CVJ VARMA, President of icold, summarises the Commission’s reaction to the WCD report:

ICOLD believes that WCD has made an extremely energetic effort to bring the debate on the pros and cons of dams to a higher level, but seriously doubts that WCD has completely fufilled its mandate as agreed upon in Gland in 1997. In summary its tasks were:

  • To review the development effectiveness of dams and assess alternatives for water resources and energy development.

  • To develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards, where appropriate, for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommissioning of dams.

ICOLD cannot agree with the conclusions extracted from the very limited WCD database. WCD draws conclusions about dam project development based upon its review of a few hundred of the total 45,000 large dams with only eight reviewed in depth. We question whether this was in fact a rigorous examination of dams, as purported by WCD. The report does not clearly state that in many cases dams are the only solution to water problems.


WCD also failed to make an objective and scientific assessment of alternatives to large dams for water supply, power generation and food production. A number of the so-called alternatives advanced by dam opponents are put forward without evaluation.


WCD presents the unsupported figure that 40-80M people were displaced by dams during the last century. This means that for each person negatively impacted by dams, 10 to 20 other people benefit from the food, electricity, water and flood control provided by he dams. In effect the WCD report focuses on the 5% of the people who have benefited from dams and therefore ignored the benefits to the majority of the people.


ICOLD seriously questions the relevance of the eight dams selected for indepth review. Only one, Pak Mun dam in Thailand, was developed during the last decade. The others were planned and developed 20-70 years ago. ICOLD believes that an impartial review of dam practice would also have examined contemporary projects, such as those recently completed in California, US, where most of the WCD recommendations were applied in principle.

Technical data

Because ICOLD is an organisation that promotes dam safety and maintenance we are pleased that WCD recognises the long life of dams and the continuing need for maintenance. However, apart from criteria, guidelines and standard for consultations with stakeholders for the study of alternatives and for environmental and social issues, the report fails to offer technical criteria and standards for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommissioning of dams.


ICOLD must praise the WCD emphasis on the fate of affected people and the needed protection of their rights.States, developers, NGOs, dam owners and operators and funding institutions should make the affected people the ‘first among beneficiaries’ and provide them with a means to maintain and increase their livelihood.

WCD put forward a decision process that asks for formal multi-step negotiations between all stakeholders. ICOLD is concerned that such a cumbersome negotiation process, with mediation steps, review by expert panels and required detailed information about the potential impact on the ecosystem and the population will, in fact, stall any new development projects.

ICOLD believes that the WCD recommendations will create an unacceptable level of uncertainty to the development process. It fears that public and private developers and financial institutions will view these delays as too time consuming and costly, and will stop water and energy development entirely.

ICOLD favours a balanced approach to dam and project development, giving a stronger voice to affected people and communities. It feels the procedures for development are specific to each country. Each country should consider the WCD recommendations and ICOLD guidelines but must also consider its prevailing conditions, traditions, laws and needs.

The WCD recommendations are not universally applicable and should not be considered as such by anyone, including funding institutions.

MIKE WOOLGAR, Head of Operations of Water Resources and Environmental Engineering at WS Atkins, writes:

  The fact that the Commission was able to draw together such ‘broad church’ of opposing interests into the Commission and then to be able to reach a reasoned report, despite the tensions no doubt caused by the strong views of the many parties in various directions, is a major success in its own right.

I attended the official launch and was impressed that there was relatively little dissent from the floor as to the findings of the report. I have also not noticed much in the way of inflammatory comment in the press about the report.

In terms of how well reasoned the report is I think that the core message that ‘you must do better’ is wholly to be agreed with. It is not nowadays acceptable to ride roughshod over indigenous peoples in the name of progress for others. One of the commission members stated that ‘if the proposed project is for the good of the peoples of the nation, then it must also be a development opportunity for any displaced people or people disadvantaged by the project, not just a compensation event.’ I agree with this.

The immediate impact of the Commission’s report will be that dam projects will probably be delayed, so as to allow time to establish that the best current practice is being employed; in many cases it will have been – bear in mind that many, although sadly not all, of the criticisms were directed at projects from the past and recent past where the best practice of the day does not live up to today’s scrutiny. Dam projects will be needed for the future if development (social, economic and health) is to be permitted. Dam sites are more difficult nowadays since all the ‘easy ones’ will have been first in line . And as populations increase, it becomes not only necessary to work harder to find a new site but necessary to get the project right so as to benefit the greatest number of people and, in accordance with WCD philosophy, to benefit most those worst affected .

In terms of training needed I think it is more of a mindset that needs to be developed rather than specific training as the WCD report, good as it is, is only representative of current best practice. This will change in the future as pressures change so the good dam developer will always have his/her eye on the future to see which way trends are heading to ensure that all the bases are covered. Bad dams will only make future projects more difficult to promote.

I was intrigued by the concept proposed by James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, that the Bank might not lend money for development projects to certain countries if earlier bad dam projects are not to be ameliorated in advance of the new dam. Since we must acknowledge the fact that there are bad dams out there, this will increase the cost of the next project in two ways — adoption of best practice for the new project and retrofitting best practice to old dams — which may well be much more expensive than we think. Fine concept, if you ignore the cost and the potential impact of this new cost on poor people and the general level of indebtedness of developing countries. As the Don Blackmore from Australia said, it is only the fact that his country can afford to pay the full economic cost of irrigation water that they can consider the application of a new law to ensure that this is charged from now on.

If a developing country has to ensure the full economic cost is charged for new projects this will delay the onset of new projects and thus delay the day when people will be able to pay for such things. Don Blackmore is correct in saying that many such projects are politically driven as articles of faith.

I note that Nelson Mandela’s contribution as the keynote speaker at the official launch underlined the fact that he is in favour of development, and this for him means new dams — I suspect he is wary of the potential for ‘economic/ecological colonialism’ of the wealthy west putting conditions onto poorer countries to match the new standards of the west.

The fervour of the newly converted is to be avoided and some degree of pragmatism will always be needed.

IM SAHAI, is an international consultant on hydro power, based in New Delhi, India:

  The WCD report, in my opinion, has generally given a fair and balanced picture of the large dams industry. As conditions differ in each continent and even among any group of countries, WCD recommendations need to be tailored in each country to suit individual requirements and priorities. WCD faced a tough task in trying to reconcile the interests of the various stakeholders – and the effort shows in the report.

Unfortunately, during the last three decades, vested interests have developed among the stakeholder categories. Governments, particularly in the developing countries, feel that the multi-purpose benefits of large dams far outweigh their costs. The green groups take the other extreme, through an ‘over-my-dead-body’ approach. The EPC group — the vendors, contractors and their financiers — are somewhere in between, though leaning towards the governments’ view. Whether the construction of large dams continues would be decided on the respective merits of each case. I do not think that in many places, the WCD report would have any substantive effect on decision-making.

Let us take the case of India, a country of continental proportions and with a population of 1.1B. Here, large dams are still being built by federal and state governments (and lately, IPPs) despite a hyper-active greens lobby. The WCD report till now has, regrettably, been treated as a non-event here. The national newspapers in mid-November 2000 carried a short news agency report following the release of WCD’s report — that’s all. No editorial comments, hardly any analysis, no public or professional debate on the report. The Indian government considered WCD as anti-dam from the beginning and it was not allowed to come to hold any meetings here. This could also be because the two Indian members of WCD were both renowned opponents of large dams. Thus, there has been no official reaction to the report. Even stranger is the low-key response of Medha Patkar (who was a WCD commissioner) and her green-activist colleagues — this, at a time when the Sardar Sarovar dam-based project is in the news and her NBA movement is trying to whip up passions against the Indian Supreme Court verdict given recently in favour of that project. She may have felt that if she quoted some excerpts from the report in her favour, so could the government.

Things may alter later on, particularly if the WCD Forum meets here or seminars take place — but nothing big, in my opinion, is likely to come of it.


of the US makes its official comments:

The report will not have any direct impact on Harza because we already practice the recommendations proposed for the private sector by the Commission. Harza conducts itself in a way that ensures compliance with Commission’s guidelines; adherence to the provisions of the anti-bribery convention of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; and adoption of integrity pacts for all contracts and procurement We do not think that the report will reduce large dam construction worldwide. Poverty still remains a worldwide epidemic and developing countries recognise multi-purpose projects as one of the very few potential solutions to alleviating poverty and meeting increased water and power needs.

Incorporating the proposed guidelines will be a challenge. The facilitation of a greater stakeholder base brings greater complexity, and greater complexity imposes an increased financial burden.

A critical factor of the guidelines is that they have to be specific in the identification and facilitation of relevant stakeholders. The facilitation of a greater stakeholder base brings greater complexity, which can become so overwhelming that projects with significant benefits could potentially never be developed.

Harza supported the Commission’s work and will follow the guidelines in the future as long as they fit within our value system and meet our client’s objectives. Harza holds itself to the highest level of corporate responsibility. We are also accountable to our clients and our employees, and make decisions based on merit without bias.

Overall, Harza believes that the Commission’s work has given a fair picture of the large dams industry. However, we do believe that the output from the large case studies could have been improved upon. The case studies examined multi-purpose projects from different time periods and countries, ranging from Grand Coulee in the US, which was commissioned in 1942, to Pak Mun in Thailand, which was commissioned in 1994. Not only were these projects developed in different time periods but also by different cultures with different sets of values. The developmental effectiveness of a project such as Grand Coulee should be judged given its originally stated objectives during the time of its development. Moreover, these projects should also be judged within the context of the value system of the directly affected culture.

ROBERT FREER, an independent consultant, gives his personal comments

  One of WCD’s conclusions is that a high price has been paid in social and environmental terms for the benefits derived from building dams. Few readers of this report would disagree that the building of dams, like any other development, will have positive and negative consequences, but most people would accept that it is the duty of governments, funders and engineers to ensure that an appropriate balance is achieved between the positive and negative consequences. In many developments somebody is going to be adversely affected. And while the rights of the minority need to be properly addressed, the majority who will benefit from the development also have a right to receive and enjoy the benefits of it. Change is inevitable; we all need to change all the time to stay where we are.

The uncomfortable fact is that the world population is still increasing, particularly in the developing world. Not only are there more people in the world but they are understandably seeking a higher standard of living. Just supplying everyone with the basics necessities of food, water and shelter means a greater development of the world’s natural resources. And dam building is part of that development.

Every year more people are consuming the world’s resources and generating pollution but addressing the problem of how to limit the world population in order to conserve resources is still a difficult social and political matter which the politicians seem reluctant to tackle. Meanwhile developers will continue to promote the building of dams where they need a supply of water.

Some of the Commission’s arguments are less than persuasive. For instance, in assessing large dams it records a marked tendency towards scheduled delays and significant cost overruns. This is an unfortunate but realistic problem in many ambitious capital projects, but it is not confined to dam building.

The Commission also believes that targets for irrigation services and power generation are not always met. One reason may be a lack of technical information such as reliable rainfall and runoff data but this is a problem which can be solved.

The commission said that its report is addressed to a broad and diverse audience. It identified governments, international organisations, multinational companies, financiers, consultants, NGO networks. local communities and organised groups as its targets. That includes just about everyone, but it is not clear what a responsible and experienced organisation would learn from this report that they don’t already know.