Hydropower for Me But Not for Thee

Why Poor Nations Deserve the Large Dams From Which the West Has Benefited


Senator Leahy of Vermont represents a state that depends heavily on clean, cheap hydropower. His use of the budget bill to deny poor countries an opportunity to develop their hydropower resources is a perfect example of how NGOs and politicians in rich countries advocate that the poor follow a path that they, the rich, never have followed, nor are willing to follow. In most rich countries over 80 percent of economically viable hydropower potential is tapped; in Africa, the comparable figure is under 5 percent. Developing nations see through the hypocrisy, and fully acknowledge that electricity and infrastructure are key to economic growth and poverty reduction. So should the West.

March 14, 2014 | John Briscoe,

One of the great divides between the rich and poor worlds is the access to electricity. As Todd Moss has noted, consumption of electricity by a standard single-family American refrigerator is ten times the consumption of electricity by the average Ethiopian. An equally great divide is the use of hydropower. In most rich countries over 80 percent of economically-viable hydropower potential is tapped; in Africa, the comparable figure is under 5 percent. Many African countries are, accordingly, giving high priority to developing hydropower as a source of cheap, clean energy. But to tap this energy, they need assistance from external private and public partners. Historically the World Bank and other international finance institutions have played a major role. President Obama’s major initiative with Africa, “Power Africa,” envisages a major role for hydropower. 

Into this picture steps Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 contains a legislative provision authored by Senator Leahy seeking to prohibit the construction of hydroelectric dams in poor countries: “Section 7060(c)(7)(D). The Secretary of the Treasury shall instruct the United States executive director of each international financial institution that it is the policy of the United States to oppose any loan, grant, strategy or policy of such institution to support the construction of any large hydroelectric dam.”

I come from South Africa, have lived in Mozambique, Bangladesh, India and Brazil and worked for forty years on development. Time and time again I have seen NGOs and politicians in rich countries advocate that the poor follow a path that they, the rich, never have followed, nor are willing to follow. And so I took a look at the reality of hydropower in Senator Leahy’s home state of Vermont. On hiswebsite Senator Leahy states: “Vermont has 84 operating hydroelectric plants, with a total generating capacity of 190 megawatts, and also draws a large portion of its energy portfolio from hydropower facilities operated by Hydro Quebec…Senator Leahy believes hydropower is one component of the alternative energy solution.” At least 28 of Vermont’s dams meet the “large dams” definition used in the Leahy prohibition, as do all of the Quebec dams which supply electricity to Vermont. “Hydro-Québec’s clean, sustainable hydroelectric projects and relative price stability provide exactly the kind of power Vermonters have told us they would like,” says the CEO of Central Vermont’s Public Service.

As the Senior Water Advisor in the World Bank a decade ago, I had worked hard to bring some balance and common sense to this debate, and to incorporate these into the water policy of the Bank. It is clear to me how developing countries will see the stance of Senator Leahy. They will not see many of the inside-the-Beltway subtleties – that this is only a one-year provision; that it expresses the views of one senator and his staff, and not necessarily the administration; that it might be designed to start a conversation, not to end one. My experience suggests that developing countries will see this as follows. First, as with similar efforts in the past, this will be seen as breathtaking hypocrisy. If Senator Leahy is so adamantly against hydropower, let him show his commitment by first turning out the lights of Vermont. Second, it reinforces a prevalent view that US policy towards the developing world is driven by politicians who are driven by extreme single-issue groups at home, and give little attention to the proven instruments – including infrastructure – which lead to growth and poverty reduction. Third, Africans and others are turning and will turn, with great appreciation, to the governments and companies of China and Brazil and potentially to a BRICs Bank, who understand that electricity is one of the keys to a better life, and who will help Africans build the infrastructure they need for economic growth and poverty reduction.


John Briscoe is currently a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development, and is professor of Environment Engineering at Harvard University, where he directs the Harvard Water Security Initiative. This article originally appeared on CGD’s blog.

Photo Credit: ChimpReports.com 


  • Leahy apparently justifies his position on the grounds that past hydro projects led to forced relocation and other injustices. http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/us-pushes-for-outside-oversight-of-world-bank-opposes-push-toward-big-hydro/2014/01/24/fb41bb7c-8516-11e3-8099-9181471f7aaf_story.html

    This is an astonishingly elitist and crude approach to the problem, if there is any problem. Hydro power is an obvious choice for African countries.

    By Robert Kelley on 2014 03 14

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  • I am presuming here that the Senator is against hydroelectric power for developing countries.  Not simply that he wants them to develop run-of-the-river hydroelectric which might be a reasonable position.

    By JRT256 on 2014 03 15

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  • Mr. Briscoe, please read “Cadillac Desert” to understand the massive damage that hydropower dams have done—and are still doing—here in the US. There is now a tremendous effort underway to take down large dams in the US, the most obvious and high-profile example being the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams on the Elwha River. There has been a literally decades-long battle to get rid of the Klamath River dams which awaits Congressional approval, and it would not be unreasonable to say that Glen Canyon Dam was almost single-handedly the cause of the rise of environmentalism in the US.  Asking other nations not to follow in our footsteps—when we are trying to undo the damage those footsteps have caused here in America—is not hypocrisy; it’s hard experience.  The fact that many have benefitted from those mistakes does not change that.

    To give a related analogy:  Damming up large parts of the Everglades allowed developers to reap massive profits and Florida’s population to grow—but we have now learned that it was a huge mistake and are spending billions as a country to undo the damage.  Just because developers and sugarcane companies profited initially, does that mean other countries should make the same mistake?

    By Josh Trutt on 2014 03 17

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  • The author of this piece tried to deceive readers by forgetting to list the reasons Leahy does not want hydroelectric. Another deception; the fact that his state already has hydroelectric does not mean he would support more of it.

    Poverty in Africa has to be addressed with good governance, not by exacerbating the sixth great extinction event.

    By Russ Finley on 2014 03 18

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    • How would developing hydroelectric power “exacerbat[e]  the sixth great extinction event?” The real alternative is to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity. Or do you think that Africans don’t deserve First World standards of living?

      By Robert Kelley on 2014 03 18

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      • Mr. Kelley, there are options besides destroying large swaths of the Amazon and other biological hotspots. Nuclear power would be far more efficient. We can’t dam our way out of global warming even if we tried. As for who deserves what standard of living, I would say, don’t I deserve to see the Yangtze River Dolphin? That went extinct ten years ago when Three gorges Dam went up. Don’t my kids deserve to see Glen Canyon? Won’t happen, it’s underwater. Don’t the salmon fisherman of the Pacific Northwest deserve to make a living? They may now that the Elwha River Dams are coming down, but most likely they will need the Klamath River Dams to come down too to save the salmon fisheries. Doesn’t the Pacific Northwest orca-watching industry deserve to survive? It won’t without the salmon that the orcas live on.  Using dams to raise one groups standard of living will lower the standard of living of other groups . It’s a zero-sum game. I think Nuclear is our best bet.

        By Josh Trutt on 2014 03 18

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  • Big hydro dams are OLD tech, which have caused large problems, as they provided power for our developing nation. 
    Encouraging further perpetration of old-tech, lacks accountability, is irresponsible, and completely flies in the face of far better, proven, more sustainable technology we now have…newer tech that NEEDS to be shared, encouraged, supported, so current third world countries don’t make the same mistakes we’ve made.
    The ONLY reason for perpetrating old tech, is to prevent those developing countries becoming better than we’ve made ourselves; perpetrating models of economics we’ve already shown are destroying us; maintaining some level of control on those developing countries, without the appearance of controlling them.
    Follow the money.
    Those perpetrating old tech, be it giant hydro, coal, or nuclear as we know them, etc., stand to profit at everyone’s expense, on a global scale.
    NONE will thank them, in the end.
    EVERYONE will pay too dear a price.
    More conflict will happen related to problem caused by them.

    By Chimonger on 2014 03 26

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  • Before you promote Big hydro, coal or nuclear, LOOK HARD at who/what is really behind promoting that…who really stands to profit, at what real costs?
    Instead of Big Hydro, support and encourage development of localized, not centralized, renewable energy production.
    STOP perpetrating the damaging mistakes used so long in 1st world countries.
    DO USE: Wave, tidal, wind, solar, geothermal, etc., in both high and low tech versions: THESE should be being built up.
    The adverse consequences of these are far less damaging, than the centralized old-tech power developed countries have been using over the last 100+ years.
    AVOID making the same mistakes made in the USA.
    YES, those old-tech models worked for a time—that time is over—we know better now, and have far cleaner methods—even in developed countries, we know old tech methods do harm, and need changed..
    Particularly centralizing everything—that’s really dangerous in our times.
    Think local, diverse, spread out, smaller—it’s far safer, and ‘everybody can win’.
    It’s NOT about depriving 3rd world countries of energy—any who promote that idea are lost, deluded, or are themselves standing to profit mightily from it.
    It’s about doing Better than 1st world countries have.
    Third world countries have an EPIC opportunity to do it far better, cleaner, safer—and less costly in many ways.  They stand at a point of surpassing developed countries, only IF they hold to doing things better than developed countries have.
    STOP perpetrating industrial mistakes!

    By Chimonger on 2014 03 26

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