Spending climate dollars on large dams – a bad idea

The Itaipu Dam on the Paraná River between Brazil and Paraguay.

The Itaipu Dam, a huge hydroelectric dam on the Paraná River between Brazil and Paraguay. | Credit: Mihai / Flickr.

By Florencia Ortúzar Greene

During its last board meeting, the Green Climate Fund—charged with financing developing nations’ fight against climate change—approved two projects related to large dams.  That means $136 million will finance large-scale hydropower, contradicting the Fund’s goal of stimulating a low-emission and climate-resilient future.

We’ve said it before: large dams are not part of the paradigm shift we need.

They worsen climate change and are highly vulnerable to its impacts. They also cause grave economic and socio-environmental problems that make it impossible to label them as sustainable development.

The Projects

While the two projects will exacerbate climate change, they aren’t the most destructive we’ve seen. 

The first is expected to generate 15 MW of electricity in the Solomon Islands, an impoverished Pacific archipelago highly vulnerable to climate change. Planned for the Tina River, the dam will be the country’s first major infrastructure project.

Today, the Solomon Islands rely almost entirely on imported diesel to produce energy. It is an unreliable, highly polluting energy source for which residents must pay one of the highest rates in the region.

We would have liked to see the Solomon Islands leapfrog toward a more sustainable alternative, avoiding the era of large dams altogether. But we were pleased to see the World Bank’s consultation and engagement processes with local communities, which lend legitimacy to the project.

The second project will rehabilitate a dam built in the 1950’s in Tajikistan. The repairs will make the dam more resilient to weather and less subject to accidents. Since it is focused on rehabilitation, the project will not generate the socio-environmental impacts typical of ground-up dam construction.

Tajikistan already gets 98 percent of its energy from hydropower, an increasingly unreliable energy source. In fact, during colder months, when more energy is needed, more than 70 percent of the population suffers cutbacks due to the malfunctioning of dams.

It’s unreasonable to use climate finance to deepen a country’s energy dependency instead of diversifying its matrix and increasing its climate resiliency. 

Our Campaign

When we learned that large dam proposals would come before the Fund, just before the 14th meeting of the Board of Directors, we drafted a letter explaining why large dams are ineligible for climate funding. 

Then, in anticipation of the 16th meeting, during which the projects would be discussed, we sent Board Members an informational letter on each of the projects, signed by our closest allies.

Finally, during the board meeting, we circulated a statement signed by a coalition of 282 organizations, further strengthening our position against the funding of large dams.

We obtained official replies from several members of the Board, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (in charge of the project in Tajikistan), and the Designated National Authority of the Solomon Islands. Delegates from Canada and France requested further discussion of the issue.

The problems with large dams received international media attention through articles published in The Guardian and Climate Home.

Advancing with Optimism

Although financing was ultimately granted to both of the projects, we managed to draw international attention to the contradiction inherent in funding large dams with money designated to combat climate change.

Several members of the Green Climate Fund expressed doubts about further promoting large hydropower initiatives. We’re confident they’ll raise their voices when faced with projects far more damaging than those recently approved.

Cheaper, more effective, and more environmentally friendly alternatives need the support and momentum the Green Climate Fund can provide. Both solar and wind power, for example, have proved to be more efficient and less costly than large-scale hydropower. Other less-developed technologies, such as geothermal, have largely unexplored potential.

As part of a coalition of civil society organizations monitoring the Fund’s decisions, AIDA will continue working to ensure that the recent decision to fund large dams does not become a precedent.


About the Author

Florencia Ortúzar

Florencia O

Florencia Ortúzar works for AIDA from Santiago, Chile. She obtained her Law degree (2006) from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and also completed an MSc in Environmental Politics and Regulation (2011) at the London School of Economics (LSE) in England. She joined our team in 2012 and has contributed to AIDA’s work on climate change issues. She enjoys spending time with her pets as well as cooking, camping and nature trekking.

Any opinions expressed in this blog are the authors’ own and may not be shared by the organization. AIDA includes them with full respect for the freedom of expression and plurality of our team of professionals.

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