Dams and Economic Development


Dams and Economic Development

Despite the controversy, in many developing nations, major dam projects remain important engines for economic development and hold substantial potential for renewable energy generation. As of 2012, hydroelectric power constituted as much as 16.5% of global electricity production (and 75% of estimated renewable energy generation) (REN21, 2013). Of this, ~23% is in China, ~12% in Brazil, ~10% in Canada, and ~7.5% in the United States; combined, these four nations generate over half of the world's hydropower!

Moreover, globally, estimates suggest that up to two-thirds of economically viable dam sites have yet to be exploited. Undeveloped sites are especially abundant in Latin and South America (79% of renewable water remains unused), Africa (96%), India and China (48% is unused in Asia) (UNEP, 2013). Rapidly growing energy demand in India, China, and the Amazon Basin have driven the construction of hundreds of large dams as of 2002 (Figures 10-11; Table 1). This development may be a harbinger of things to come on the African continent. Africa has the second-highest population (after Asia), and the fastest-growing (See Module 1.3); it also has the lowest per capita energy use (UNEP, 2013). Looking to the future as demand for energy, water, and food in developing nations continue to grow – both per capita and in total as populations swell - it seems inevitable that demand for large dams will persist well into the 21st century.

Graph of large dams by region
Figure 16. Number of large dams by geographic region, as of 1998 (World Commission on Dams, 2000).
Click Here for Text alternative of dams by geographic region graph
Region Number of dams
China 22000
Asia 9000
North and Central America 8000
Western Europe 4000
Africa 1000
Eastern Europe 1000
South America 800
Austral-Asia 500
Source: World Commission on Dams
Table 1. Dams under construction in the most active dam-building nations, as of 1998 (from World Commission on Dams, 2000).
Country Number of Dams Purpose
India 695-960 Irrigation, multipurpose
China 280 Flood control, irrigation, power
Turkey 209 Water supply, hydropower
South Korea 132 Irrigation, hydropower, flood control
Japan 90 Flood control
Iran 48 Irrigation, multipurpose

Hydropower projects in the Amazon, most are towards the coast
Figure 17. Map showing existing and planned hydropower projects in the headwaters of the Amazon
Source: Finer M, Jenkins CN (2012) Proliferation of Hydroelectric Dams in the Andean Amazon and Implications for Andes-Amazon Connectivity. PLoS ONE 7(4): e35126. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0035126