Sri Lanka has agreed to host the first public hearing of the World Commission on Dams, after threatened protests forced the Commission to switch from its planned venue in India. The Commission was due to meet on 21-22 September in Bhopal. The town is in Gujurat state, site of the contentious Sardar Sarovar dam project.

Anti Sardar Sarovar activists inflamed public opinion against the hearing although it would not have referred directly to the project, according to WCD. India’s cancellation, on the grounds that the Sardar Sarovar project is before the High Court, came just as participants prepared to travel.

Sri Lanka’s invitation to host the South Asia public hearing in December 1998 reflects widespread regional support for WCD. Set up at the joint initiative of the World Bank and the IUCN to produce a balanced assessment of the development value of large dams (see IWP&DC, May 1998, p32), it will hold five public hearings, one on each continent.

WCD chose India, and Gujurat state, as the site of the first hearing precisely because Sardar Sarovar has been so contentious. ‘Any commission that did not attempt to learn from this experience would have little credibility in the eyes of the world’, said WCD chair Kader Asmal, responding to India’s cancellation.

WCD will develop criteria and guidelines for future decision-making on dams and their alternatives. Its 12 commissioners include both pro and anti dam voices.

Meanwhile, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has joined the fray by proposing to spend US$800,000 on a regional ‘large dams and best practices’ study that would largely duplicate the WCD’s work, but on a regional scale and without public hearings. Already approved by the ADB’s screening committee, a study team of international consultants would review the literature on existing and planned large dams in the region, consult with developers and stake holders for selected projects, propose criteria for assessing all aspects of large dams, and formulate best practices for their implementation.

The study’s time frame has not yet been set.