many dams are built as if riverine people do not matter, because the unfortunate truth is that those people actually do not matter very much in political terms.  They are not wealthy or powerful; often they are not literate, their villages are often remote and they can often be fobbed off with promises.  If there are protests, these can easily be contained and localized (unlike the 1980s and 1990s, when groups like Narmada Bachao Andolan in India pushed back hard against the state).  It also really doesn’t matter greatly what anti-dam activists in industrialised countries think, because in the end they also have little influence on dam decisions on the ground.  Opposition and legal battles may slow dam projects down and make them more expensive, but they rarely stop them altogether.

At best, the calculation of costs and benefits is done well enough and early enough in the planning process that the dams built have a plausible chance of delivering net benefit.  But very often such assessments are formulaic, sometimes merely box-ticking exercises.  Large dams remain risky projects for fragile developing economies, dogged by cost overruns and negative impacts, and fuelling debt and inflation.  Moreover, if the benefits promised to affected people do not materialise, or are smaller than planned, while costs (financial, social, environmental) are larger than expected, nobody will know: economic assessments of completed projects at maturity are often done by interested parties such as funders, but they are rarely published anywhere that is subject to peer review.  There is much too little learning from mistakes, because such learning is painful and threatens too many vested interests inside and outside the country where the dam is built.

OK, so if I was naïve thirty years ago, I accept that I am cynical now – at least about dams (and irrigation schemes).  Nonetheless, it has been both shocking and depressing to come back to the dam world and find the same mix of problems, arguments and protagonists, the same kinds of impacts and injustices, as in the 1980s and 1990s.  Too many dams are still being conceived and planned without adequate consideration of issues such as long-term impacts on resettled and downstream communities, reservoir methane, or the long-term sustainability of growth-based economic development models.  Their legacies will be the damage they do to the long-term productivity of floodplains and the welfare of their people, the accumulation of national debt (which will trigger further grandiloquent projects in future whose supposed benefits are calculated to repay it), and the burden of costs of dam removal at the end of their lives.  This is a Faustian bargain today, just as it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

What can be done?  Well, reading Dams and Development would be a start.  It got at least some things right.  As it said, we need an approach to dams that makes those affected into the main beneficiaries: not bought off, moved and forgotten, but treated as the key stakeholders.  We need to treat floodplains as the heart of future development, not raw material to be consumed to feed endless economic growth elsewhere.   We need joined-up thinking about rivers and their waters, not narrow attempts to find sites to build dams.  We need a river industry, not a dams industry, willing to consider rivers from an interdisciplinary perspective, and capable of holistic planning. 

We also need an approach to development that does not assume that water is being ‘wasted’ unless a river is dammed.  ‘Options assessment’ was another key proposal of the World Commission on Dams: what is the development problem, and is a dam the best solution to it?  Development planners need to stop operating as if they still believed that economies could ‘take off’ into soaring and sustainable flight (as the anti-communist economist Walter Rostow assured generations of development planners it could).  We need an approach to development that treats climate change as important, and does not sacrifice rivers and their people in the name of a pumped-up energy grid.   We need an approach that does not see development as a transitive verb, something done to people, but instead sees it as helping people bring about change themselves. 

So, cynicism married with idealism: perhaps a disastrous mix.  Nonethetheless, I see a world of dams that is as coercive and dysfunctional as it ever was. 

I am reminded of a Hausa proverb used by my old boss in Nigeria about the implications of development for small farmers whose lives were upended by the dam and irrigation project at Bakolori: hauka ne ga kaza ta auri kyanwa.  It means ‘it is madness for a chicken to marry a cat’.   The cat is the development planner: woe betide those swept aside by the cat’s paw in the name of the greater good.

Thanks to David Hulme, Chris Sandbrook, Chris Schulz and Jamie Skinner for comments.  They bear no responsibility for the views expressed. An abridged version of this blog appears on the FutureDAMS project website.

3 thoughts on “Still Wasting the Rain?

  1. Pingback: Africa: Big Irrigation Projects in Africa Have Failed to Deliver. What's Needed Next – Afro News

  2. Pingback: Big irrigation projects in Africa have failed to deliver. What’s needed next - Business Reporter

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