Dam Fundamentalism

The World Bank and Big Business no longer seem capable of fighting the Dam Busters. So, this may be the beginning of the end…

In April 1997, there was a unique gathering at Gland, Switzerland. It consisted of people who have been on opposite sides of the most fierce and bitter of environmental controversies – the building of large dams. They were all there, the World Bank, the dam-builders and consultants on one side, and scholars and activists from the dam-fighting groups on the other.But the meeting did not descend into acrimony. Instead, it unanimously resolved to appoint an independent commission to review the experience of large dams worldwide. The commission would be asked to review the "development effectiveness of large dams" and to evolve standards and crite ria for the building of large dams.

The commission was to have been set up in November 1997, but protests from the ´anti-dam´ organisations about "lack of balance" in the names proposed delayed the process. Finally, in January 1998, all sides agreed on the makeup of the body; 12 individuals, representing a broad spectrum of ´stakeholders´. (Representing the Subcontinent at the Commission are its Vice-Chairperson Laxmi Chand Jain, who, among other things, served in the Government of India´s independent committee to review the Sardar Sarovar Project and Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.)   The setting up of the World Commission on Dams itself signifies, as nothing else can, success after years of struggle against large dams. But why would the World Bank and private industry, whose interests are at such variance with the activists on the ground, want such a commission?

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Himal Southasian