Little more than a year remains in the life of the World Commission on Dams (WCD). In that time, the Commission has to develop a basis for making recommendations on the social, environmental, economic and institutional questions surrounding dams, and investigate alternatives. To do that, the Commission will carry out up to ten in-depth case studies of particular dams and their river basins, selected according to their age, function, regional representation and the lessons they offer. These will be backed by:

•Seventeen thematic reviews of cross-cutting issues (eg resettlement, energy options, river basin management).

•A ‘cross-check’ survey of the performance of 150 dams, based on existing, available data.

•Submissions from interested parties.

•Regional and other consultations.

The case study methodology is being established by a pilot study focusing on the Orange river in South Africa.

In the case studies the WCD will look at ways in which the planning and decision-making process influenced project outcomes and local and national development. This is a transparent and participative process of assessment to which all local stakeholders are invited. Their input is essential to the work of the Commission as it gathers the best possible data on project performance while respecting the views and perspectives of different parties.

The Commission will not adjudicate disputes. However, the case studies, combined with the findings of the 150 dams cross-check survey, will clarify some of the contentious issues that have led to the current controversies between opposing camps, including criticism that dams under-perform and often cost more than planned. From this worldwide experience the Commission will draw out lessons useful in guiding the consideration of current and future dam projects.

Such evaluation may sound like a straightforward task, yet the WCD secretariat staff constantly are struck by the lack of post-completion project evaluations, undertaken by independent parties, for such huge infrastructure projects involving billions of dollars. The studies that are available are often seen, by one side or the other, as being biased and self-serving. They feed the circle of accusation and counter-accusation, as each side defends its own perspective. The Commission intends to avoid such disputes by ensuring that all parties have access to all documents at all stages of the process, with a clear distinction made between the establishment of the facts, and the interpretation of those facts by different groups.

For each case study a group of consultants has drafted a scoping paper outlining the issues in response to six main questions. They will bring this paper to a meeting of interested groups who feed into the process their own perceptions and information sources. The outcome of the meeting will provide the terms of reference for the study group, who will conduct a detailed study of the issues and report back to the same group some six months later.

The case studies focus on the planning, implementation and operation of the dams within the context of the river basins in which they are situated. The six questions around which they are structured are:

•What were the predicted benefits, costs, and impacts of the dams, and how do these compare with actual project outcomes?

•What were the unexpected benefits, costs, and impacts (those that were not mentioned in any planning documents)?

•How were decisions made?

•What was the distribution of costs and benefits between different groups?

•Did project authorities comply with criteria and guidelines of the day?

•What lessons can we learn from this experience, for use in today’s context?

While the dams and basins we are studying differ significantly from each other, our emphasis on their planning and implementation processes will allow us to draw some general conclusions from all of them.

Orange river pilot study

In order to support the development of our case study methodology, the WCD Secretariat has undertaken a pilot study of the Gariep and VanderKloof dams on the Orange river in South Africa. Detailed results will be available soon, but by June we had already been able to incorporate experience from this pilot study to our methodology for the other case studies, which are now under way.

Costing about US$2.5B (1998 dollars), the Orange river development project was conceived at the height of apartheid, between 1961 and 1970. It consists broadly of two large dams, 88m and 108m in height, with a total of 540MW of installed capacity. The project was to provide irrigation to 310,000ha of agricultural land and it incorporates an 80km-long tunnel to transfer water from the Orange to the Fish and Sundays basins for irrigation and municipal supply.

About 30 organisations and individuals participated in the WCD meeting to review our scoping paper in which we outlined our strategy for the Orange river study. The participants said they were struck by the depth of the scoping paper and its efforts to pull together many different disciplines and perspectives into a single overview of a complex issue. They were unanimous in saying that they welcomed a study that would give a full overview of the historic, economic, social and environmental impacts of the project, rather than a single-sector report. This broad view would give them new insights into the project, and quash misconceptions and rumours about supposed impacts that were not borne out in the research (either because they were not true, or the documentation to prove or disprove them simply did not exist).

Of the participants, Eskom (South Africa’s power utility) and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry particularly welcomed the study and assisted in accessing key data sources, while contributing actively to the review process. Following the scoping meeting, the WCD Secretariat and its South African consultants (including BKS Engineering, university professors and the National Institute for Economic Policy) undertook the necessary studies.

In both the stakeholder meetings and the fieldwork and analysis we learned a great deal in terms of the methodology for all our case studies. This includes:

•It was difficult to locate people displaced by dam construction, particularly farmworkers, and their descendants.

•It was difficult to track project costs, due to the way the project was financed out of general government funds on an as-needed basis.

•While it was relatively easy to identify the services delivered by the dams, it was difficult to evaluate the development effectiveness of those services.

•The fact that there has never been any post-construction evaluation of the dams’ impact means much of that story has had to be

reconstructed from stakeholders.

The draft final report was circulated for comment during the final stakeholder consultation meeting in June. It has also been posted on the WCD website (

All of the case studies will follow a similar process. The WCD encourages an open and transparent debate on issues of importance to all interest groups. Those interested in participating directly, or in submitting relevant information are warmly invited to do so (see panel below).