Do large dams deliver deception and delusion? Oxford University Research says: they do!

The protagonists like to equate large dams with development. Those who suffer the adverse consequences equate them with displacement, deforestation, deprivation & debt. While the protagonists see dams as drought proofing measure, critics have for long associated dams with drying up of rivers, destruction of biodiversity and depletion of groundwater in downstream areas. The debate has been going on for long, but we have seen little change in the way decisions about dams are taken. There is little democracy there. The dissent almost invariably is dealt with repression.

So there are a lot of d-words associated with dams. Two new words have now have joined that long list: Deception and Delusion. The negative conclusions about dams have come in recent weeks from two reputed international forums: Oxford University research and Report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Oxford University’s Atif Ansar, Bent Flyvbjerg, Alexander Budzier & Daniel Lunn have published in 2014 a research paper titled “Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower mega-project development. Energy Policy”. The paper is based on evidence based research and “outside view, applied to large dams for the first time here”. After analyzing data from 246 large dams commissioned between 1934 and 2007 from all over the world, looking at all kinds of dams and objectives of the dams, they have concluded that there is inherent systematic psychological delusion and political deception on the part of officials in deciding to take up large dams. This results in underestimating the costs, construction periods and over estimating the benefits, putting a question mark about the selection of correct options. They suggest that “decision-makers’ forecasts, and hence ex ante judgment, are often adversely biased”, leading to mega dams typically facing adverse outcomes.

The authors suggest that there is need to “Create transparency on risk profiles of various energy alternatives, from not only the perspective of financial cost and benefit but also environmental and social impact – hard evidence is a counter – point to experts’ and promoters’ oft-biased inside view.” This is exactly in line with what we have been suggesting here in India in functioning of various decision making forums. The authors in fact conclude, “Projects with a poor cost and schedule performance are also likely to have a poor environmental and social track record. A greater magnitude of cost and schedule overruns is thus a robust indicator of project failure… This result suggests that developing countries in particular, despite seemingly the most in need of complex facilities such as large dams, ought to stay away”.

Bhama Askhed Dam in Maharshtra, canal systems not ready despite 2 decades of work. Photo:SANDRP
Bhama Askhed Dam in Maharshtra, canal systems not ready despite 2 decades of work. Photo:SANDRP

This phenomenon of delusion and deception is best illustrated in India by the Sardar Sarovar Project in Gujarat. The project that started with cost estimates of Rs 6406 crores is far from complete when close to Rs 50 000/- crores have already been spent. The corruption involved in this project will be known only when there is a credible independent scrutiny of the expenses; the current regime is totally against even independent lokpal or use of RTI. The full social and environmental impacts of the project are still not known. The most touted benefit of the project: drought proofing Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat is now not even part of the Gujarat government agenda and mind you, there was no agitation against building canals in these regions. In stead water is being taken away for unplanned and unjustified utilization for urban and industrial use. And now the project is used to push political agenda of constructing the world’s highest statue.

There are many other instances that exemplify the delusion and deception in decisions on dams in India. The Maharashtra irrigation scam and white wash of it by the Chitale Commission is one of the recent examples. The non transparent, non participatory and unaccountable functioning of the Advisory Committee in the Union Ministry of Water Resources for consideration of techno-economic viability of Irrigation, Flood Control and Multi Purpose Project Proposals (TAC in short) is a perennial problem. The Khuga and Thoubal irrigation projects in Manipur, both initiated in 1980 are still ongoing and have seen cost escalations of 28 and 35 times the original costs, but the TAC has been clearing all such claims without any questions! Same is the case of Dhansiri irrigation project in Assam, started in 1975, still ongoing with cost having gone up by over 36 times the original cost!

Dhansiri Project on Dhansiri RIver, Assam. Photo: Jayanta Kumar Das, Panoramia
Dhansiri Project on Dhansiri RIver, Assam. Photo: Jayanta Kumar Das, Panoramia

In fact it is not secret even for Planning Commission that Major and Medium Irrigation Projects are not delivering any benefits for over last two decades now to the net irrigated area. In case of hydropower projects, the installed capacity has gone up exactly twice in last two decades, from 20275 MW in 1993-94 to 40524 MW in March 2014, but generation per MW installed capacity has gone down by over 16% during this period, but no questions are asked!

The second significant adverse comment on dams came from the IPCC’s second working group report of the fifth Assessment, made public on March 31, 2014. The report has a number of significant references on how large dams perform in changing climate. This lead to the conclusion that Dams and infrastructure projects contribute significantly to “non-climate impacts” which, after interacting with changing climate, exacerbate the overall impact on human societies and ecosystems. Climate change and dams together affect a greater eco-region; Sediment Trapping by reservoirs exacerbates impact of sea level rise. In case of Flood Protection, dams and embankments may do more harm than good & Ecological measures would fare better. Dams and Hydropower projects affect biodiversity, which is critical in facing climate change challenges; In the tropics, global warming potential of hydropower may exceed that of Thermal Power; Dams increase vulnerability of weaker sections to climate change & that Hydropower itself is vulnerable to Climate Change. This again is not exactly breaking news, we have been raising these issues with Ministry of Environment and Forests, its Expert Appraisal Committee and others. Now that IPCC has said this, the official agencies will take note of this.

In face of such clear evidence of role of big dams and big hydropower projects in changing climate, there is no dearth of proponents selling hydro projects as clean, green, cheap and renewable, including some environmental groups like Centre for Science and Environment.

As India goes to polls, the least one can expect that the election manifestoes and promises of the parties seeking mandate to rule would pledge to take a hard look at the performance of big dams in India and take corrective steps as required. In stead we have statements from BJP prime ministerial candidate saying North East India is heaven for hydropower development and they would take up Inter-linking of rivers in big way. The Congress has no different agenda. Even the Aam Aadmi Party, unfortunately has refrained from taking any clear stand on this issue. It seems the people have a long road of struggle ahead.

Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP


1. An edited version appeared at: http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/pages/Details.aspx?528 in May 2014

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