Report condemns dams' environmental impact

November 29, 2000


A report released by the World Commission on Dams (WCD) on November 16 paints a damning picture of the environmental and social impacts of many of the world's 45,000 large dams.

The WCD was formed in 1998 following a process initiated by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union (WCU). It has 12 commissioners ranging from the chief executive officer of a major engineering company to an activist involved in India's Save the Narmada Movement.

More than two years of research went into the commission's report, Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision Making. The report examines the technical, financial and economic performance of dams, their environmental and social effects, alternatives to dams, and decision making processes.

The report states that an "unacceptable and often unnecessary price" has too often been paid to achieve the benefits of large dams (which include electricity, irrigation, and flood control). It concludes that the impact of large dams on ecosystems are "mostly negative" and that obstacles such as market, institutional, intellectual and financial barriers limit the adoption of alternatives such as wind and solar energy, recycling, local water management, and demand management.

The WCD said in a November 16 press release, "The negative social impacts reflect a pervasive and systematic failure to assess and account for the range of potential negative impacts on displaced and resettled people as well as downstream communities. Estimates suggest that some 40-80 million people have been displaced by dams worldwide while the livelihoods of many more living downstream were affected but not recognised. Mitigation, compensation or resettlement programs were often inadequate."

The report notes that the benefits generally accrue to the wealthy while the poor bear the costs, with indigenous, tribal, and peasant communities particularly hard hit. It also found that large dams have caused great environmental damage, including the extinction of many fish and other aquatic species; huge losses of forest, wetlands and farmland; pollution; nutrient removal; and species extinction.

The launch of the report in London was attended by among others former South African president Nelson Mandela, the chairperson of the World Water Forum 2000, United Nations' high commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson and the World Bank president James Wolfensohn, and WCU director-general Maritta von Bieberstein Koch-Weser.

Reflecting its origins, the report is replete with technocratic and feel-good rhetoric about "core values" (equity, sustainability, efficiency, participatory decision making and accountability), strategic priorities, practical criteria and guidelines.

The report advocates a new framework for decision making that moves beyond simple cost-benefit analysis to introduce an allegedly inclusive "rights and risks approach" which recognises all "legitimate stakeholders".

Private corporations are urged to adopt voluntary codes of conduct, integrity pacts and compliance plans.

People displaced by dam construction projects are advised to "strengthen the technical and legal capacity for needs and options assessment processes through support networks and the ability to ... convince the relevant authorities to take effective steps to address them."

The report imagines that "multi-criteria analysis", encompassing technical, environmental and socio-economic factors will somehow resolve conflicting interests between private developers, governments, banks and the imperialist funding agencies (the World Bank in particular) on the one hand, and affected communities on the other.

Maritta von Bieberstein said, "Whilst recognising the benefits that dams have made to societies, significant is the [report's] assessment that dams have resulted in irreversible loss of species and ecosystems." She added, "After this report, we can no longer say, 'We did not know'."

Others commentators have been less diplomatic and euphemistic. Indian Booker Prize winning author and activist Arundhati Roy said, "For planners and engineers of big dams their past mistakes have served only to add to the majestic arc of their learning curve. It is time for them to get off their learning curve, which has devastated the lives of millions of people, and actually learn."

A declaration signed by 109 non-governmental organisations from 39 countries was published on November 16, calling on public funding agencies to halt all financial support for large dams until they have fully adopted the WCD's recommendations and established mechanisms to compensate those who are suffering the impact of existing dams.

The NGO declaration (but not the WCD report) calls for the suspension of all large dam projects currently being planned or under construction until they have been subjected to participatory reviews as advocated by the WCD.

A November 16 Environmental News Service report noted that a number of ongoing and planned dam projects clearly breach WCD guidelines, including China's Three Gorges dam, the dams on India's Narmada river, the Ilisu dam in Turkey, San Roque in the Philippines, Bujagali in Uganda, Ralco in Chile, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, and dams in the Brazilian Amazon and the Uruguay River basin in the south of Brazil.

Sadi Baron, coordinator of Brazil's Movement of Dam Affected People, said, "Speaking as someone whose farm is to be flooded by a dam, the key recommendations of the WCD are that no dam should be built without the agreement of the directly affected people, and that reparations are needed for those who have suffered because of past dams."

Of the nearly 700 dams in the Australasian region, 486 are located in Australia. According to Dr Graham Harris, chief of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's land and water division, "Our rivers show severe signs of degradation through extraction, regulation by dams and other forms of habitat destruction. We continue to extract unsustainable amounts of water from our surface and ground waters and new dams and bore fields are still being planned."

The WCD's report can be found at

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