Bank official: Rich should not deny dams to poor

Rich countries should not keep less developed ones poor by fashionable trends that oppose dams and water management infrastructure, a top World Bank water resources chief says.

David Grey, senior water adviser at the World Bank, said developed countries have been taking too broad a brush to dams and keeping poor countries poor in the process.

“We’re telling them (poor nations) not to do what we did in order to get rich ourselves,” Grey said September 4 in Brisbane, where he addressed the ninth annual International Riversymposium conference.

Grey said the pendulum is swinging back toward greater acceptance of dams and water infrastructure as part of the overall management of water. He said the World Bank is committed to financing responsible water development.

Poor nations have 20 to 30 percent of needed storage

A Columbia University seasonal storage index, which shows the amount of water needed to produce food and to serve other areas of the economy, shows that most poor countries have only 20 to 30 percent of the storage they need. Grey said rich countries are “over-invested” at 200 percent.

Grey said he sees large dams as the solution of last resort, because they invariably entail social and environmental damage. But popular participation, better governance, and sharing benefits can make dams important assets, he said.

“In northeast Brazil today communities compete to be the site of the next dam because it’s like living on a gold mine,” he said.

Communities are equity shareholders and receive benefits for 50 years, with 0.5 to 1 percent of power revenues financing community development funds, markets, schools, roads, and clinics, he said.

Grey: Without dams, Australia would not be rich

Australia, the driest inhabited country in the world, would not be the rich, developed country it is today if dams and water infrastructure had not been built, Grey said.

“Countries that have only one short rainy season … and countries where rainfall varies from year to year by 30 to 40 percent … these are the poorest in the world,” he said. “Australia is an exception. Australia imported skill and imported capital and solved the problem. If Australia hadn’t been colonized it might be different,” he said.

Salinization and reduced flows in Australia’s major rivers led to the Australian government introducing the A$2 billion (US$1.5 billion) National Water Initiative in 2004, which has had some success in bringing major rivers back to life. But the use of dams before, and as part of the initiative, were blamed for damaging Australia’s river systems.

“And if you took them (the dams) all down, what would happen?” Grey asked.

Australians, battling longstanding dry weather that hit hardest in 2002 with the country’s worst drought in 100 years, have been forced to accept water restrictions in major cities as reservoir levels dropped to about 40 percent of capacity. Such hardship, according to Grey, is small compared with the plight in countries with limited water infrastructure.

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