Social and cultural impacts of Large Dams: the case of Sudan

January 5, 2009

This is the power point of my presentation to the Centro de Estudos Africanos da Universidade do Porto (CEUAP -Porto) conference of the 2nd – 3rd of October 2008:

Water in Africa: hydro-optimism or hydro-pessimism?

Here is my abstract:



Large dams’ construction is back in Africa. This paper analyses the frictions between potential economic benefits generated by large-scale dams and the social and cultural impacts, for the specific case of the Merowe Dam in the Nile River, Northern Sudan. This paper focuses on the controversies surrounding the Merowe Dam planning and construction (2002-2008 ) and its impacts on society and culture. The friction between different visions of development will be analysed in order to assess the prospects of an equitable socio-economic development related to large-scale dams’ projects, an ideal hydro-optimistic vision.

1. The Merowe dam’s project

The Merowe Dam, to be completed in 2008, is the largest national hydroelectric project. The construction of the Merowe dam at Hamadab, on the 4th cataract of the Nile River, is presently the largest national hydroelectric project and has been under construction since 2003. The project is expected to cost around $2 billions, financed by China’s Exim Bank and several Gulf investment funds. According to the Sudanese authorities, the dam will eventually produce 1,250 megawatts of electricity and will cover up to 50% of Sudan’s hydropower needs, necessary to sustain the booming economic development of the country. The Merowe dam construction is supervised by a para-statal institution, invented for the dam’s construction: the Merowe dam Unit, later transformed in Dams Implementation Unit, which under the authority of the President of Sudan. In the national media, the Sudanese authorities portray the Dam as the ultimate solution for the development and the “modernisation” of the country. However, the dam implies some collateral effects: the reservoir of the Merowe Dam will flood 175 km of the Nile Valley and it is expected to displace around 50,000 people and submerge a region with an important archaeological potential. Other impacts are expected: environmental impacts, water-borne diseases and malaria Moreover some issues are still not officially settled, such what will happen with the new irrigated lands created by the reservoir. So far, it is still unknown the future use and ownership of these new lands.

2. Social and cultural impacts

The affected local communities denounce the construction of the Dam and the related displacement as a threat to their social and cultural rights and accuse the Sudanese government of violation of Human Rights. Three communities were to be displaced: the inhabitants of Hamadab and Amri and the Manasir community. The two first groups were displaced between 2003 and 2006. A part of the population showed their disagreement with the conditions of relocation; in 2006, clashes occurred between security forces and local people, resulting in the death of two inhabitants. The last group refused the conditions of relocation, and seems to be resisting. Negotiations between the Northern and Nile States, the Federal State (Khartoum) or the Dams Implementation Unit and the local population did not come up with solutions – both parties accusing of mutual mistrust. In response, the local population threat the government of an uprising in the Northern region. The Leadership Office of Hamadab Affected People (LOHAP), a local activist group supported by the international advocacy group International Rivers Network since 2004, in their campaign for the promotion of the rights of the local people have since the beginning called for the respect of international standards, such as those of Human Rights and community protection, as well as the internationally accepted principles applying to the construction of large-scale dams. The LOHAP calls have tried to draw national and international attention to the “violation of the recommendations made by the World Commission on Dams” perpetuated by the Sudanese government and foreign companies involved in the Dam project (namely Lahmeyer and Alstom). In 2000, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) report highlighted the high risks usually faced by local communities in the large-dams projects, although it recognised the role played by dams in economic development. WCD assessed a rights-and-risks approach consisting in a framework which advises and requires the consultation of all stakeholders affected by a dams’ construction, in order to assure and promote an equitable development for all. Based on these principles, the people affected by the Merowe Dam denounced the weakness of the feasibility studies carried out by the Canadian consultant company Monenco Agra in 1993. They pointed out the disregard of the WCD principles in the assessment studies, denouncing inadequacies on the resettlement issues or the environmental and cultural impacts of the Merowe dam project. From a local resistance, the leaders of the LOHAP turned to make a national cause for Human rights and gained a global audience. In international political terms, the resistance group have denounced the Chinese investments regardless the local conditions and the democratic processes. More interesting for our topic, is the connection the LOHAP leaders along with their international supports establish between the Merowe dam’s case and the planned dams in Sudan: Are they trying to propose a model of “fair” dams?

3. Fair dams: a model of hydro-optimism?

The proposal of the LOHAP leaders and International Rivers Network is that ongoing and future projects of large-scale dams in Sudan must include compensations – financial, social, legal- for the disruption of local cultures and the social fabric through a fair distribution of the benefits created by the dams. The struggle of people affected by the Merowe dam is making sense: the Dams Implementation Unit is actually planning several large dams in Sudan involving resettlement of populations: the Kajbar Dam and the Dal dams located in Nubia region, the heightening of the Roseires Dam in the east of Sudan. In addition, six barrages are planned in Southern Sudan. In the present context of the policy of dams in Sudan, the intentions of the Sudanese authorities are not clear: in which conditions will these dams be implemented? Will the Dams implementation Unit follow the lines of the WCD? In cultural terms, the protection of cultural heritage is already included in the impact studies. A generation of archaeologists is trained for salvage and emergency archaeological works. It is worthy to note that the Dams Implementation Unit invested a lot in publications and communication on the 4th Cataract Salvage Archaeological Mission. This stresses the visibility of archaeological and heritage displays in terms of image. However, no official actions have been taken in terms of anthropological surveys and Dam authorities show a disinterest. In social terms as well as in environmental terms, the tendency remains unclear. The water authorities of several Nile riparian countries signed a statement of intentions in 2008. The Khartoum Statement on future dams development on the Nile declares the recognition of local communities and the engagement of civil society in the development process of all the future dams. Is the Khartoum Statement a sign of a move towards a model of fair dams’ development? In an optimistic vision of hydro-policies, one would like to believe there is an effective trend of local communities’ rights recognition announcing an equitable socio-economic development generated by large scales projects. The problem is that such developments are not limited to the case of large dams: it implies societal projects, based on renewed development policies and a vision of governance based on power, economic-wealth sharing and cultural recognition. Declarations of the Sudanese State abound in this sense but remain rhetoric: the situation on field does not show any implementation going in that direction. Civil society and grassroots movements claim for the decentralisation of decision-making and for better articulation of national and local interests. This claim is the key for a hydro-optimist vision.


6 Responses to “Social and cultural impacts of Large Dams: the case of Sudan”

  1. Niranjali said

    It was very useful for me, because i was studying large scale dam projects in the world and the impacts of them. I selected the merowe dam, as my topic to present in the class.
    Thank you and wishing you all the best..


  2. leturcq said

    Be my guest and do not hesitate to contact me by email for further exchange on the topic. Best,

    J. Gabriel

  3. adile elhassan said

    dear sir

    i’m doing dissertation in environmenal impact assessment taking merowe dam as case study so ifind this very useful and iwill very happy if ifind more infomatins about this topic

    thank you and all the best

  4. mario said

    hola, muy interesante, me gustaria conocer con la mayor exactitud posible, las localizaciones de estas futuras presas en sudan.
    muchas gracias

  5. Sibonangaye said

    this is very informative and helpful. I am currently doing a research on the impact of the Maguga Dam, constructed along the Komati River in Swaziland.

  6. Mandy said

    VERY GOOD THIS HELPED ME A LOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: