Accessibility links

Breaking News

Hydropower Back In Fashion As Countries Gather For Water Week

Water is released from the massive Three Gorges Dam, a hydropower project on the Yangtze River in Yichang, in central China's Hubei province, on July 24.
Water is released from the massive Three Gorges Dam, a hydropower project on the Yangtze River in Yichang, in central China's Hubei province, on July 24.
For Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the founders of independent India, the need to solve the water and electricity needs of his gigantic country was so great that he called dams the "new temples of India."

It was the postwar period, and newly independent countries in Asia and Africa -- in many cases influenced by the Soviet model and with Soviet support -- were looking both to produce more energy for their nascent economies and to improve their self-esteem through grandiose engineering projects.

Decades later, though, the tide turned. It became increasingly evident that dams and reservoirs were a source of environmental imbalances and international disputes. And the share of hydroelectricity was negligible in relation to the total electricity output of most states.

But today, with rising energy needs and growing public opposition to nuclear energy in many parts of the world, experts say hydroelectricity is back in fashion.

Q&A: 'Crisis' Is Serious But Solutions Are At Hand

The growing demand for more dams and irrigation systems as a means to securing larger agricultural yields will be a main topic of debate at this year's World Water Week, an annual event organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

'Tipping Point'

"Things change when there is a certain tipping point," program manager Ana Cascao, one of SIWI's leading experts in hydropolitics, says. "It was a fashion to be against dams, and in particular the ones that would have more negative consequences. But then again, we are back in the dams discourse 10 years later."

But she asks, "[A]re we again for all dams or some dams can be planned in a very good way with the support of the right partners, with the environmentalists involved, with the human rights involved? And in that case, they could be beneficial for the countries."

Cascao says the enormous potential of hydropower has become more appealing as the world turns toward cleaner forms of energy, and also amid growing apprehension toward nuclear energy after last year's Fukushima disaster in Japan.

She points to the emphasis on hydroelectric-development projects in Africa amid an economic boom that increased demand for electricity and water.

"Not all [dams] are necessarily bad, and that's why the discourse is also changing in a way," Cascao says. "Like saying, 'OK, we might need certain dams in particular in rivers that do not have many.' Consider, for example, the Nile River Basin, where a lot of dams are being planned right now."

Jockeying For Possession

But dams have been on many occasions a bone of contention between countries when it comes to sharing water resources.

Iran and Afghanistan, for example, have been at odds many times over the exploitation of the resources of the Helmand River basin, where Iran has been building a large number of dams. Upstream, Afghanistan has its own dam at Kajaki.
A young girl pumps water from a well in the village of Manugay in the Pech River Valley of Kunar Province, Afghanistan, in June.
A young girl pumps water from a well in the village of Manugay in the Pech River Valley of Kunar Province, Afghanistan, in June.

In Central Asia, upstream Tajikistan's plans to construct a massive dam and fulfill its dream of becoming an energy exporter is a source of fierce argument with downstream Uzbekistan.

Anders Jaegerskog, an SIWI expert on water security and governance, says the classic example of political tensions resulting from dam building remains the Middle East.

"The dams built in the Jordan parts of the Jordan river basin, for example, they are very contentious, and have constituted the source of conflict in history, as well as the one in the Euphrates and Tigris built upstream. There is a need to have a more of both. There is a need to push and work for increased dialogue and discussion and trust building on these shared rivers and between the countries that share them."

Climate Of Change?

The sharing of scarce water resources by riparian states is set to be one of the main focal points of next year's International Year of Water Cooperation, sponsored by the United Nations.

Jaegerskog notes that the Central Asian states are particularly active in preparations for the 2013 event as a forum for solutions.

"Some of the Central Asian countries are really pushing for this International Year of Water Cooperation [in 2013]," Jaegerskog says. "That is an important part in next year's [events] preparations. The particular country that has come to the forefront has been Tajikistan."

Jaegerskog says the debates in Stockholm are also laying the groundwork for better cooperation between countries on a political level with regard to water management, based on the model of global cooperation on climate change.

"There would be a need to work more on trying to bring the issue of water up on the political agenda, such as has been the case with the climate-change issues which have been lifted much through the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports," Jaegerskog says. "Something similar could be considered in the case of water."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.