For years, governments, civil society organisations, development officials, and private contractors have debated the costs and benefits of large dams. Proponents point to the social and economic development benefits that dams provide, such as electric power, irrigation and secure water supplies. Critics argue that project sponsors, public and private, systematically downplay the adverse environmental, social and economic impacts of dams.

Clashes between dam proponents and critics have brought the large dams issue into focus as one of the most intensely debated issues in sustainable development. Controversies surrounding dams such as Narmada in India and the Three Gorges in China illustrate the conflicts faced by governments, financing institutions and private developers when confronted with resistance from civil society organisations, affected communities and environmentalists. Most stakeholders today acknowledge that the polarisation of opponents and proponents has resulted in a virtual breakdown of constructive dialogue.

To break the impasse, IUCN (The World Conservation Union) and the World Bank agreed last year to host a workshop on the future of large dams.

Held in April 1997, the meeting brought together experts and representatives of major stakeholder groups in the global large dams debate to initiate an open and transparent dialogue. The 39 participants represented governments, the private sector, international financial institutions, and civil organisations. They included representatives from ABB, ICOLD, Volta River Authority, lahmeyer International, World Bank, Tata Energy Research Institute, ISAGEN, Harza Engineering, Electricite de France, Chinese Ministry of Water Resources, Narmada Bachao Andolan (Struggle to Save the Narmada Campaign), International Rivers Network, electrowatt Engineering, and IUCN.

The workshop was welcomed by James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank Group, who said: ‘Large dams constitute a major technical, social, environmental and developmental challenge. For this challenge to be met successfully, the World Bank is prepared to join IUCN and other stakeholders toward the creation of an appropriate framework focused on learning from experience and on the design of adequate standards.’

Based on reviews of an internal World Bank study on large dams, the workshop participants identified key issues in three areas — social, environmental and economics/engineering — that need to be addressed to work towards a new consensus on the role of large dams in sustainable development.

The workshop proceedings were published in in August 1997 by the World Bank and IUCN (with financial support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation). The publication includes a summary of the workshop discussion and recommendations for future action as well as a series of overview papers commissioned for the workshop on: engineering and economic issues; social and stakeholder issues; environmental sustainability; and challenges facing the hydro power industry.

A World Commission

The most important recommendation of the workshop was to establish an independent two-year World Commission on Dams, which was formed in November 1997. Its mandate is:

•To assess experience from existing, new and proposed large dam projects so as to improve current practices and social and environmental conditions.

•To develop decision-making criteria, and policy and regulatory frameworks, to assess alternatives in energy and water resources development.

•To evaluate the development effectiveness of large dams.

•To develop and promote internationally acceptable standards for the planning, assessment, design, construction, operation and monitoring of large dam projects and to ensure that the effect on local people is positive.

•To identify the requirements for institutional, policy and financial arrangements so that benefits, costs and risks are equitably shared at global, national and local levels.

•To recommend interim modifications, where necessary, of existing policies and guidelines, and promote ‘best practice’.

The Commission is composed of a chair and 11 members as well as the secretary-general. A consultative group composed of about 50 stakeholder representatives, to include the participants at the 1997 workshop, will also be established. The Commission will conduct studies, reviews, and consultations on methodological, technical and policy issues. It will formally submit a report with recommendations to the president of the World Bank and the director-general of IUCN and report its findings to the consultative group and the international community in June 2000.

The reasons for launching the initiative now are evident to observers. As Maurice Strong, chair of the Earth Council, said, ‘This initiative is very timely — the issue of large dams is critical in light of growing energy needs and the role of hydro power in the future of many developing countries. However recent experiences with large dams makes it very clear that such projects should only proceed if both environmental and social concerns are fully met. It would clearly be counterproductive to undertake large dam projects in which environmental and social costs exceeded long term benefits.’

High expectations exist for the Commission, as expressed by David McDowell, director general of the World Conservation Union: ‘We look to the Commission to address the difficult trade-offs that affect the biodiversity value of ecosystems and the daily life of communities when decisions about water resources and energy development are made.’

The Commission members

Professor Kader Asmal, Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry of the Republic of South Africa, was selected as the chair of the Commission after a comprehensive global search and consultation with the workshop participants. A prominent member of President Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet, Professor Asmal has led the fundamental review and reform of South Africa’s water resource management policy. In 1996, he was awarded the Gold Medal Award for conservation from the World Wide Fund for Nature — South Africa. He is also a patron of the Global Water Partnership. His reaction to his appointment reflected the sweep of the Commission’s mandate: ‘The use of water is of vital interest and of central importance to all of humanity. This Commission offers a unique opportunity to mediate competing interests and obtain consensus on the issues around large dams; it will actively seek to review the development effectiveness of dams and to establish a set of guidelines, standards and criteria for future generations. I hope that the Commission’s report will provide real content to the concept of sustainable development.’

The members of the Commission were announced in February 1998. They are:

•Laxmi Chand Jain, Indian High Commissioner to South Africa, and formerly on the Central Planning commission and planning boards of several Indian states.

•Donald J Blackmore, chief executive of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, Australia.

•Joji Carino, executive secretary of the International Alliance of Indigenous-Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forest.

•José Goldemberg, professor at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

•Judy Henderson, chair of Oxfam International, and board member of the Environmental Protection Agency of NSW, Australia.

•Göran Lindahl, president and CEO of ABB.

•Deborah Moore, senior scientist at the Environmental Defence Fund.

•Medha Patkar, social scientist and founder of the Narmada Bachao Andolan in India.

•Wolfgang Pircher, past president and now honorary president of the international-commission-on-large-dams.

•Thayer Scudder, professor of anthropology at California Institute of Technology.

•Shen Guoyi, director general of the Department of International Co-operation in the Ministry of Water Resources, People’s Republic of China.

Working group and secretariat

At the request of the workshop participants, an Interim Working Group, composed of IUCN and World Bank staff was established to co-ordinate and facilitate establishment of the Commission. An interim secretariat, located in IUCN’s Washington Office in the USA and jointly chaired by George Greene of IUCN and John Briscoe of the World Bank, was created with financial support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation and the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency. In mid-March 1998, Professor Asmal named the secretary-general as Achim Steiner, a senior official with GTZ, the German agency for technical co-operation, and currently chief technical advisor to the mekong-river-commission. The secretariat will be in Cape Town, South Africa.

For all stakeholders in this process, and particularly for the hydro industry, the Commission represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity. It is a chance to present the case for hydro, and to talk through its issues in an objective setting. Equally important, the Commission creates a forum in which to hammer out internationally accepted criteria on a range of issues, so that future debates about dam projects have a clear agenda and broadly-accepted standards.

If the Commission is successful, it will also create a framework for a global approach — there will always be local characteristics and problems that have to be considered in a project, but as much as possible, the Commission will establish global standards for evaluation throughout the industry. During the next two years there will be much analysis and discussion, but the outcome will be major gains for the industry as well as for other stakeholders.

Comments about the World Commission on Dams

‘Any time you can formalise a process for collaboration among all the stakeholders of a hydro power project, it is a positive development for both economic progress and environmental preservation. The World Commission on Dams can succeed if it recognises the intrinsic benefits of hydro power and does not focus narrowly on a project’s environmental impacts. In the US, we advocate a holistic approach to hydro power development that makes use of sound science to balance developmental needs with environmental and cultural impacts. Voluntary guidelines, as proposed by the Commission, can be enormously helpful so long as there are no pre-conceived outcomes by any of the stakeholders. Under these conditions, the World Commission on Dams is a welcome development.’
Julie Kell, president of the National Hydropower Association, US

‘International Rivers Network believes there is an urgent need for an independent assessment of the projected and actual costs and benefits of a representative sample of dams as called for in the mandate of the World Commission on Dams. We look forward to this assessment being carried out in a transparent manner, taking full account of the opinions and experiences of people displaced and otherwise affected by dams. IRN and other dam critics believe that aid agencies and governments should declare a moratorium on the building of large dams until the implementation of the policy recommendations of the Commission.’
Patrick McCully, campaigns director, International Rivers Network, US