IN 20 or 30 years’ time there will still be opportunities for dam construction. This is the belief of Achim Steiner, secretary general of the World Commission on Dams (WCD). At a post-WCD meeting – hosted by the British Dams Society in London, UK on 1 February 2001 – engineers, government representatives, members of civil society and academics discussed the implications of the final report during an eight-hour session.

Speaking about his fascination to be sitting in the Institution of Civil Engineers, Steiner said that the meeting was one of several opportunities for discussion worldwide since publication of Dams and Development: A New Framework For Decision-Making in November 2000. He said the need to talk about the realities facing all parties is paramount.

‘In terms of credibility,’ says Steiner, ‘the international reputation of dams has suffered a great deal in the past. It’s a fact that some developing countries are no longer able to raise money to address water and power needs. Is this the fault of dams of the past? We have to rectify these problems or we will continue to witness what we have seen over the last 15 years.’

Steiner believes that if the water sector industry does not heed warnings the number of dams built will decline even further; international and bilateral finance for projects will be withdrawn; and companies will continue to move away from the industry as it will no longer be profitable, being viewed as too risky.

acrimonious debate ‘I am sure that everyone would agree that something was needed to overcome the acrimonious debate over the issue of dams,’ says Geoff Sims, vice president of the international-commission-on-large-dams (ICOLD). ‘There is good evidence that the debate had moved beyond the point of rationality.’

Sims believes that it is the lack of constructive dialogue that WCD sought to improve through its report. ‘This is a good report that will contribute to the development of appropriate dam projects,’ he said. ‘It is not a technical report, and it is no criticism to say so. But it offers a way of mobilising the strength of the whole community behind much needed projects.’

Steiner agreed that the WCD report was not intended as a technical document. He spoke of the technical ICOLD studies, which he described as being ‘truly authoritative’, but added that they fail to mention other elements that make up the profile of a dam, such as resettlement.

‘Dams are often the best option in response to questions asked,’ he said, ‘but what is changing in society is how we ask those questions. Alternatives do exist.’

Operation and maintenance

A key element which can be drawn from the WCD report is the importance of maintaining existing dams before taking further action. Sims believes that the issue of the operation and maintenance of existing infrastructure is near the centre of the WCD recommendations, and has a great deal of bearing on the acceptability of dam projects.

‘We engineers must make existing projects work well before we can expect a consensus to agree to build more dams,’ he said, showing delegates photographs of a leaking irrigation dam in Africa and a vandalised instrument house at a water supply dam. ‘Where an existing project is not maintained properly it will be difficult to persuade people living nearby that the project is worthwhile or that a new one will be any better.’

Sims went on to speak about the role that ICOLD can play. ‘The efficient operation of existing projects, so that they meet their planned output, is close to ICOLD’s heart, and to improve on this would meet one of WCD’s criticisms of water projects. Improved maintenance procedures and monitoring of water projects are both important, and ICOLD can assist by establishing guidelines for these activities.’

One fear associated with the WCD recommendations, and possibly operation and maintenance, is the cost. ‘Certainly O&M is costly,’ says Sims, ‘and the recommendations of WCD will make it more so. But money is not the only issue. There is the puzzling psychological blockage so often revealed by owners who refuse to commit to a sensible O&M programme.’

The failure to monitor a dam properly is a related problem which points to the importance of effective communication, particularly with non-technical people. ‘We must get to the bottom of the thinking which does not understand the benefits of a minimum level of monitoring for an important dam,’ said Sims.

‘The attitude of owners has probably been if it works and provides the water needed, why waste money on needless studies?’ says Chris Binnie, deputy chairman of Binnie Black and Veatch. ‘However, owners need to realise that when they, or others, come to seek permission to construct the next dam then the Commission’s report will be used. A previous dam which met its targets, which has been evaluated regularly, and adapted where possible to meet changing water, social and environmental needs, will be beneficial in increasing community trust in dams. We should encourage owners to do these evaluation studies and act on them.’

Perhaps it is here that funding agencies can play a role in helping with the effective operation of existing projects. Sims believes ICOLD can also prepare guidelines, consistent with those of WCD, for long term monitoring and performance review after construction.

‘In my view,’ ICOLD’s vice president says, ‘it would make a major contribution to the debate if existing projects were to operate more efficiently. The status of dams would rise and there would be a higher level of technical understanding locally. ‘Although the report contains much for ICOLD to consider and undertake, Sims believes it will help communication, avoid the dangers of arrogance, and ensure that the industry remains a key part of the dynamics of a developing world society.

Documenting benefits

Some industry members are still sceptical about the WCD report and fear it may hinder development. The general consensus is that the benefits dams provide for millions of people worldwide have not been covered in sufficient detail. ‘The report is fair on the benefits of dams,’ says Sims,’ although I would have preferred more discussion.’

Binnie agrees, referring to the minimal discussion about water supply dams in the report. ‘Worldwide, approximately 20% of dams are for water supply,’ he says. ‘During dry weather many cities rely heavily on water supplies from reservoirs. Without dams, cities such as Manchester, Bradford, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bombay and Durban would not exist. Without dams the UK could only support one-third of its current population at current living standards. Worldwide about 1.4B people do not have access to clean water supplies, set to increase by another 2B by 2025. If new major water sources are needed in the future,’ he added, ‘then storing winter run-off in reservoirs will often be the most sustainable way.’

Binnie spoke about WCD’s lack of recognition of how municipal water supplies have helped to improve health and economic well-being, particularly for women in poorer communities who would otherwise have to use polluted sources or buy water from vendors at greatly inflated prices. ‘Tucked away in small print at the end of the report, is the Commission’s concern that benefits are not adequately documented,’ said Binnie. ‘More studies do need to be carried out to demonstrate the social and environmental benefits of dams.’

large dams in perspective ‘Many of the observations of the WCD are appropriate,’ says Chris Perry, an irrigation consultant from the UK, ‘but the benefits of large dams have not been evaluated as rigorously as the costs.’ Perry says that the role of dams in developing countries in relation to agricultural production, food prices, trade, security and nutrition are not found in the report. ‘Therefore the report’s conclusions will prove to be problematic and unbalanced for policy makers,’ he says.

Rodney White from HR Wallingford also questioned WCD’s serious consideration of the benefits of flood control dams.

‘We have to ask is flood damage serious? Do we need to think about dams for flood relief?’ He discussed some of the report’s criticisms of these structures. ‘The report says that dams encourage settlement downstream. But this can be a benefit,’ he says, giving the example of Japan where there is little room for further expansion but where Monsoons can lead to extensive flooding.

WCD also focused on the vulnerability of downstream communities due to inappropriate operation or the failure of dams. But White says there is only a very small risk of this: 90% of dam failures occur during construction or the first five years of the structure’s life. ‘This is unnecessary scare-mongering of the WCD,’ he said.

One of the problems, White acknowledged, is that hardly any-one notices the benefits of flood control dams – except the operators (see Letters to the Editor on p13 of this issue). So perhaps this is also relevant to Geoff Sims’ comments on improving communication with non-technical people.

The cost of building flood control dams is high, White admits, but believes this only highlights the added value of multi-purpose schemes. In addition, he thinks industry needs to seriously consider sedimentation and the effectiveness of existing dams. ‘We need to quantify the benefits and disbenefits more rigorously,’ he said, ‘and put a higher value on sustainability and longevity.’

Reflecting on the meeting at the Institution of Civil Engineers, Achim Steiner traced the development of the dams debate. He says it has taken the dam building fraternity 50 years to take the issues seriously. ‘Society does change its values over time through humanity and knowledge,’ WCD’s secretary general said. ‘And what seemed acceptable as sacrifices 50 years ago are not now.’

Steiner reaffirmed his belief that the report does not tell any country to build, or not to build, dams. It is all about how society gets relevant information to decide on its best options. ‘It is my firm belief that this report is a correction,’ he said. ‘It is not the final truth.’

All of the observations the delegates had made about the report were fair, and Steiner added that the Commission would take note of them. He spoke of how humbling it was to be in a room, where both sides of what has been called the dams debate, are sitting together and speaking civilly, openly and with respect. ‘NGOs and civil society used to bang their heads on closed doors. The ability to trust one another had diminished. But now this Commission has proved that in the right context, framework and environment, people can cross the barricades and talk to one another.’

Steiner also praised the foresight of the British Dam Society. ‘The BDS had the courage to organise this meeting several months before the report was released,’ he said. ‘It sets an example of how we can work with one another and create an opening for progress to be made.’

Certain funding agencies have already taken up the gauntlet handed down from WCD. As Chris Mullin, UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, said: ‘Internationally the export credit agencies of 27 governments are working together to establish a common approach to environmental issues and the British department is playing a role in these discussions. In the past export credit agencies have been among the key offenders in this area. They have a responsibility to ensure that any dams they are called upon to support are capable of delivering the benefits promised, and that these benefits clearly outweigh any social and environmental damages. If they don’t, the dam should not be built.’ Mullin added that the UK’s Department for International Development will offer support to governments in developing countries who want to implement WCD’s report.


Whatever your views of, or concerns about Dams and Development, the discussion and action it has initiated is set to continue. ‘If dam construction occurs in the future it is the responsibility of companies in the industry to ensure that compliance is given greater importance,’ says Steiner. ‘Especially if companies from the developed world are working in developing countries, where compliance and government structures may not be so good.’ Derek Osborne, chairman of the UN Develop-ment and Environment Forum, added: ‘It is too important a subject to be left to governments alone.’

Although WCD has officially disbanded, the work it has started will continue. On 27 February 2001, at the third and final WCD forum in South Africa, 100 participants took part in discussions about the Commission’s report and the next course of action. The forum liaison group is set to establish a temporary dams and development unit which will be hosted by the UN environment programme and work closely with governments to review and implement the report.
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