Water Dams. Clean Energy or Dirty Weapons?

Academic Paper, 2021

20 Pages, Grade: 2.0



Water Dams: Clean Energy or Dirty Weapons?

Case Studies
Three Gorges Dam, China: The Mega-Dam With Mega-Risks
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopia: Risks for Sustainable Regional Development and Opportunities for Regional Collaboration
Other Cases: Sarsang Reservoir, Azerbaijan

Discussion: Do the Benefits Worth Risks?


Reference List


Together with the technology development, population and economic growth and an increasing global responsibility to produce energy sustainably, water dams have become milestone projects throughout the world. However, with the expanding number and scale of hydropower infrastructures, undesired negative effects such as population resettlement, loss of habitat and probability of water wars have also arisen. The present paper analysed both sides of the spectrum by looking at two prominent and controversial dam projects – Three Gorges Dam of China and Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam of Ethiopia, as well as mentioning some small-scale reservoir cases within the topic. The main observation is that the large dam projects are not anymore the readily endorsed and sustainable projects in the international arena and the substantial amount of research even reveal hydropower projects as greenhouse gas emitters. In light of ongoing dam controversies, it is crucial that water dam projects are more critically and inclusively considered by key decision-makers and evolving body of scientific evidence and existing frameworks such as of World Commission on Dams and 6 SDG Transformations are adequately integrated into future and existing dam plans.

Water Dams: Clean Energy or Dirty Weapons?

In a world increasingly characterized by numerous concerns over global challenges such as climate change, food security and environmental sustainability, one resource is a key more than ever – water. Despite its irreplaceable survival value for life in general, water resources accompany social development and economic growth as a major contributing element (Agnew & Woodhouse, 2011).

Among multiple functions of water resources for humanity, one of the popular services that is increasingly critical is electricity generation that is realized through various-scale water dam infrastructures. Even in the current global pandemic situation, hydropower is and is forecasted to remain as the largest renewable power generation type through 2025 (International Energy Agency, 2020). The significance of water dams is further emphasized in the light of UN 2030 Agenda because harnessing water power is widely contributing towards achievement of targets such as decarbonisation, access to clean electricity and food security globally (United Nations, 2020).

Since water dams usually represent several challenges in addition to their intended benefits before, during and after the construction process, they have historically been sensitive structures entailing possible controversies within their uses (Pacific Institute, 2020). These challenges can be related to social (Picciotto, Rice, & Wicklin, 2017), political (Tsillas MD, 2015), economic (Ansar, Flyvbjerg, Budzier, & Lunn, 2014) or environmental sectors (Hoebink, 2020). Water Conflict Chronology gathered and regularly updated by World Water website reports around 20 water conflicts of differing scales specifically linked to water dams throughout the recorded history of mankind (Pacific Institute, 2020). However, there is surely much more potential havoc that can be wrecked by especially large and strategic dams, some significant ones being problematic population relocations, disturbances to balanced functioning of ecological system and vast and risky financial and time investments put in the construction of mega-hydropower plants.

The current paper aims to analyse, based on the literature, the advantages and actual, as well as potential risks of water dam infrastructures (mainly large dams >100 MW, but also mentioning some smaller reservoirs) focusing on a) the social-environmental risks associated with dams, as well as manipulation of dams as political (and military) tools being main controversy creating factors, and b) contributions to clean energy progress and role of such infrastructures in alleviating poverty by providing access to electricity systems being desirable aspects (Sachs J. D., et al., 2019). In addition, positive impacts of the water dam projects are analysed keeping in mind the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and Six Transformations framework suggested by Sachs J.D., et al., while negative side-effects are looked at chiefly from political (military), social and environmental perspectives.

The comparison is carried out through looking at the discussions around two major water dam projects around the world – Three Gorges Dam, China and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia. The Three Gorges Dam, being the most powerful of its kind and implemented by a country with growing economy and dam initiatives, offers an insight into potential impacts of similar projects. On the other hand, Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is discussed in this essay because it is a key project that has implications for almost an entire continent – Africa. However, due to a relatively less availability of data on transboundary rivers and usual secrecy of large dam project details stemming from political sensitivity (Schoeters, 2012/2013), mainly the possible impacts of discussed projects will be mentioned. After analysis of the two main hydropower dams, medium- and small-scale projects (such as Sarsang water reservoir in Azerbaijan) are also briefly mentioned as relevant examples to the main topic. Finally, some broad insights as to achieved or possible synergies and experienced or potential trade-offs under the complex issue of water dams are reflected upon by noting the existing and rising new evidence around the large dam controversies.

Case Studies

Three Gorges Dam, China: The Mega-Dam With Mega-Risks

China’s huge hydropower expansion continues notwithstanding the concerns over socio-environmental impacts of Three Gorges Dam (TGD) which is the most powerful of its kind throughout the globe. Though the idea of the dam was originally discussed during early 20th century, it was reinvigorated especially after the catastrophic floods of 1954 on the Yangtze which resulted in more than 30,000 human casualties (Dai, 1994, as cited in Ponseti & López-Pujol, 2006, p. 153). Entailing tremendous costs and being surrounded with an intense controversy, the project construction started actually in 1994 and, after three years, the first phase was completed; almost 10 years after the official inauguration of the project, the first generator of the mega-structure was connected to the electricity network marking the closing of second construction phase (Ma, 2010). At the same time, an estimation done in 2000 indicated that approximately 1,282 locations of cultural, historical and archaeological significance would be desolated under dam waters (Shen, 2000, as cited in Ponseti & López-Pujol, 2006, p. 174). The project was fully operational in 2012, when the remaining turbines and generators started to produce clean energy, but decades of criticism and concerns over the largest dam of the world are also ongoing (Adams, et al., 2013).


Zhenli Huang from China’s National Research Centre for Sustainable Hydropower Development and Bingfang Wu of Chinese Academy of Science (2018) point out several benefits of TGD Project in their recent book. Firstly, the key role of the project, according to the authors, is controlling devastating floods in middle and lower parts of Yangtze where the threatened victims of these floods are said to be some 15 million people, 1.53 million ha of cropland and numerous cities and communication infrastructures. The book indicates the completion of this dam project reduces the probability of devastating floods to a 100-year-frequency thanks to its 39.3 billion m3 water storage capacity. Consequently, the significance of the project seems to be very high for the well-being of people and uninterrupted economic growth of the relevant area.

Secondly, Three Gorges occupy an important position in China’s total electricity production making it one of the leading clean energy generation countries in the world. Huang and Wu (2018) list the extent of potential savings owing to TGD project – annually, 50 million tons of coal, 100 million tons of CO2, two million tons of SO2 and other industrial wastes. Thus, authors argue, its role in reducing issues such as acid rain and fly ash, as well as “mitigating global warming effect caused by CO2 discharge” is significant. As seen in Figure 1 (Wong, 2020), relative stabilization of CO2 emissions in China was reported after 2012, but there is not enough scientific evidence proving the significant role of the TGD in this CO2 emission reduction. Some authors argue that with an installed capacity of 22,500 MW, annual output of 84.7 TWh in 2018 and a favourable location to unify country’s electricity grid, TGD is also a key in energy security of the country (Huang & Wu, 2018).

Another development synergy enabled by the Three Gorges Project is the positive impact on inland and total navigation capacity (and shipping cost) of the country while taking away some of the transportation load on railways (thus contributing more to the lowering of CO2 emissions) (Huang & Wu, 2018). With the construction of ship locks and lifts, the project presents a usually unnoticed advantage of facilitating cruise ship navigation (Miller, 2015).


Despite all the benefits of large dam projects for the relevant countries, them being a source of “national pride” (Hoebink, 2020, p. 55) and all the pre-assessments and measures put in place in order to minimize or prevent social and environmental impacts, most mega-dam projects seem to be unable to avoid such impacts (Wilmsen, Webber, & Yuefang, 2011) and they are usually surrounded with concerns and protests even decades after their completion (Adams, et al., 2013). TGD, being world’s largest, is not an exception in this sense. From its conception in early decades of 20th century to very recently, it worried many different stakeholders, most importantly the unprecedented number of 1.2 million settlers of Hubei Province and Chongqing Municipality (Huang & Wu, 2018). Despite the huge government spending to provide relocated people with the opportunity for restoring their livelihoods, the “gains accrue to a minority who live in the most amenable location of the Three Gorges area” (Wilmsen, Webber, & Yuefang, 2011, p. abstract).

More recently, it has been reported in a news article by Hoft, J. (2020) that some peripheral structures of the dam have been ‘deformed slightly’ because of a large flood from Sichuan and

Figure 1. Territorial Carbon-Dioxide Emissions in China From 2001 to 2018 (in Megaton CO2)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Chongqing provinces putting some 400 million people at risk. The same flooding event threatened the capacity of the huge structure to withstand slightly stronger floods, should they happen (Kuo, 2020). The same report by Hoft, J. also raised alarms about the possible catastrophic impact that could be experienced by the global food supply as a result of breaking of the tremendous dam.

Yet another source of consistent concern is the environmental impacts that was brought about by the TGD project. Scientific American, in a 2008 article, called TGD ‘an environmental catastrophe’ reporting the admittance of Chinese government about the project’s potential ‘significant environmental damage’ (Hvistendahl, 2008). Many scientists’ and activists’ alarms about environmental disasters that could be caused by the huge reservoir were verified when a series of landslides and slight earthquakes increased after the beginning of the dam’s operation (Adams, Three Gorges Dam: trigger of severe earthquakes?, 2011). A Chinese study on links between water level and seismic activity in Three Gorges area found that the latter was ‘significantly increased’ by the seasonal manipulations of the reservoir water levels (Miao, Yunsheng, Junhua, Xiaojun, & Qiuliang, 2010).

On the other hand, the biodiversity is under danger as the dam waters submerged some habitats, reduced flow of water to some and contributed to changes in weather patterns around the area (Hvistendahl, 2008). In addition, 113 fish species have been identified as critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable and near threatened since the impoundment of TGD in Yangtze Basin (Liu, Qin, Xu, Ouyang, & Wu, 2019). Some experts even argue that although blaming the downstream drought cases solely on Three Gorges reservoir would be naive, it is obvious that holding back enormous amount of water in the dam had and has contributions to the intensity of water shortages (Wan, 2011).

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopia: Risks for Sustainable Regional Development and Opportunities for Regional Collaboration


A diverse and rich ecosystem and cultures of eleven riparian countries are boosted by Nile River basin which is politically and geologically significant water resource having manifold local, regional and global overtones (Abtew & Dessu, 2019). In the last decade, from the time Ethiopia started the construction of the largest-to-be hydropower dam in Africa – GERD, the situation in the region has escalated. (ALJAZEERA, 2020). The starting of dam filling by Ethiopia especially seems to be a sensitive point upsetting the relationships between affected Egypt, Sudan and project host Ethiopia since it would reduce the much needed Blue Nile flow to downstream states (Meseret , 2020). Since the consensus for the operation of the GERD was not reached so far, Egypt has already raised this issue of ‘existential threat’ to the UN trying to involve UN Security Council for stopping progress on the project (Associated Press, 2020) and the US has already responded to the international call of Egypt by stating some cutting of aid to Ethiopia if it continues the project unilaterally (Ethiopian Monitor, 2020).

The above-mentioned controversy reflects one of the dangerous potential trade-offs presented by the huge infrastructure project. On the one hand, GERD is promising access to regular, self-reliant electricity and a potential way out of poverty for millions of Ethiopians with its 63 billion m3 reservoir and planned power generation capacity of 15,000 GWh (Batisha, 2015). On the other hand, it is feared that withholding of large amount of Blue Nile water would leave millions of people in Egypt and Sudan without sufficient amount of freshwater to meet increasing population and growing economic demand for this key resource (Abtew & Dessu, 2019; Aljefri, Fang, Hipel, & Madani, 2019). Consequently, the lack of common understanding of issue by the involved actors plus an apparent bias concerning GERD by international and regional parties (Aljefri, Fang, Hipel, & Madani, 2019) could lead to increasing tensions between the riparian states and even armed conflict as a last resort. This potential trade-off is threatening the sustainable development and stable peace in the region as well as internationally.

Yet another contradiction related to GERD is about its potential desirable contributions to and undesirable impacts on the natural and social environment of the region. First of all, upstream changes in water temperature, amount of oxygen dissolved, salinity and other chemical and physical features normally occur faster than the ability of species to adjust and as a result, local water flora and fauna can easily be affected by the artificial lake environment which is alien to their natural way of life (Schoeters, 2012/2013). In addition, while some authors argue that GERD will ‘alleviate the sedimentation problem for downstream reservoirs’ (Abtew & Dessu, 2019), other sources report possible side-effects due to reduced sediment flow downstream such as impact of erosion on surrounding farms, landscape and subsequent falling of groundwater table (Schoeters, 2012/2013). Since the official Environmental Impact Assessment for GERD has not been published, it remains challenging to determine concretely estimated environmental impacts of the project accounted by the host state.

The findings of a recent research (Vaughan & Gebremichael, 2020) carried out in Benishangul Gumuz (GERD project location) and Amhara National Regional States of Ethiopia shows that current population relocation programs in GERD project follow the problematic path of resettlement issues common to most dam projects globally, especially Ethiopia’s past experiences regarding dam-induced displacements. According to this study, approximately 20,000 people is estimated to be affected by the resettlement – 17 new villages are established for accommodating the displaced population. However, the most critical and disturbing problem concerning most of already resettled 3,200 households out of 5391, is the water scarcity in the new locations (Vaughan & Gebremichael, 2020). The study reveals that major part of people have been involuntarily relocated by the authorities despite their concerns as to access to sustainable water resources for humans and animals as well as other livelihood and socio-cultural matters.

Synergies. Despite the accompanying controversy, GERD is a significant milestone in Ethiopia’s self-reliant transition towards sustainable clean energy future and equal access to electricity for growing population and economy. According to a recent article by IEA (2019), Ethiopia will keep its strong dependence on imports of oil and coal, but “the need for energy imports could be reduced by a determined push to develop the country’s formidable hydro resources and accelerate electrification”. IEA article also mentions that according to the key policy performance targets and measures, Ethiopia, by 2030, plans to increase generating capacity by 25,000 MW, 88% of which is to be contributed by hydro. Besides, National Electrification Program of the country targets 100% access to electricity by 2025, which is currently at approximately 45% (ENA, 2020).


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Water Dams. Clean Energy or Dirty Weapons?
Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
sustainable development, water dams, clean energy, controversial dams, poverty, development, Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Three Gorges Dam, water resources management, dam controversy
Quote paper
Elnur Aliyev (Author), 2021, Water Dams. Clean Energy or Dirty Weapons?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1005683


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