Greenwashing Hydropower


With a Proven Track Record of Environmental Destruction, Why Are Big Dams Still Being Built?

Washington, D.C.-Despite high environmental and social costs, a major resurgence in dam construction worldwide is now under way, driven by infusions of new capital from developing countries and a public campaign by the dambuilding industry to greenwash hydropower as a source of clean energy. In the latest issue of World Watch magazine, a look at the heavy dam-building activity in China, the Amazon basin, and Africa illustrates the risks involved.

"The dambuilding industry is greenwashing hydropower with a public relations offensive designed to convince the world that the next generation of dams will provide additional sources of clean energy and help to ease the effects of climate change," write Aviva Imhof and Guy R. Lanza, authors of "Greenwashing Hydropower" in the January/February World Watch. "In some of the world's last great free-flowing-river basins, such as the Amazon, the Mekong, the Congo, and the rivers of Patagonia, governments and industry are pushing forward with cascades of massive dams, all under the guise of clean energy."

Big dams have frequently imposed high social and environmental costs and longterm economic tradeoffs, such as lost fisheries and tourism potential and flooded agricultural and forest land. According to the independent World Commission on Dams, most projects have failed to compensate affected people for their losses and to adequately mitigate environmental impacts. Local people have rarely had a meaningful say in whether or how a dam is implemented, or received their fair share of project benefits.

The authors explain that the industry's attempt to repackage hydropower as a green, renewable technology is both misleading and unsupported by the facts. In general, the cheapest, cleanest, and fastest solution is to invest in energy efficiency. 

Despite alternatives, however, the promise of profits for the hydropower industry, their network of consultants, and host-country bureaucracies often trumps the impacts on people and ecosystems. 

"A vigorous assault on corruption, plus technology transfer and financial assistance: These are the keys to allowing developing countries to leapfrog to a sustainable, twenty-first century energy regime," write Imhof and Lanza. "The stakes are high, because healthy rivers, like all intact ecosystems, are priceless. The alternative, quite simply, is a persistent legacy of human and environmental destruction."