Rain and a decaying public transport system were my first impressions of the World Commission on Dams’ (WCD’s) final report. Travelling on a delayed train to London on 16 November 2000, as the UK’s grim skies unleashed more rain on bad tempered commuters, I appreciated the implications of my thoughts.

Rain could be representative of the water resources that WCD has deliberated over during the past two years; while the UK’s public transport system could also benefit from an independent review of its development effectiveness, just as the large dam industry has experienced.

As WCD chairman Kader Asmal unveiled Dams and Development: A New Framework For Decision-Making, one message was clear: whatever it thinks of this report, the dam industry can no longer use the phrase ‘business as usual’.

‘We are not in the business of passing moral or religious condemnation,’ said Asmal, acknowledging that water is the basis for development in all societies. ‘This [report] is a tool to meet development needs. We should not just improve the old way of doing business. There must be new ways.’

HRH Prince of Orange, patron of the World Water Forum, added: ‘Water is everybody’s business, and business as usual is not an option. The need and urgency for change in approaches to big dams is clear, as is true for so many other aspects of water resources management.’

WCD took pride in the fact that it excluded no one from its two-year mandate, listening to both opponents and proponents in the dam’s debate. ‘Slow to speak, our Commission was quick to listen,’ says Asmal. ‘Both sides of the debate gave their perspectives: from dam officials with an obligation to govern to dam-affected people with experiences to share.’

Through seven case studies; two country studies; 17 thematic reviews; a cross-check survey of 125 dams; four regional consultations involving 1400 individuals; and 947 submissions from 79 countries, WCD has collected what Asmal describes as ‘compelling’ evidence.

But does such compelling evidence spell the end for the large dams industry? ‘We will not make the argument that we should build more or fewer dams,’ Asmal said. ‘We just want better development. If you say moratorium to large dams you say no to all dams, and this will mean the paralysis of development.’

Human-centred approach

The basis of Dams and Development is a human-centred approach to development, achieved through effective decision-making. ‘We can all make better decisions,’ Asmal says, and former South African President Nelson Mandela agrees.

Speaking at the official launch, Mandela said that South Africa had to face hard questions and make hard choices in the past. ‘We knew that political freedom was still not enough if you lack clean water. Our largest city, Johannesburg, was not founded on the banks of a flowing river. It is nowhere near a large river. Which meant we had to bring water to the people from the closest viable source.’

That source sprang from neighbouring Lesotho. Johannesburg needed water and Lesotho needed power for its rural people. Mandela said they knew the controversies and complexities of constructing a large dam, particularly what proved to be one of the most significant water development projects in the Southern Hemisphere.

‘A dam – a means to an end – which was one option among others, emerged as our best option under the circumstances,’ he says. ‘Was it our best tool? Were other options overlooked? Perhaps. I believe ours was the right choice at the right time. But no one knew for sure.’

Benefit of knowledge

The WCD report agrees that dams have often been seen as an effective way of meeting water and energy needs. With the hindsight of its global review, the Commission also acknowledges that today’s perspective on development reflects the benefit of knowledge that may not have been available to past decision-makers. Nonetheless, WCD adds: ‘it is clear that the positive contribution of large dams to development has, in many cases, been marred by significant social and environmental impacts which are unacceptable when viewed from today’s values’.

Asmal spoke about why such a comprehensive review of large dams was needed. ‘We rigorously test-drive and analyse the performance of motor cars, before and after paying a few thousand dollars for one. We conduct thorough due diligence before purchase of either house or business,’ he said. ‘Yet over the last century we collectively bought on average, one large dam per day. There have been precious few, if any, comprehensive, independent analyses as to why dams came about, how dams perform over time, and whether we are getting a fair return on our US$2trillion investment. Until now, with this report.’

The main findings of Dams and Development are quite simple. ‘Dams have delivered considerable benefit for human development,’ WCD secretary general Achim Steiner says. ‘But in too many cases the prices paid for this have been unacceptable and often unnecessary.’

The benefits of dams worldwide speak for themselves:

• 19% of electricity comes from hydro power. ‘There are tremendous benefits of hydro power,’ Asmal says.

• Dams support more than 30-40% of irrigated land, contributing to an estimated 12-16% of global food production.

• Domestic and industrial water is supplied by 12% of all large dams.

• 75 countries use dams for flood control. HRH Prince of Orange spoke about the recent devastating floods in Mozambique. ‘The need for measures to protect against such devastation will in all likelihood include dams,’ he said.

• The longevity of dams means that many continue to generate benefits after 30-40 years of operation.


But then came some of the sobering facts about dams. Stating that this information was obtained from the dams studied in WCD’s knowledge base, Steiner said:

• Most dams built for hydro power tend to perform close to, but still below, targets for power generation. Generally they meet financial targets but include a number of notable under- and over-performers.

• 50% of projects had under-performed for irrigation. Costs have not been recovered and some projects have been less profitable in economic terms than expected.

• Large dams built for water supply have generally fallen short of targets for timing and delivery, and have exhibited poor financial cost recovery and economic performance.

• Large dams with a flood control component, while providing important benefits, have led to greater vulnerability to flood hazards due to increased settlement in areas still at risk from floods. In some cases they have worsened flood damages for various reasons, such as poor operation of dams.

• Large dams have a tendency towards schedule delays and cost overruns.

There are also environmental impacts. WCD commissioner Deborah Moore said:

• 61% of the world’s rivers are fragmented by dams.

• 50% of wetlands have been lost.

• 33% of freshwater species are endangered or extinct.

Moore spoke about the need to balance environmental and social considerations. No one really knows how many people have been displaced by dams but estimates suggest somewhere in the region of 40-80M. The livelihoods of many more people living downstream have been affected but not recognised. Mitigation, compensation or resettlement programmes are often inadequate. Large dams have also had significant effects on cultural heritage through the loss of cultural resources of local communities, and the submergence and degradation of plant and animal remains, burial sites and archaeological monuments.

Nelson Mandela summed up the main findings of Dams and Development. ‘It simply distils the evidence of the performance of dams in the past, in which dams, on balance, have delivered significant benefits for the many. But the overall performance and impacts of dams present us with a more complex and often bleak picture, especially for the unspoken minority, and for nature.’

WCD also examined alternatives to dams for water and energy resources development, stating that:

• Alternatives do exist. Many of these are small scale and locally appropriate technologies.

• Improved system management, particularly in the irrigation sector but also through reduction in water losses, more efficient system management and an upgrading of distribution technology, can alleviate the demand for new supply sources.

• Demand-side management has significant potential and provides a major opportunity to reduce water stress and power requirements.

WCD was keen to emphasise that there is the opportunity to squeeze more out of existing dams and improve performance. ‘We show how to expand the 19% of hydroelectricity not just vertically, but horizontally, by delivery,’ Asmal says. ‘We also show ways to squeeze more crop per drop from systems in place without immediately, hastily, turning to construction of expensive new schemes.’

Guiding principles

Before outlining the report’s guidelines Steiner considered why dams have caused such controversy. ‘Lack of compliance is one of the key issues,’ he said. ‘There are guidelines from icold, icid and the World Bank, among others. But in the 1990s many dams have not followed the most fundamental best practice we know. The report outlines what we may need to change for increasing compliance.’

The following five core values run throughout the entire report. WCD says they provide the essential test that must be applied to decisions related to water and energy development.

  • Equity

  • Efficiency

  • Participatory decision-making

  • Sustainability

  • Accountability

‘The single most important factor in understanding the conflicts with development projects and programmes – particularly large scale interventions such as dams – is reconciling competing needs and entitlements,’ Asmal said. ‘The approach developed by the Commission, of recognising rights and assessing risks in the planning and project cycle, offers a mean to apply these core values to decision-making about water and energy resource management. It argues that it is not necessary for one person’s loss to be another person’s gain.’

WCD says its report sets out constructive and innovative ways for future decision-making. Seven strategic priorities are listed for a rights and risks approach for identifying all legitimate stakeholders when negotiating development choices and agreements. These priorities are then supported by 26 guidelines to facilitate application in the planning and project cycles. The guidelines are firmly anchored in examples of good practice sourced from the knowledge base.

Asmal urged contemplation and systematic reading of the report. He said that all nations should weigh all options; improve existing systems; and take development decisions based on an inclusive framework of risk and rights among affected interests. By doing this, all parties can dramatically increase performance, not only out of moral obligation to others, but to reduce time, money, conflict and impacts for their own self-interest.

‘No matter how much you think you know about dams,’ Asmal says, ‘you cannot read the following report and keep your assumptions intact. No matter how sceptical, you will, I hope, come away changed, I think, for the better. For the truth is no typical dam exists.’

A measure of success

As the 300-strong audience at Cabot Hall in London thought over the implications of Dams and Development, Asmal asked if they wanted the report to have a measurable impact and help their own goals.

‘We do,’ he said. ‘But we don’t measure success by whether or not a large dam goes forward, or whether our report results in fewer or more large dams. Success, for us, is whether the ultimate development project – new dam, no dam, improved existing dam or alternative – reveals the full costs and benefits; names of human and natural species affected; how mitigation was complied with; and why it was the best option chosen by, and for, all parties.’

Geoff Sims from Brown and Root, and vice president of ICOLD, added his thoughts. ‘The measure of success will be that good projects, so needed by developing countries in particular, will go ahead smoothly to the satisfaction of all.’

WCD describes its report as a milestone in the evolution of dams as a development option. The report has been offered, not as a blueprint to cover every contingency, but as a charter for the future. Asmal acknowledges that drawing up this report is only the first part of the battle. The real challenge lies with the international community, and the extent to which it wants to accept a people-based culture that recognises the demands of collective decision-making.

‘Looking ahead… to the difficult years that made our work necessary, I see that this “book” we wrote may only be the first chapter for each of you,’ the WCD chairman said. ‘We shall leave it open, with pages blank, for you to write what happens next.’

What happens now?

The Commission’s mandate expired with the launch of Dams and Development: A New Framework For Decision-Making on 16 November 2000. However the WCD Forum will meet in February 2001 to determine further mechanisms for implementation.

To obtain a copy of the report contact Earthscan Publications on tel: +44 1903, 828800, email: earthinfo@earthscan.co.uk. Or contact the WCD secretariat on tel: +27 21 426 4000, fax: +27 21 426 0036. A summary of the report can be downloaded from the WCD website at http://www.dams.org