Perceptions of dams are changing. Large dam construction was previously viewed as an article of faith in delivering development. In recent years, however, the underpinning of that faith has been shaken. Social and environmental issues have taken precedence in considerations about the role of dams in worldwide development. ‘Dams are in an ethical dilemma,’ Tor Ziegler from the World Bank remarked at HydroVision’s World Hydro Forum held in the US during August 2000.

‘We all have to recognise the fact that the world has changed irrevocably,’ says Daniel David Bradlow from the American University in Washington, DC. ‘And there are changing perceptions of development. The old view essentially saw development as an economic and technical process but controversial dam projects worldwide have shown there are serious problems with this. The new view is to see dam development as an episode of environmental and social transformation.’

Jan Veltrop, honorary president of the international-commission-on-large-dams and a commissioner with the World Commission on Dams (WCD), spoke about such transformation and the need to realise and protect basic human rights in development. ‘Dams have made a positive contribution to development,’ he said, ‘but this has been marred by social and economic impacts. And by today’s standards these are just unacceptable.’

One of the major impacts of large scale dam development has been the resettlement of project-affected people. During 1989-93 estimates suggest that 4M people were moved each year through involuntary resettlement. ‘What really justifies displacing 4M people? How many terrawatt hours of electricity is this worth?’ asks Frans Koch from the international-energy-agency.

Changing perceptions of development have had far reaching effects. Contractors and lenders now have greater responsibilities in dam projects. ‘They must now take full account of their role in project impacts,’ Bradlow said. ‘Corporations need to develop new diplomatic skills for dealing with project-affected people. It is no longer adequate to see corporations as profit maximising institutions for shareholders, they must be involved in multi-stakeholder bargaining.’

The importance of stakeholder involvement has grown through increased opposition to dam projects. Globalisation has improved communication so that news of a dam project spreads quickly. ‘Effectively the “losers” in dam projects can spread bad news about schemes as never before,’ says Bradlow. ‘The court of public opinion is playing an increasingly decisive factor in establishing how high standards in development projects should be.’

Dam opponents are not always specifically anti-dams. Veltrop gave the example of Medha Patkar, a WCD commissioner and one of the most vocal dam protesters in India. Patkar is described as not being solely against dams and as even supporting small hydro. Her concerns lie with how displaced people are treated and how promises made to them have not been fulfilled.

Development effectiveness

Learning of unfulfilled promises and assessing the development effectiveness of dams have been major objectives of the World Commission on Dams. Commissioner Veltrop says its work will lead to what is hoped will be internationally acceptable criteria and guidelines for dam projects. The global launch of the final report will be in London, UK on 16 November 2000. A meeting has also been scheduled tentatively for February or March 2001 when the impact of the report and its guidelines will be assessed.

Veltrop gave a brief preview of the Commission’s findings about the social, economic and environmental problems which many dams have faced (see panel). Hydro industry members asked if it was possible to see a draft copy of the report before its launch date. The reasoning behind this was that WCD has really only been in existence for two years but other large industry organisations, such as ICOLD, have a wealth of experience behind them. Surely there would be benefits if such groups were able to see and endorse the report before publication? WCD’s response is that the final report is the Commission’s report alone. No one will be consulted on the draft: if hydro industry groups see it, then other groups will have to, and so on. As Gary Frey, from Argonne National Laboratory in the US, said: ‘The WCD’s final report is exactly as it is. It is the Commission’s report.’

Tor Ziegler from the World Bank was concerned that the enormous amount of information and wealth of experience which has been collected by WCD should not be underestimated (see diagram above). ‘This has been a global public policy dialogue,’ he said, ‘and everyone has been able to have a voice. It is now WCD’s enormous responsibility to put this into internationally acceptable guidelines.’ He said that there should be faith in the Commissioners’ abilities as they are there due to their moral stature.

Representatives of the hydro industry and electric utilities have already advised WCD on what form they think the Commission’s guidelines should take. Members of this ad hoc industry group, which has helped to fund WCD, include representatives from ABB, coyne-et-bellier, Enron, Harza, Hydro-Quebec, lahmeyer International, Siemens and Skanska. The group’s main message was that WCD can be a model for developing infrastructure projects and that the industry wants to learn. It was keen to point out that electricity demand is increasing, particularly in developing countries, and that hydro power is a renewable energy source which is more harshly assessed than gas fired plants (its principal competition). The group’s recommendations were that:

•Decision-making on dams must be efficient, transparent and engage communities in the local area.

•Hydro projects should be an opportunity for the development of such communities, but these initiatives should be financed by the government.

•Environmental and social impact assessment should be part of feasibility studies and resettlement planning should equal the standard of technical aspects of the project. Veltrop added that in many cases it is vital to introduce risk analysis to help improve the performance of dams, while post construction monitoring of technical, social and environmental matters is of vital importance. ‘We also need compliance,’ he said. And if compliance does not have teeth, members of the industry agreed that it is only natural that corners would be cut if it meant financial gains.

•Licensing processes must be based on clear, feasible guidelines which take into account ‘best practice’. The industry wants WCD to produce guidelines which could be married with the International Standards Organisation 14000 series of environmental management systems. ‘We plead with WCD not to create another certification process,’ Jean Etienne Klimpt from Hydro-Quebec says. ‘If there are physical guidelines we can apply these in ISO systems. The industry does not need any more regulations. Voluntarily we will do a better job. We must be willing to stand behind the guidelines and incorporate them into environmental management systems.’

•Old grievances over existing dams should be negotiated with governments. ‘Touchy as it may sound,’ Veltrop says, ‘we must address these outstanding issues.’

•All stakeholders, including NGOs, must adopt and follow a code of good conduct and accept the result of open, multi-stakeholder processes based on WCD guidelines.

•International lenders should provide financial rewards for project developers complying with WCD guidelines.

‘There also is an ethical dimension to all of this,’ Frans Koch from the International Energy Agency said. ‘Ethics are based on values and these are very different in developing countries, and among developing countries. Given the same facts different countries may well reach different decisions on a project. We have to be cautious about putting ourselves in others’ shoes and making guidelines for them. This is all about not imposing our value systems on developing countries.’

An enormous partnership

Reflecting on the guidelines, Ziegler agreed that the effort will need an enormous partnership. The IUCN and World Bank will share the responsibility of keeping the report alive but, Ziegler says, they cannot do this alone. There is even talk of the World Bank supporting or monitoring a pilot study project which uses the WCD guidelines.

Working together and bringing both sides of the dams debate to the same table has been the major success story of WCD. Chairman Kader Asmal says that the Commission has pushed the boundaries of participation, transparency and openness. ‘In the conflicts about dams we recognise the long term costs when far too few determine for far too many what is best for society,’ he said. Commissioner Veltrop has many years of experience in the hydro industry and says that his experience of WCD has changed him. ‘I really am a firm believer in the need to address social and environmental problems related to dams,’ he said.

Dams have encapsulated the social and environmental considerations faced in development worldwide. ‘WCD is about development — regardless of the tool to implement it,’ Asmal says.

But just how effective a tool the WCD guidelines will be for the hydro industry remains to be seen. The countdown to 16 November begins.

Findings of the World Commission on Dams

Social considerations:
Wherever possible project-affected people should be project beneficiaries.
Involuntary resettlement and the acquisition of land have been the major problems. There is a need to maintain project-affected people’s livelihood and not to just offer compensation.
Resettlement brings lots of problems, some of which are not easy to solve. For example, when being resettled at the Tarbela dam in Pakistan the worst thing for villagers was leaving the graves of their families behind. But the best thing was the educational opportunities for their children.
Environmental considerations:
Dams have an impact on the ecosystem during construction and operation. There are also secondary impacts caused by downstream populations and transmission lines etc.
There is a need to release flow from a dam even if it is not for hydro power purposes.
Economic considerations:
The economic and financial environment in which dam projects are planned is in a state of flux all of the time. Good practice is sometimes difficult to implement as dams are planned years ahead.
There is a need for more of a multi-objective planning approach to dam projects.
Operational efficiency can be improved by upgrading plants.

Experiences at San Roque

WCD Commissioner Jan Veltrop said that he was fascinated by the US$1B multi-purpose San Roque project in the Philippines. It had not solved all social and environmental problems but was trying hard and taking a very different approach to tackling them.
To secure international financing the project developers, the San Roque Power Corporation (SRPC), had to ensure that World Bank guidelines were met or they could not draw funds for the project. SRPC consequently inherited the land acquisition, relocation and livelihood projects from the government – whose efforts have been described as well intentioned, but whose bureaucracy meant it was very difficult to get anything done.
Over 45,000ha of land had to be acquired for the project and when construction started only 20% of this had been acquired. Any delays would have cost US$50,000 a day and so a powerful incentive was needed to ensure smooth relocation. Problems arose as heavy taxation means that land titles are rarely transferred when relatives die and so deeds had to be perfected. To incentivise locals, the project developers advanced 90% of the purchase price of the land to land owners before deeds were perfected. The remainder was paid when this was completed.
When the project developers wanted to move families the resettlement areas were not completed. However, villagers were told if they moved by a set date to temporary housing they would get extra money, and if everyone moved they would all get a bonus. This worked. The villagers are subsistence farmers on low incomes and the incentive package, which was not expensive, still complied with World Bank standards. The villagers co-operated and there was little reluctance to leave the land.
Generally the project-affected people have poor education and limited work experience. The government has trained local people so they are qualified to apply for construction jobs but once the project is finished they will have to look elsewhere for work. To compensate for this there are several livelihood projects under way to empower the locals. These include a nursery where young people are being taught to grow organic vegetables and in six months over 20ha of this land will be turned over to the resettlement villages as communal farmland. Other schemes include reforestation, charcoal making, and a craft business which aims to develop an export market.
‘It’s quite simple,’ says Carol Cunningham, who has worked on the project for the past two years. ‘If we don’t look after these things our money gets cut off.’