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Viewpoint - Butterflies vs. hydropower: Reflections on large dams in contemporary Africa

Henry Shirazu Alhassan
School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK;

ABSTRACT: The current acute needs for improved water resources and energy management in the contemporary development of Africa has renewed the interest in large dams in recent times, especially in the energy sector, because of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), concern about climate change, the increase in crude oil prices and alternative sources of funding for large dams. So, the rethink about large dams as an energy source in the face of increasing costs of crude oil and climate change is also based on finding cheaper and renewable sources of electricity. However, the renewable credentials of large dams, and their compatibility with sustainable development, are disputed. Using the Akosombo dam and the Bui dam project - both in Ghana - as case studies, this paper analyses the potential and significance of large dams within the ambit of Africa'€™s contemporary development. The paper argues that despite criticisms of large dams and the promotion of alternatives, large dams are still very important to Africa'€™s development as they are technologies with well known positive and negative socio-economic and environmental impacts which could be mitigated. The alternatives to large dams, in contrast, have relatively unknown long-term socio-economic and environmental impacts. In addition, there is scepticism among local people and other stakeholders about the alternatives to large hydropower dams because of the impression that some western-backed non-governmental organisations (NGOs), some northern countries, and some multilateral and bilateral institutions are intentionally seeking to undermine significant development in Ghana and other African countries.