The penultimate consultation of the World Commission on Dams was held in Cairo, Egypt on 8-9 December 1999, focusing on dam experiences in Africa and the Middle East. Presentations were given by representatives from 28 countries and Professor Kader Asmal, chair of WCD, described the quality of the presentations as exemplary.

The consultation opened with statements from Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, which supported the WCD Cairo consultation. Mahmoud Abu Zeid, Egypt’s Minister of Public Works and Water Resources, also addressed the meeting.

In the African region there are 1272 large dams whose main purpose is irrigation, followed by water supply. In the Middle East there are 793 large dams whose main purpose is irrigation, followed by flood control. The 30 presentations reflected experiences with dams in Botswana, Congo-Brazzaville, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea-Conakry, Jordan, Kenya, Lesotho, Lebanon, Mali, Malawi, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Palestine, Syria, South Africa, Senegal, Sudan, Turkey, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Among the issues under discussion were:

•Egypt’s experience in managing the Nile river system, with lessons learned from the Aswan dam.

•Shared management of transboundary water systems.

•The impact of dams on food security and livelihoods.

•Dams and their alternatives (demand management, conservation, recycling and energy alternatives).

Many of the dams used as examples in the presentations had colonial roots, with attendant discriminatory policies, and many societies are still struggling with this legacy. It became clear that there are divergent and competing interests with regards to dams — not only within countries, but also between countries. This is so particularly in the Africa and Middle East region, where there are so many waterways that are shared between water-poor countries.

During this consultation WCD Commissioners heard about:

•The benefits of large dams for national and local development.

Speakers from Egypt, Jordan, Senegal and Morocco emphasised the huge benefits that come from storing unpredictable water flows, especially in arid countries, and in assuring stable water supply for municipal and irrigation needs. Nations such as Egypt are entirely dependent on their ability to use this water to its best advantage for national development. The Moroccan experience illustrated the destructive nature of flash floods which can damage downstream agriculture and infrastructure if not managed.

•Experience with resettlement.

Communities uprooted or otherwise directly affected by dams were able to make their views known directly to the Commission. ‘It is striking that we have yet to hear from a dam-affected community that is happy with the way the dams in question were undertaken,’ observed Asmal. ‘The view from Ghana, for example, is that dam-affected people “will never be satisfied”. This is an important consideration for the Commission as displacement and resettlement related to dams are key issues of concern.’

•Managing the environmental and social consequences of dams and irrigation.

Presentations from Senegal, Ghana, Jordan and Nigeria focused on unexpected social and environmental changes downstream from dams. In Jordan sedimentation has been a major concern. Sometimes these effects can be predicted and in other cases the dam in question is rather like an ‘experiment with uncertain outcomes’, as was stated in one submission to WCD. In some cases, such as Senegal and Mauritania, the changing flows have had severe implications for cultural traditions and livelihoods downstream, forcing social change.

•Dams operated within national and international legal frameworks.

The Commission heard about the complexities of sharing water within international basins and some of the institutional mechanisms for ensuring transboundary co-operation. The UN International Convention on Non-Navigable Uses of Water Courses provides global guiding principles on this key issue. WCD will be extremely attentive to this, as dams are one of the major mechanisms for storing and sharing waters between basin states.

•Alternatives to dams.

Although they seem to be fairly rare, there exist in Africa and the Middle East examples of countries assessing solutions other than dams to meet their need for services often provided by dams. Grassroots organisations and researchers offered many of the alternatives presented during the consultation. A Kenyan presentation described the process of assessing a range of options prior to making a decision on whether a dam was the best option. ‘This must surely constitute good practice, considering the kind of dam-related impacts we have heard about during the consultation,’ said Asmal. ‘Still we need a more systematic assessment of the efficacy of these different options.’

In summing up the consultation, Asmal added: ‘As South Africa’s Minister of Water Affairs for five years I lived through debates over most of the issues discussed here in Cairo. On those occasions as Minister I was acting as an adjudicator and decision-maker, weighing up the arguments presented through the lobbying of vested interests and differing views on all sides of this debate. Often it was tempting to make no decision rather than risk the wrath of one side or the other.

‘Yet I had to make decisions, to ensure sustainable supplies of water and electricity for cities and towns, for farmers and industry — an increasingly difficult achievement given population growth, increasing urbanisation and environmental degradation in watersheds.’

Asmal noted that the Cairo meeting was an occasion from which the Commissioners were to learn about the regional experience with dams — they were not to make any judgement about dams in Africa and the Middle East. ‘These presentations have allowed the Commission to gain key insights into the benefits and impacts of dams in the region,’ he said. ‘The presentations showed that this region has not been spared the intense debate that has erupted in recent years over the costs and benefits of large dams in terms of their social, environmental and economic impacts. The papers also demonstrate the implications of the dams debate for countries struggling to make urgent investments for poverty alleviation and sustainable development, and which hope to utilise their water and energy resource endowment to achieve those ends.’

WCD’s next and final consultation will be in Vietnam in late February 2000. Following this the Commission will consolidate all research findings to compile its final report, set for completion in August 2000.

WCD: pro- or anti-dams?

Since the formation of WCD in May 1998 both opponents and proponents have accused the Commission of either being pro- or anti-dams. The dam community has also questioned the need for such an organisation. In 1999 chair Kader Asmal addressed annual meetings of both icid and icold and tried to alleviate concerns that WCD was anti-dams. ‘Believe it or not,’ he said, ‘some opponents of dams claim just as vehemently that we are pro-dams. We are neither pro- nor anti-dams. I would call on you to judge us by our outputs in due course rather than attempting to pre-judge our motives.’

Asmal believes that there is already consensus between some of the fundamental concerns of ICID/ICOLD and the Commission. The ICID position paper, which has been submitted to WCD, details its concerns as:

•Realising integrated land and water management to maximise social and economic welfare without compromising the sustainability of vital eco systems.

•Ensuring people are better off after the project than they were before.

•Ensuring that all the parties have a voice in determining their future as stakeholders in development.

The ICOLD position paper on dams and the environment reflects WCD’s focus on:

•Information disclosure, participation and negotiation.

•Realistic financial and economic appraisal.

•Involuntary resettlement pursued as a development opportunity.

•Appraisal of sustainability.

•Dam operation and monitoring.

Members of both ICID and ICOLD have queried the need for WCD, saying they already have expertise and experience relating to dams. Acknowledging this, Asmal added that as capable and valuable as ICID and ICOLD are they still represent particular interests in the dams debate. ‘A new independent body and process was required,’ he says. ‘One that could transcend the polarisation, suspicion, misinformation and even hidden agendas that exist in the two extremes of the debate.’

The honourary president of ICOLD, Theo van Robbroeck, is a member of WCD’s advisory forum. He has urged ICOLD and the dam community to provide WCD with the facts about dams so that the true picture can emerge in the final report.

Mitigation and compensation

In preparing its final report, WCD is currently reviewing mitigation and compensation measures which have been implemented in new and existing dam projects worldwide. It acknowledges that governments, engineers and environ-mental scientists have developed a broad range of measures that address various effects of dams. However, it says that little seems to have been done to bring these measures together in a comprehensive manner for use by others in planning for a new dam or rectifying adverse conditions caused by an existing dam. The result is that engineers in the field do not have comprehensive access to the kinds of approaches that can assist them in planning an environmentally friendly project.

Consequently, WCD is keen to learn of examples of mechanisms which have been used to finance and implement mitigation and compensation measures in developed and developing countries. The Commission says it needs to know what has worked and what has not, so experiences of success and failure are welcomed. Some models which WCD has come across include:

•Dam developers participating in, and sometimes funding, the creation of protected areas or planting of forests.

•Negotiating environmental compensation packages at the time of licensing (capital costs only).

•Diverting a part of the project revenue stream to fund environmental activities throughout the project life.

•Accepting lower project benefits in order to reduce downstream impacts (eg increased river flows for fish or people or to maintain water quality).

The Commission would like to locate examples of the above, or similar, models. For each measure the following information should be given:

•What is the mitigation or compensation measure/programme?

•What was the impetus for adopting the measure (legal requirement or voluntary)?

•Does the measure meet its intended objective? Why, or why not?

•What effect did the measure have on the cost and/or benefits of the project?

•How was the measure financed?

•Who is responsible for implementing and managing the measure?

WCD is keen that the dam community should share its experiences. It will ensure that all contributions are acknowledged and that contributors will receive a copy of the final report.

Readers wishing to send information to WCD should do so by the end of February 2000. Submissions should be sent, along with your contact details, to Jamie Skinner, Senior advisor (environment), World Commission on Dams, 58 Loop street, PO Box 16002, Vlaeberg, Cape Town, 8018 South Africa. Tel: +27 21 426 4000, fax: +27 21 426 0036. Email: URL: