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How Hydroelectric Projects Benefit Corporations–at the Expense of People and the Planet.

Today is World Water Day, an opportunity to honor the human right to water. As billions of people around the world contend with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reminded again of the critical importance of clean, affordable water service. Although the United Nations recognizes water as a human right, many corporations see it as a business opportunity. Corporations exploit our water in a variety of ways–buying or leasing community water systems and partnering with oil and gas companies to provide water for fracking operations are two notable examples. But over the past several years, some corporations have been leading a push to build new hydroelectric dams, particularly in China and the Mekong region where there’s a high demand for water and electricity. 

Worldwide, an estimated 3,700 dam projects are currently planned, or under development. For the past 20 years EarthRights has been supporting communities in the Mekong and the Amazon regions who are defending their rights and protecting their communities from the negative effects of large-scale dam projects. 

While it’s undoubtedly true that communities around the world desperately need potable water, dams are often a false solution. Numerous studies have linked dams to decreased water quality, methane emissions, disrupted fish and animal migration patterns, increased energy prices, and the erosion of local ecosystems. Above all, they undermine human rights. In the last century, over 470 million people worldwide have been negatively affected by dam construction. Over the past six decades, between 40 million and 80 million people, mostly in China and India, have been displaced from their lands due to large scale dam development, according to the World Commission on Dams

Closed Doors and Kickbacks 

In addition to disrupting local ecosystems and undermining the human rights of millions of people, dam projects are also classic examples of corporate corruption run amok. Like other deals within the corporate water sector, there is often a distinct lack of transparency and public input around the planning of large-scale hydroelectric projects. Governments and companies sign agreements and grant concessions in secret. In many cases, by the time that the public finds out about the project, the contracts have already been signed.

Often these arrangements are facilitated by questionable financial transactions. In Brazil, the Four Sisters–the country’s largest construction companies, which are also active in the hydroelectric sphere–have a long track record of funding political candidates to represent their business interests. This practice has drawn criticism from Brazillian NGOs concerned about government transparency. The Four Sisters have also been criticized for labor violations, housing workers in shacks, and denying workers proper sustenance. In some instances, the companies have even been linked to the destruction of sacred indigenous sites. 

Threats to Earth Rights Defenders

Research conducted by the Global Atlas on Environmental Justice shows that dam projects are also associated with government and corporate use of repression, criminalization, and assassinations of earth rights defenders. According to the NGO Global Witness, the water and dam sector is the third-largest threat to earth rights defenders worldwide with 17 people killed in 2018 for defending their communities against those projects. Frequently, the targets of violence are community organizers and indigenous leaders. 

Guatemala’s infamous Chixoy Dam is a prime example–financed by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (leading funders of dams worldwide), it displaced more than 3,500 indigenous community members. Those who opposed the project were murdered, harassed, and kidnapped. The community waited years to receive reparations from the government. 

Berta Caceres, a noted earth rights defender from Honduras and winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, was assassinated in 2016 at the order of executives from Agua Zarca, for speaking out against the company’s proposed dam on the Gualcarque River, a sacred site of the Lenca people. 

Greenwashing the Benefits 

All too often, the governments and corporations behind hydroelectric projects oversell the benefits of dams, while downplaying their destruction. While billed as environmentally-friendly, as we noted above, they can harm local ecosystems and contribute to climate-destroying methane emissions. Many feasibility studies for dams exaggerate their long-term potential benefits and downplay potential costs (the average cost overrun of dams is 56 percent); so as communities and ecosystems suffer, corporations and financers rake in profits. 

Community Resistance

Around the world, those most affected by hydroelectric projects have spoken out against them. Communities in Southeast Asia, where plans for nearly a dozen new dams are currently underway, have been particularly resistant to these projects. Earlier this week, the government of Cambodia announced a ten-year halt on new dams in the Mekong River, a major source of sustenance and economic survival for millions in the region. 

The proposed Hatgyi dam on the Salween River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in Asia, has also been controversial. Indigenous Karen communities from Thailand and Myanmar have been actively fighting the 2.6 billion dollar, 1,360-megawatt project for years because it is expected to threaten the livelihoods and food supplies of 10 million people and could displace up to 21 indigenous Karen villages.

Communities supported by EarthRights in Peru have also been actively fighting the Chadin 2 hydroelectric plant, one of more than 20 dams planned on the Marañón River, which is expected to displace over 1,000 people and jeopardize the local ecosystem. 

The Bottom Line 

Dams are expensive, undermine the planet and human rights, and are often unnecessary. Instead of investing in costly projects that benefit corporations and banks at the expense of communities, we need to listen to the people most affected by hydropower projects; honor and respect their resistance to them; and identify more cost-effective, less destructive solutions to meeting our global energy and water needs.