Large dams under the microscope 

Equity, efficiency, participatory decision-making, sustainability and accountability are the core issues to be addressed in building new large dams, according to a surprisingly refreshing consensus report of the World Commission on Dams.

Investments in large dams over the last century total over USD 2 trillion. But in recent times these investment decisions are increasingly being called into question as the opposition to large dams has grown both in intensity and scale. Today, there exists a global anti-dam community that commands considerable influence and attention. As a consequence, large dams have become controversial almost everywhere in the world.

This mounting challenge prom-pted the formation of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) in 1998 to bring together the various perspectives of the debate to decide if big dams have been really effective as development instruments. The Commission was set up by The World Conservation Union and the World Bank, which has been the single most influential institution responsible for promoting large dams across the world over the last five decades. The WCD report, released in London last November by Nelson Mandela, was expected to trigger negative reactions, as it sought to judge something on which such huge investments have already been made. But surprisingly, barring some exceptions, the responses have been mostly positive.

Even more surprising was the fact that a consensus report did emerge from a 12-member commission that had such a diverse spectrum of opinion vis-a-vis the value of big dams. The Commission consisted of people like Jan Veltrop, former president of International Committee on Large Dams, Goran Lindahl, the then CEO of Asea Brown Baveri, one of the world's largest equipment suppliers for large dams, and Medha Patkar, one of the most vehement activists against big dams. The Commission was chaired by Kader Asmal, who had sanctioned one of the largest dams in South Africa while he was that country's water resources minister.

Compromise document
What did the report have to say which elicited such a positive response? One of its conclusions is that while dams have indeed contributed to development, in too many cases "an unacceptable and often unnecessary price" was paid to secure those benefits—especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers, and by the natural environment. Another of its findings is even more pointed: "Lack of equity in the distribution of benefits has called into question the value of many dams in meeting water and energy development needs when compared with the alternatives."

The WCD report notes that dams typically have cost over-runs, time over-runs, under-performance in terms of benefits, and limited success in efforts to counter eco-system impacts. The report also says that the social groups which bear the costs and the ones who receive the benefits are often not the same. It also states that alternatives to large dams exist, but are rarely explored. It concludes by saying that the failure to assess and mitigate potential negative impacts has been "pervasive and systematic", and that the true profitability of these schemes remains elusive. In some sense the report vindicates the criticisms that large dams have been facing from activists all over.

The Commission's most significant recommendation is that before a project is taken up, it must be shown that there has been a "demonstrable acceptance" of the key decisions. The projects must be guided by free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous and tribal people when they are among the affected groups. Decisions ought to start with needs assessment, and a transparent and participatory as well as comprehensive options assessment. Before taking up any new project, options of optimisation of benefits from existing infrastructure must be exhausted, and outstanding social and environmental issues ought to be settled. The WCD has accepted equity, efficiency, participatory decision-making, sustainability and accountability as core values that should inform the understanding of relevant issues.

Some of the leading organisations that have welcomed the WCD exercise include the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the African Development Bank, the World Water Council (whose members include the International Commission on Large Dams, the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage, the International Hydropower Association, and the International Water Resources Association), the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

From within the dam industry, the response of Skanska AB, one of the world's leading dam building company, was prompt and positive. In November 2000, it said: "We find the Commission's work to be extremely valuable. Skanska intends to apply the guidelines for major hydropower projects recommended by the World Commission on Dams in their final report."

The World Bank, which once was practically forced to set up the Commission, now is more than happy with the outcome. Its President, James Wolfensohn said the report "is a milestone, not just for dams but a reassertion of the way you should go about development generally". He says the report is of fundamental importance, and has implications for operations by the Bank's commercial wing, as well as the Bank's core soft loan operations.

There have been a few exceptions to such enthusiastic responses. ICOLD, a known pro-dam lobby, has expressed fears that the report may be seen as anti-development. At the other end of the dam debate, Medha Patkar, known for her committed stance against big dams, was cautious and conditional in her endorsement of the report. As a member of the commission, Patkar has this brief note in the report: "While signing the report because of its many positive aspects, I still feel I must put forth this opinion on some fundamental issues that are
missing or not given the central place they deserve… Even with rights recognised, risks assessed and stakeholders identified, existing iniquitous power relations would too easily allow developers to dominate and distort such processes." Patkar's comment clearly shows the difficulties that critics of large dams would have faced in accepting a report that can at best be called a compromise document.

Since critics of large dams have welcomed the report and demanded that its recommendations be followed, then the minimum that one expects is that dam supporters from across the world, including governments, UN bodies, multi-lateral banks, bilateral institutions, dam-building companies, equipment suppliers, export credit agencies, international bodies like the ICOLD, ICID and IHA, as well as investors will honestly try to implement this consensus report.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian