Despite sharp criticism and even rejection, the World Commission on Dams remains adamant that Dams and Development shows the way forward for the industry. Carrieann Davies reports from ICOLD’s 69th annual meeting in Dresden, Germany

The World Commission on Dams’ (WCD’s) recommendations are not ‘universally applicable’ and could lead to ‘potentially disastrous’ results for developing countries. This is how international-commission-on-large-dams (ICOLD) president, CVJ Varma, expressed the official position of his organisation to the WCD’s Dams and Development report. Varma’s criticisms were voiced during the 13 September 2001 symposium Benefits and Concern About Dams – part of ICOLD’s 69th annual meeting, held for the first time in Dresden, Germany.

At the end of 2000, ICOLD had national committees in 80 countries with approximately 7000 individual members. Because of its position, ICOLD says it is eminently qualified to collectively judge the content of the WCD report – and the annual meeting offered members one of the first opportunities to discuss the findings with an international audience.

‘Based upon our worldwide experience, we consider that the WCD detailed recommendations are mostly designed for and based on the experience of developed countries, which have the time and money to explore all possible alternatives to dams, if they wish,’ said Varma. ‘Therefore, ICOLD supports the WCD qualifying statement that “the report is not intended as a blueprint”. ICOLD recommends that it be used as the starting point for discussions, debates, internal reviews and reassessments of established procedures, and for an assessment of how these can evolve to address a changed reality.’

Practical application

‘It is important that we all understand that ICOLD does not have a single position of either being for the report or against it,’ added HL Blohm, vice president of montgomery-watson-harza. ‘Instead, we in ICOLD recognise that portions of the WCD report have considerable merit and we must work co-operatively to help ensure that those portions and recommendations that have sound practical applications be utilised as appropriate by each nation.’

Throughout the symposium, it was emphasised that ICOLD shares the philosophy of the WCD recommendations, which fit in well with the former’s own 1997 Position Paper on Dams and Environment. However, it was made clear that ICOLD disagrees with the process, analysis and conclusions extracted from the WCD database. Only eight dams were reviewed in depth – most of which were more than 30 years old – and there was little about the development effectiveness of dams in regulating the world’s rivers for human use. In areas of the world like China and South Asia, where approximately three billion people live and where river flow is intermittent, flows are virtually unusable without development of storage. According to ICOLD, the fast growing populations in such areas cannot possibly be supported in future, without large scale surface storage. ‘One would have expected the WCD to have made a global evaluation of the availability of water in the world’s different regions without storage and the minimum amount of water needed to support the particular region’s ultimate population,’ said Varma.

Guiding principles

During the symposium, ICOLD also claimed that the WCD failed to make an objective and scientific assessment of available alternatives to large dams for meeting needs for irrigation, flood control and hydro power generation.

The report recognises that about 30% of irrigated land worldwide now relies on dams, which means that about 800M people benefit from food produced by dam related irrigation. A similar figure is true for electricity, which would mean about 800M people worldwide. The benefits of avoiding air pollution from thermal energy, flood protection and water supply, including a better quality of life, further extend to several hundred million people around the world. But, according to ICOLD, WCD simply presented an exaggerated figure of 40-80M people displaced by dams during the past 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 the dams,’ says Varma. ‘In effect, the WCD report focuses on the 5% of people who have not benefited from dams, and therefore, ignores the benefits to the majority of people.’

ICOLD said that the guiding principles set by WCD for itself were not fully taken into account during the WCD process. There is little doubt that the world is suffering from water shortage, and this will grow if dams are not allowed to be built. The need for structural solutions, including more dams, is undeniable because there are no alternatives or practical options available. ICOLD favours a balanced approach to dams and project development giving a stronger voice to affected people and communities. It emphasised that each country would review the WCD recommendations in the context of their own standards and ICOLD guidelines, and would consider them in light of their prevailing conditions, traditions, laws, needs, ethos and aspirations.

According to ICOLD, the procedures suggested by WCD for project evaluation are too cumbersome and would serve as a huge deterrent to investment – they would give to some a right to veto what they consider contrary to their wishes, but would be detrimental to the development of entire countries and societies.

As such ICOLD has decided to advance further critical work and has created an ad hoc committee to that effect, headed by Raymond Lafitte, which will take into account the WCD report and the responses to it from ICOLD national committees. The next version of its Position Paper on Dams and Environment will include the results of that work.

World Bank perspective

The day-long symposium also offered delegates an insight into the World Bank’s perspective on the report. Alessandro Palmieri of the World Bank explained that after the report’s publication, the World Bank reviewed the report internally. This involved the formation of a Bank group-wide task force, with staff from all relevant sectors and regions, to evaluate the findings.

‘There is broad agreement [within the group] on the core values and strategic priorities promoted by the WCD. At the same time, reality is very far from these goals even within OECD countries and in the most advanced of our borrowing countries,’ he said. ‘It was also noted that the objective of growth and development was missing from the WCD’s statement of core values and strategic priorities, and it was also lacking evaluation of what the economic and social conditions in relevant areas would be under the counterfactual case without dams.’

The Bank group’s consultations also indicated considerable concern about the operational implications of the 26 guidelines the WCD recommended for achieving the core values and strategic priorities. It said that rigid application of these guidelines could stymie the development of even good projects that are badly needed. This was also a concern for attracting private sector investment in dam projects.

‘Private sector interests expressed serious concern that aspects of the recommended process would expose the industry to open-ended, incalculable and unmanageable risk, thereby deterring participation,’ added Palmieri. ‘So there does appear to be some unfinished business about how to marry the laudable values and priorities of the report with an operationally practical process in which governments and the private sector will engage.’

Palmieri did however point out that the WCD report contains many suggestions and recommendations that can help move project development and operation in the right direction, and gradually moderate the polarisation on dams. ‘The Bank’s goal must be to assist borrowers to move in the right direction – to stepwise help those that most need to improve commitment, skills and capacity to sound options assessment, decision-making, project implementation and operations, as well as benefit-sharing with project affected peoples,’ he said.

The debate generated from the WCD report also illustrated that the World Bank’s role of honest broker between governments and civil society is and will be more and more in demand, claimed Palmieri.

Despite criticism of the report, those involved in the WCD remain adamant that it points the way forward for the dam industry. As Kader Asmal, former chairman of WCD, said: ‘The report speaks for itself; it needs no defence. Its words cannot be forced upon a sceptical mind. Your words, along with your presence, make one thing manifest. Despite sharp criticism and even rejection of parts of the report by individual ICOLD members and national chapters, each of you recognises that the status quo must change. And the WCD report, despite any perceived imperfections, may be the last, if not best, catalyst to bring about progress through multi-stakeholder processes.’