World Water Forum Breaks Down Dam Impacts

The Bagré Dam in Burkina Faso. Photo by Jean-Claude Frisque


After a sharp drop in the 1990s, due to concerns over environmental and social impact, dam construction is once again on the rise — especially in developing nations, where the demand for water and electricity is growing.

A new study released at the 6th World Water Forum in Marseille on March 14th discusses the impact of dam projects on local communities and presents an analysis of six dams in West Africa.

The study was produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Institute of Energy and Development (IIED), and is part of the Global Water Initiative.

“In the construction of large dams, national objectives to provide electricity, reduce the country’s dependence on imported energy and improve food security often override the potential for local or regional growth,” said Jerôme Koundouno, IUCN‘s Global Water Initiative-Dams Project Coordinator, in a statement. “As a result, local people tend to be marginalized in the construction process — they don’t receive full compensation for the impact the new dam has on their lives, including environmental damage, and rarely enjoy the full benefits it brings.”

The Niandouba Dam in Senegal relied on outdated population surveys when assessing how many people would need to be resettled, noted the study. Of the five villages that were eventually resettled, only one had been accounted for in the initial plans. That one received state assistance; the others had to rebuild on their own.

Even when a dam’s planners make an effort to provide for the locals, it doesn’t always work, note the authors. At the Sélingué Dam in Mali, those who lost their homes and land to flooding were given irrigated farm plots in compensation; however, few had the agricultural knowledge needed to work them properly. Many farmers abandoned their land or had it taken away after several poor harvests.

The Moussodougou Dam in Burkina Faso encountered a similar problem: it was intended to create a local fishing industry, but inexperience and lack of management resulted in low yields and a depleted fish population.

In both cases, the authorities neglected to help the locals learn how to use their new resources, claims the report.

“Engaging local people and giving them a stake in the dam does not need to be costly or difficult,” said Jamie Skinner, a principal researcher at IIED. “It is clearly something that can benefit all parties involved.”

In addition to the obvious damage to land and property, dams often create social upheaval. At Kompienga in Burkina Faso, the jobs and economic opportunities promised by a new dam attracted a significant influx of migrants to the area. Established locals — many of whom had already lost land to the reservoir — resented the newcomers, leading to clashes over now-limited resources such as farmland and water access for animals.

“Regardless of the initial national objective of dams, construction always affects the areas where they’re built,” said Ousmane Diallo, IUCN’s Regional Coordinator for Water and Wetlands in Central and West Africa. “They change the environment and can completely transform local traditional societies. Ways to avoid or correct these problems need to be taken into account throughout the construction process.”

The political climate has changed since these dams were built in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but the issues have by no means been resolved: dam construction is all too often a heavy-handed, top-down process. The study suggests ways to address these challenges, ranging from ensuring that local people get preferential access to dam-related benefits (such as irrigation and electricity) to involving them in the planning process.

For more information, see the full publication here or watch the video below.