How I Learned to Hug a Dam Builder
During the last few days I attended an international conference on the nexus of water, energy and food security in Bonn. The event offered a lot of diplomatic hot air, some promising ideas and engaging discussions. We were even taught a new way of hugging our fellow participants - the "nexus hug" - and practiced working in the embrace of dam builders, UN bureaucrats and government officials.
The Bonn meeting had a sobering background. Our wasteful consumption degrades ecosystems at an alarming pace, yet more than one seventh of the world population suffer from hunger and don't have access to clean drinking water and modern energy. A growing population and changing climate will continue to exacerbate these trends. The nexus conference aimed to explore new ways to strengthen water, energy and food security in an integrated way and without destroying the environment. It was organized by the German government in preparation for next year's Rio+20 summit on the environment and development.
The Bonn conference brought together very different interests, styles and cultures. Bureaucrats of international organizations read prepared diplomatic statements that did not show any sign of life. Some private sector representatives marketed their products, while others committed to improving their practices in the future. A researcher combined his scientific presentation with a personal plea for a water-saving vegetarian lifestyle. Dedicated public servants lashed out against landgrabs for biofuels and other corrupt practices on the back of the poor. And senior managers of the World Bank and other institutions propagated ever-bigger dams even though these projects have failed the water, energy and food security of the poor in the past.
NGOs struggled hard to get a voice at the Bonn conference. The organizers seemed to hope that corporate and political leaders were more likely to carry the nexus message forward if they were treated with an amiable hug rather than with disagreement and conflict. Yet river activists still made a strong contribution in Bonn. Richard Twum from Ghana, Sena Alouka from Togo, Himanshu Thakkar from India and others reported that dams had not provided benefits for the poor in their countries, but had "promoted poverty and deprivation." Decisions were often taken at the top, and forced down the throats of affected people. Better solutions were often available, but ignored because of vested interests and outdated mindsets. Yet as a participant from a think-tank pointed out, solar energy is already producing more electricity than hydropower in Germany, and certainly has a huge potential in the sunnier climes of Africa.
Even though we were in a minority, the NGOs carried the day in the nexus session on the role of dams. In his conclusion, the moderator - a senior German government officials - proposed that all available options - including making better use of existing infrastructure - need to be assessed in a balanced way regarding their contribution to water, energy and food security before new projects are approved. The conclusions of the Bonn conference will help prepare the ground for the Rio+20 summit. This is a small step forward on the long way towards water, energy and food security. It gave us a reason for another nexus hug before we all left the lofty halls of a diplomatic conference for our daily work for rivers and people.
Peter Bosshard is the Policy Director of International Rivers. He blogs at http://www.internationalrivers.org/blog/227 and tweets @PeterBosshard