Decades of evolution in the sector show us that questionable practices of the past could become opportunities of development for the affected populations.
Author: Luis Sánchez Torrente
Anyone who has had the opportunity to contemplate the scene of a dried up reservoir has probably experienced the agonic sensation of dependence and vulnerability that connect us to the water. The need to retain and control currents is not the product of the energy revolution following the invention of hydropower generation, but already from the most remote civilizations, mankind has showed the ability to disrupt its course for purposes of supply, irrigation and even war. But when those efforts become unsuccessful in the face of extreme shortages, the powerful image emerging from the depths of the reservoir shows us an equally overwhelming and sometimes forgotten picture: the story of hundreds of flooded populations and millions of people forced to abandon their native lands for the sake of public interests. Sometimes exploited as tourist attractions, the ruins of submerged villages are not only the testimony of the history of the people who inhabited them, but also of their institutions and ways of proceeding before infrastructures capable of changing landscapes and living conditions forever. A way of proceeding that over the past decades has evolved towards more sensitive positions to the environment, but also to the needs of the affected populations, their ways of life and the principles that must govern an appropriate compensatory policy.
However, it is not always necessary to consult newspapers to echo the evolution of social management of important projects, but initiatives that are currently in the planning stage bring with them a long historical process that proves this. And this is so due to the huge amount of time that usually lapses between the first conceptualization of a dam and its effective implementation, especially when the project has been abandoned and relaunched several times in decades. This is the case of a multitude of projects proposed in times of war or involved in unstable political processes, or where public investment agendas have suffered drastic changes due to different interests. When this happens, it is common for forgotten projects to come back to life thanks to the intervention of new promotion agencies and financial institutions, which, despite having a project designed in detail, find a different reality and in particular new quality standards when it comes to manage their impacts. Just like a patient who awakens after a deep coma, a project coming back to life after a long lethargy needs to adapt itself to a more demanding environment, in which new codes of conduct, more in line with the new needs, apply. Thus, what forty years ago could prove to be a suitable and proportionate practice in socio-environmental management, under the current perspective could lay the foundations of a potential social and political conflict, and ultimately lead the project to failure.
What forty years ago could prove to be a suitable practice could lay the foundations of a potential social and political conflict under the current perspective.
Let’s think, for example, about the large amount of heritage elements lying under the waters, without ever having an archeological rescue plan in place, and which can be only admired during the unfortunate incidence of a drought. One can hardly believe that a similar initiative could be undertaken at the present time, flooding architectonic elements without at least creating a political debate in search of solutions or compensatory measures. And the same applies to the procedures and compensation measures that millions of displaced people lived decades ago, without any opportunity to be consulted and without any integrated program to restore or improve their ways of life. And this is precisely what is revealed through projects never implemented, whose feasibility was evaluated years ago, and which at the time of their resurrection need a significant update in order to manage the new reality and fulfill new ethical and socio-environmental quality standards. Some of these experiences in West Africa show us that common practices, deeply rooted in the 50’ through the 70’, such as accompanying hydroelectric developments with extensive agriculture plans or with fishery development plans, have to be reevaluated under a new perspective, mostly due to the very high cost that such actions can bring in terms of deforestation and ecosystem alterations.
Experience also shows us that the relationship established between populations and natural resources is much more complex than previously believed and that it is therefore not always possible to implement drastic changes into ways of life without jeopardizing their prosperity in the long run. The importance of participative processes and effective communication, the preservation of social and cultural connections, the provision of social infrastructures or landscape value are some of the elements that allowed traditional resettlements plans to become integrated plans of social and territorial management, with important budgets and a complex institutional framework involved. Even the procedures focused on understanding all those aspects are now much more detailed since, for example, the technical feasibility of the project is no longer the sole element on the table at the time of the project inception. Instead, specific socio-environmental feasibility studies are usually commissioned from very early stages, whose results can turn out to be binding. Far from being an obstacle to public investment initiatives, this has eased the involvement of public sector and funding institutions into projects that, not only fulfill the goal of guaranteeing access to clean energies, but are also used as integrated development tools for affected communities.
Undoubtedly, there is still a long way to go before reaching a consensus on these practices or simply considering them as suitable, since the mitigation of impacts as severe as those caused by a dam should be the subject of further research in the future and adaptation to the specific case. What is clear here is that the experience of those projects rescued from oblivion can offer a historic vision and the perspective of the progresses already made, which makes us think of the future with optimism. Hopefully, when the water level falls again, it will not be the story of a drama that emerges, but that of an opportunity for those who lived it.