PECS #28: Institutional Failure around Hydropower with Maria Claudia Lopez

Nowadays dams are being dismantled in the global North, while hundreds of dams are planned or under construction in the global South. Although hydropower may contribute to national economic development of nations like Brazil and China, it is also associated with numerous social and environmental impacts. In this presentation, I will cover some of the institutional failures that seem pervasive when dams are built. These failures start from the moment dams are conceived, which often takes place without consultation or participation in the decision-making process to construct the dam. It continues with a lack of transparency in the environmental and social impact assessment, which rarely if ever stops a dam from being built no matter how many concerns are raised in those assessments. This is followed by campaigns in which promises are made as to the benefits the dams will bring, which is followed by a failure to live up to those promises made. Even something as straightforward as compensation for damages suffered due to loss of property, land, and other assets is rarely compensated in full, and for people downstream from the dam which often suffer considerable damages from the declining fisheries, they are completely overlooked and uncompensated. It is hard to see why governments keep insisting that dam building is good for economic development, when it is so bad for so many people living near dams. Admitting institutional failures would be a good first step forward.

Maria Claudia Lopez is an associate professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University. Her scholarly work investigates how different rules and norms, understood as institutions, might drive resource users to govern their natural resources in sustainable and cooperative ways.  For the past six years, she has been working with an interdisciplinary team investigating the impacts of hydropower in communities living nearby different dams in the Brazilian Amazon, and to think about possible solutions to ensure positive environmental and socio-economic outcomes in hydropower development.