The true cost of generating renewable energy

Mika Suzuki

We all love the idea of “renewable energy” — it sounds like a good deal especially in a day and age where we all seem to be distressed by the dire realities of global warming (possibly with the exception of some climate change deniers). Hydropower, for example, is a leading example of renewable energy sources and it takes the kinetic energy in water and transforms it into electricity by utilising the gigantic and extensive hydroelectric infrastructures, including dams, reservoirs, and power-plants. In particular, dams — a familiar infrastructure to all of us — have long been a symbol of modernisation, technology, and urbanisation. However, their darker side and their detrimental socio-environmental impacts are often concealed behind the praises of their benefits and the glossy images of their grand concrete structures. In fact, large dam projects have been found to be a prime cause of development-induced forced displacement of communities through its imposition of “(infra)structural Violence” — as Blake and Barney (2018) eloquently put it — on the riparian communities, which challenges its extent of contribution to development.

For many decades, the construction of large dams has been pushed as a development strategy and has been supported by many actors including politicians and multilateral financial institutions, engineering firms, and the private sector. It is not difficult to discern why it has been heavily supported, as there is an extensive list of benefits of building dams, such as the capacity to produce hydropower, irrigation, greater water-supply, better flood-management, and eco-tourism — all of them sounding quite promising and benign. In today’s world, approximately 16 percent of the electricity is generated through hydropower with its largest producers being the United States, Russia, China, Canada, and Brazil. Moreover, dams have been used as a solution in many developing countries in addressing the wide array of problems including insufficient sanitation facilities, lack of clean water-supply, floods, and water pollution. Large hydropower producers have been playing a prominent role in these infrastructure developments, as seen for example in the increasing involvement of Chinese companies and banks in building hundreds of dams in over 70 countries, mainly in South East Asia and Africa. As aforementioned, the significance of dams are not only derived from their functionality but also from their symbolical importance: dams represent the degree of modernity and economic prosperity for many post-colonial nations, and as Rob (2011) states, their presence often translates into a political act of self-assertion at a national level.

However, behind the grandiose images of dams that we often come into contact with through various tourist pamphlets and websites, exists the hidden detrimental impacts that they have on the human insecurity of various riparian communities. The World Commission on Dams made a very restrained estimate that during the period of 1950 and 1990, large dam construction projects had caused the displacement of 40 to 80 million individuals. For example, this year India’s Supreme Court ordered more than 1.1 million people to evict their homes within six months of its announcement after rejecting the land rights of the traditional forest dwellers. However, the impacts of displaced people or ‘project-affected’ people do not end with their forced eviction, where their ancestral and cultural are rooted. An interesting case study by Huang et al. clearly illustrates the other rippling social impacts of displacement, which include threats to people’s employment, income-levels, social network and security, and their overall well-being. Those who are relocated have found to often struggle from a sudden loss of forest and farm land, their residential properties and their assets, as well as limited opportunities of reemployment, ultimately exacerbating their levels and qualities of social and food security. Sure, as Blake and Barney (2018) also point out, food security has always been a concern for many poorer riparian communities, as they are vulnerable to shocks including flooding and other seasonal fluctuations that affect their food production. However, following dam constructions, local water flows and eco-systems have often been disrupted, reducing the availability of natural resources, especially that of fisheries through blocking normal fish migration routes and spring the chemicals in turbinated water, ultimately reducing the villagers’ capacity to make a living from selling fish and cash crops.

The violence caused by the mass displacement of villagers could be tempered to a very small extent if there were benefits to the resettlement such as better living conditions or employment. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise. Let us take a look at the Ban Sivilay villagers, who were the community members that were evicted due to the Theun-Hinboun Hydropower Project (THHP) in central Laos. They were given a false promise that they would have large irrigated rice land and other assets and machineries to produce rice after relocating. Yet to their huge disappointment they were only to find out later that their conditions for agricultural production were worse off in their resettlement site, and there were rising social conflicts between the host community where the latter would disallow the villagers’ collection of forest and agricultural resources. What’s more, the issue of displacement is worsened by the fact that those who oppose the mass dam-projects are often at risk of being threatened with arrest and imprisonment, leaving villagers with no option but to flee their homes. Berta Cáceres for example — a Honduran activist who publicly campaigned against the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam —  was shot dead in 2016, allegedly by members of the company that had the concession to build the dam. Yet, many of the injustices that occur surrounding dams remain hidden to us, Gindroz argues, because of the increasingly centralised state that has the power to censor and strictly monitor online media so that they can maintain the positive image of dams

In essence, it becomes evident how dam projects — a development strategy ostensibly used to promote economic growth and poverty reduction — are increasingly contributing to a violation of people’s human rights and livelihoods, marking a huge contradiction in the goals they set out to achieve. In an age where dams have increasingly become a booming industry, the cases illustrated here challenge us to ask an important yet complex series of questions: can we outweigh the economic benefits of development over its deleterious social impacts? Are dams a path to development or de-development? Furthermore, who ultimately has the decision-making power and how can a truly responsible and sustainable version of development take place?

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