Govt plants to build more large dams

Government says it will build more large dams in areas of South Africa where it believes they are needed, although it has pledged to do so in a technically, environmentally and socially responsible way.

Its plans are likely to provoke an outcry from anti-dam lobbyists, who argue the adverse impacts of large dams far outweigh any advantages they offer.

Water affairs policy and strategy co-ordination manager Bill Rowlston told MPs on Wednesday his department was ”absolutely committed to designing and building any dams that are proved to be necessary and… the best alternative”.

”What we are convinced of, is if we say no more dams will be built in South Africa, we will, to all intents and purposes, be condemning parts of our population to no further improvement in (their) standard of living.”

He said the department was ”very aware” of anti-dam sentiment stemming from the landmark 2002 World Commission on Dams (WCD) report.

”We’re also very aware that much of that sentiment comes from the better-watered and better-developed northern hemisphere.”

Rowlston was briefing members of Parliament’s water affairs and forestry portfolio committee on progress towards completion of the country’s first National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS).

The strategy, gazetted in August 2002 and on course to be approved by Cabinet in October this year, lists 18 ”large-scale water resource developments” set for completion between 2005 and 2015.

Five of these, including the Skuifraam Dam on the Berg River, are located in the Western Cape.

Rowlston said dams identified in the NWRS could provide South Africa with an additional 5,6 billion cubic metres of water a year.

Currently, the country’s reliable water yield was about 13-billion cubic metres a year.

”We are absolutely committed in the department to developing South Africa’s water resources in a technically, environmentally and socially responsible way,” he said.

According to the WCD report, large dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and the benefits derived from them have been considerable.

However, ”in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits”.

This was especially so ”in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment”.

”Lack of equity in the distribution of benefits has called into question the value of many dams in meeting water and energy development needs when compared with the alternatives,” the report states.

Rowlston said his department was committed to building dams in a responsible way.

”We are not simply going to build dams because there are good sites and it will give something for civil engineers to do.

”We don’t dismiss the anti-dam lobby, but we do take it from where it comes, and we do say… we will design, construct and operate dams in a responsible way.

”(This will) take into account their full impact, and we’ll do our absolute very best to mitigate or remove some of those disadvantageous impacts,” he said.

Opponents to large dams argue that better, cheaper, more benign options for meeting water needs exist, although they are frequently ignored.

These range from small-scale, decentralised water supply, to large-scale, end-use efficiency and demand-side management options.

Dams, they argue, have often been selected over other options that may meet water goals at lower cost, or that may offer development benefits that are more sustainable and equitable. – Sapa

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Richard Davies
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