No natural resource, even gold, is more precious to any given country than its fresh water. And no public tool has been more widely and controversially used for parting — and imparting — those waters, than dams. Decisions over dams are decisions over sanitation. Crops. Drinking water. Health. Electricity. Fisheries. Flood management. A nation’s destiny.

Dam building is a US$42B industry that forces 11,000 people from their homes each day. Why? To what end? For whom? And what are the costs and benefits of this? In an attempt to understand this the World Commission on Dams (WCD) has brought together current public evidence on cultural heritage management (CHM); which is only one thin slice of the complex dams and development picture.

Human civilisation has evolved along rivers. Dams, by definition, alter the flow patterns and use of these rivers. The resulting friction between large dams and equally valued cultural heritage has sparked intense and escalating controversies in many corners of the world: pitting archaeologists against cities, farmers against governments, nat-ions against neighbours.

The debate hinges on difficult and sensitive value-based questions, such as: What exactly is cultural heritage? Is cultural past a human right? Do all dams impact culture? Should the potential worth of undiscovered sites keep new dams from being built? Are impacts of dams on cultural heritage irreversible? What matters more, the ‘dead’ legacy of the past or the immediate ‘living’ demands of the present? What incentives are there for improvement? Can all cultural impacts be managed or are dams and heritage irreconcilable? Current research, including a recent World Archaeological Congress (WAC) workshop at the University of Florida, has uncovered clues and approaches that may shed much needed light.

In shorthand, cultural heritage is a unique social fingerprint, the tangible ties between humans and their past. It includes sacred elements of landscape, invaluable ancient or modern human artefacts, critical plant and animal remains from human activities and sacrosanct burial grounds. They are the clues to our distant and not-so-distant legacy.

Yet the density, location and nature of these clues rarely emerge until, and in some cases, only because, a dam or other development construction has begun; leading to a dilemma. While nations should preserve valuable cultural and archaeological resources before building dams, dam building may be what uncovers the very resources worth protecting in the first place.

This helps explain the dilemma, but does not explain it away, or make it less urgent. Indeed, authors Steven Brandt and Fekri Hassan reported on the February Dams and Cultural Heritage Management workshop in the US, with the sobering conclusion that: ‘The magnitude of loss from different parts of the world wherever large dams are con-structed is staggering.’ Yet, facing competing demands and limited budgets, what can be done by governments now? The quick answer would be to proceed with extreme care. But that is easier said than done. The workshop documented how countries rarely have explicit CHM policies for dam projects. Of those that do, few enforce them. For example, archaeo-logical surveys have been done for only 25 of Turkey’s 298 dam projects. Of those, five have organised systematic rescue work.

There are signs of hope. In 1954, potential adverse impacts of the Aswan High dam on Nubia were dramatic enough to change the practice of archaeology forever. An international rescue operation led to decades of intensified research not just in the vicinity of the dam, but throughout Egypt. This, in turn, led to the rewriting of the prehistory of the Nile Valley. On a global scale, what the then director general of UNESCO called ‘a task without parallel in history’, led to the launch of numerous other operations.

And values differ. Studying Tarbela dam in Pakistan, WCD learned how authorities, in consultation with religious leaders, ceremoniously moved sacred shrines out of the flood area. Elsewhere it learned that a Spanish community wanted their church to remain in the reservoir as a monument.

But in some cases no management is possible. Last August in Geneva, WCD sponsored a meeting with representatives of affected communities on dams, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. It discovered that Epupa dam, proposed on the Cunene river between Namibia and Angola, threatens 160 ancestral graves. As observer Dr Bollig explained: ‘To the Himba, graves are not simply an accumulation of stones under which some bones rest, they are places laden with emotion and mem-ories.’ Place forms their basis of political rank and order, establishes land ownership, allows relig-ious ritual and orientat-ion. Because a place, by definition, can not be relocated, CHM of dam construction may prove irreconcilable and lead to other alternatives.

Not surprisingly, developed countries have more legal, organisational and financial capacity to cope with discoveries than many developing countries, as shown by these contrasting sites.

Yacyretá dam inundated 80,000ha of land, 80% in Paraguay and 20% in Argentina. Between 1985 and 1988 a World Bank-funded study to evaluate the cultural impact covered an area of 4916ha and located a number of archaeological sites. But Argentina’s study work and rescue operation suffered from funding shortage and bureaucratic management; Paraguay’s rescue research began only after the flooding had already started and, as a result, most of the sites were by then under water.

By contrast, even before 1985 legislation, Portugal gave formal political recognition to its cultural heritage through systematic consideration of projects that impact the landscape, including dams. For example, Alqueva dam was suspended in 1979 until surveys examined archaeological impacts up- and downstream. Today, a year before submergence, Portugal has completed or executed all rescue and mitigation activities in the inundation zone, planned an archaeological museum, and constructed a memory centre which includes an ethnographic museum and a cemetery to which remains from the impoundment area will be transferred.

Most countries document a gaping shortage of qualified CHM personnel, adequate facilities and infrastructure, an urgent need for local capacity building and training that integrates CHM assessment with environmental assess-ment (EA) when looking for potential impacts.

‘There is a two-way tension between saving the past and providing for the present,’ said Madiodio Niasse of the WCD Secretariat. ‘Archaeologists do not face political demands for water or electricity, and governments do not always see the potential value of cultural resources until too late. But this may be a false choice. Both parties can plan ahead, then work together. Rescue operations do not just preserve what may be lost; they deliver real and undiscovered benefits to all in the same way, and perhaps to the same scale and richness, as dams.’ The Portuguese collectively recognised these benefits. Upon discovery of Paleolithic engravings, and following subsequent protests and controversy, the country abandoned the Coa dam even after investing US$150M into it. To be sure, not every country can afford to. And even where studies are required, and cultural heritage should be covered, oversight and compliance may slip through the cracks between social and environmental impact studies. This oversight is attributed to: •Built-in biases toward only biological or non-human factors.

•The poorly understood link between human behaviour and environmental change.

•Ignorance of how deeply society values cultural heritage resources.

•Lack of publicised CHM data.

•Lack of techniques to deal with cultural heritage in environmental assessments.

Turning to global guidelines is not always the answer. The Florida workshop found most international organisations lack any explicit standardised policies towards cultural heritage, including the Asian Development Bank, Inter American Development Bank and the Japan Bank for International Co-operation. The notable exception is the World Bank’s 1986 cultural property policy, currently under revision, which has specific provisions aimed at protecting cultural resources in Bank-funded projects, including dams.

‘Perhaps the most distressing political finding from the workshop,’ said Niasse, ‘is that some world organisations best pos-itioned to fund, foster and improve cultural heritage management within poor nations, are most in need of CHM awareness themselves.’ Solving cultural dilemma involves priority. To emerge from the crisis, certain barriers must be overcome. Among the practical considerations which the Commission may consider in its Final Report are logistics, politics and economic incentives.

First, logistics. Not all agree that up-stream flooding from dams impacts cultural resources forever. The critical impact zone is the ‘bathtub ring’ area where fluctuating water levels scour and erode the shoreline. The deep water zone may be the most protected from impacts and therefore the best location for preservation. In some existing reservoirs already built without attention to CHM, underwater archaeology is a viable choice for assessment of and access to sub-merged archaeological and cultural resources. That said, submergence of archaeological resources is not a viable mitigation alternative, as it is more cost-efficient to excavate and manage these resources before submergence. Mud-based resources are most at risk from exposure to water. Gravesite disturbances often cause irreversible emotional rather than physical impacts that cannot be mitigated. Lastly, dredging of reservoirs can have negative irreversible impacts on the inundated resources.

Second, politics. In theory, a quick ideal solution may seem to be vigorous enforcement of international guidelines and agreements, such as a permanent UNESCO World Heritage Site declaration, protection or moratorium. But if the ‘stick’ of legal or regulatory sanctions is too severe, it may actually create built-in disincentives to survey, explore, discover, excavate or protect cultural heritage.

‘Say you’re a developer or regulator of a project and a worker brings you a bone, statue or clay pot that may unlock a gap in human evolution,’ said Niasse. ‘Your first impulse should be joy, not fear that this discovery will lead to demands for more money, mitigation, time to explore and thus controversy and indefinite delay. You need incentives to call in experts, not hastily bury the bone and keep quiet.’ Which leads to economics. Financial incentives come from long term potential revenue generated from the discovery of cultural heritage. Small grants or rewards from organisations may tip the scales more effectively than threats of sanctions and project moratorium.

Also, a percentage of total dam con-struction costs can be allocated for CHM, either incorporated into environmental assessment budgets or considered as a separate line item in project budgets. Funding at present is frequently inadequate even for stop-gap and partial measures to ‘rescue’ endangered cultural heritage. No one can remedy the current inadequacies in developing countries without earmarking part of the project resources to CHM.

‘The overall picture of CHM and dams right now is dark. But we can light candles to reveal a path forward,’ says Niasse. ‘From Portugal’s Coa, to Egypt and Sudan’s Nubia along the Nile, each country went in looking to generate electricity and came out with ways to generate millions from tourism and museums. By enriching humanity, countries also enrich their coffers with funds to offset the opportunity costs of delay, or match the economic revenues of a dam.’

Keeping the communication lines open

Even if the release of WCD’s final report on 16 November does not answer everyone’s questions satisfactorily, surely the Commission’s notable success must be the communication links it has fostered between both sides of the dams debate? If cultural heritage is a concern for your project, take a pro-active stance and keep the communication lines open. The following organisations may be able to offer an insight into how cultural heritage management can become a win-win situation for all involved.
•The World Archaeological Congress ( has a task force to address the effects of dams and reservoirs.
•The Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) (•The World Heritage List, UNESCO ( opgulist.htm) encourages protection and to date includes more than 360 cultural sites of exceptional interest and universal value.
•The World Commission on Culture and Development (WCCD), ( was established jointly by UNESCO and the United Nations.
•International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) ( is an international non governmental organisation of professionals dedicated to the conservation of the world’s historic monuments and sites.
•Europe has a national policy on cultural heritage which involves 27 countries. (