Hydropower for me but not for thee

16 July 2014

US Senator Leahy from Vermont represents a state which depends heavily on clean, cheap hydropower. His recent use of the budget bill to deny poor countries an opportunity to develop their hydropower resources has led to indepth discussion across the US. In his blog on the Centre for Global Development's website, John Briscoe gives his views on the subject.

One of the great divides between the rich and poor worlds is access to electricity. Consumption of electricity by a standard single-family American refrigerator is ten times the consumption of electricity by the average Ethiopian. An equally great divide is the use of hydropower. In most rich countries over 80% of economically viable hydropower potential is tapped. In Africa the comparable figure is under 5%. Many African countries are, accordingly, giving high priority to developing hydropower as a source of cheap, clean energy. But to tap this energy, they need assistance from external private and public partners. Historically the World Bank and other international finance institutions have played a major role. Indeed President Obama's major initiative with Africa, called Power Africa*, also envisages a major role for hydropower.

Into this picture steps Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 contains a legislative provision authored by Senator Leahy seeking to prohibit the construction of hydroelectric dams in poor countries: "Section 7060(c)(7)(D). The Secretary of the Treasury shall instruct the United States executive director of each international financial institution that it is the policy of the United States to oppose any loan, grant, strategy or policy of such institution to support the construction of any large hydroelectric dam."

I come from South Africa, have lived in Mozambique, Bangladesh, India and Brazil and worked for 40 years on development. Time and time again I have seen NGOs and politicians in rich countries advocate that the poor follow a path that they, the rich, never have followed, nor are willing to follow. And so I took a look at the reality of hydropower in Senator Leahy's home state of Vermont.

On his website Senator Leahy stated: "Vermont has 84 operating hydroelectric plants, with a total generating capacity of 190MW, and also draws a large portion of its energy portfolio from hydropower facilities operated by Hydro Quebec...Senator Leahy believes hydropower is one component of the alternative energy solution."

At least 28 of Vermont's dams meet the "large dams" definition used in the Leahy prohibition, as do all of the Quebec dams which supply electricity to Vermont. "Hydro-Québec's clean, sustainable hydroelectric projects and relative price stability provide exactly the kind of power Vermonters have told us they would like," says the CEO of Central Vermont's Public Service.

As the Senior Water Advisor in the World Bank a decade ago, I had worked hard to bring some balance and common sense to this debate, and to incorporate these into the water policy of the Bank. It is clear to me how developing countries will see the stance of Senator Leahy. They will not see many of the inside-the-Beltway subtleties - that this is only a one-year legislative provision; that it expresses the views of one senator and his staff, and not necessarily the administration; that it might be designed to start a conversation, not to end one. My experience suggests that developing countries will see this as follows.

First, as with similar efforts in the past, this will be seen as breathtaking hypocrisy. If Senator Leahy is so adamantly against hydropower, let him show his commitment by first turning out the lights of Vermont. Second, it reinforces a prevalent view that US policy towards the developing world is driven by politicians who are driven by extreme single-issue groups at home, and give little attention to the proven instruments - including infrastructure - which lead to growth and poverty reduction. Third, Africans and others are turning and will turn, with great appreciation, to the governments and companies of China and Brazil and potentially to a BRICs Bank**, who understand that electricity is one of the keys to a better life, and who will help Africans build the infrastructure they need for economic growth and poverty reduction .

Additional thoughts
It cannot be said that Senator Leahy has the whole of US Congress' support. Earlier in the year the Electrify Africa Act was approved with the bill specifically stating that the US encourages private sector and international support for the construction of hydroelectric dams in sub-Saharan Africa: as long as the dams are in the US' national security interests and built following international best practice for environmental and social safeguards.
Then on 20 March the World Bank approved a US$73M grant to the Democratic Republic of Congo for the Inga 3 hydropower project. Commentators say that such highly complex projects need the support of multi-lateral development banks but that a lack of clear US policy is proving to be detrimental to the country's development interests.


The twisted tale of Inga 3 by Michael Igoe and Paul Stephens. 17 April 2014. International Development News. https://www.devex.com/news/the-twisted-tale-of-inga-3-83232

* In June 2013 President Obama announced Power Africa - an initiative to double the number of people with access to power in Sub-Saharan Africa. It aims to achieve this goal by unlocking substantial wind, solar, hydropower, natural gas and geothermal resources in the region to enhance energy security, decrease poverty and advance economic growth.

**The BRICS Development Bank is a proposed multi-lateral development bank to be operated by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa


Author information

John Briscoe is a Professor of Environmental Engineering at Harvard University where he directs the Harvard Water Security Initiative. He also serves on the Centre for Global Development's Advisory Group.

IWP&DC would like to thank the Centre for Global Development for permission to reproduce John Briscoe's blog which was originally published online on 6 March 2014. http://www.cgdev.org/blog/hydropower-me-not-thee

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