The 4000 registered dams in east and southeast Asia were a focal point of the World Commission on Dams’ fourth and final regional consultation held in Hanoi, Vietnam in February 2000. The aim of the consultation was to share experiences of large dams in the region, the number of which rises to 22,000 if unregistered dams are also taken into account.

More than 30 papers on the economic, social, environmental and transboundary impacts of large dams and their alternatives were presented. Participants from Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and the Philippines attended.

The diversity and the commonality of experiences between and within countries of south and southeast Asia were remarkable. Countries like Vietnam have recently embarked on a new phase of hydro development and face the challenge of meeting high expectations from its rapidly growing population, while also attempting to honour its commitments to environmental sustainability and social welfare. Other countries like Japan and Korea are facing a shift from supply side approaches to demand side management.

During the two-day consultation five broad themes were explored (see table). It is clear that the dams debate and the wider development questions that it poses is very much alive in Asia.

WCD’s vice-chair Lakshmi Jain said that ‘it has been immensely worthwhile to travel to Hanoi to obtain these insights’. The Vietnamese government was also praised for its ‘bold decision’ to invite the Commission to hold its consultation in the country.

The presentations in Vietnam have shown that lessons from the past are being learnt. The extent and pace of such change, the political will and the local capacity to implement emerging policies have become the focus of attention in the dams industry.

The Commission has now heard approximately 130 presentations and received nearly 600 submissions to date. It plans to finalise discussion on its report in August 2000 and to launch the report in November of the same year.

World Commission on Dams regional consultations

South Asia regional consultation: Colombo, Sri Lanka, 10-11 December, 1998.
Latin America regional consultation: Sao Paulo, Brazil, 12-13 August, 1999.
Africa and Middle East regional consultation: Cairo, Egypt, 8-9 December 1999.
East and Southeast Asia regional consultation: Hanoi, Vietnam, 26-27 February, 2000.

Themes explored in Vietnam

Large dams and their alternatives in Vietnam
The highlight of this discussion was that policy development has recognised the importance of increasing the efficiency of existing schemes and resolving institutional barriers. However, as with other regions, there are real constraints facing implementation of such reforms.
Understanding the impacts of large dams – benefits and costs
The question of how to balance benefits, costs and impacts was a key issue. Concerns of indigenous groups and those affected by resettlement were discussed through presentations from the Philippines and Thailand.
Decision making and the planning process – responding to competing needs
Sharing benefits and promoting more informed and transparent decision making processes were explored. Some presenters reported outcomes such as the Beris dam experience in Malaysia where conflict was resolved with the creation of a mutually acceptable package of compensation. However, the decision making and planning process is not always seen to be fair and equitable. The experience of the Bakun dam in Malaysia brought to light the problems that arise in the decision making process and in addressing the rights of indigenous peoples.
A regional perspective of the Mekong
river basin.
Perspectives on how to best develop the power sector on the Mekong river basin were presented. One view was that the days of hydro power are numbered on the basis of the incumbent risks and current trends in project financing. Also, external financing may favour certain options at the expense of others. Another view was that development of hydro power resources remains an attractive element of a nation’s power sector mix. New initiatives for power trading between countries were also examined.
The influence of changing institutional and policy frameworks on current practice
Examples of wetlands benefits resulting from a more integrated approach to river planning and management now incorporated into the Ramsar Convention were highlighted. (Signed in Iran in 1991 this is an inter-governmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international co-operation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resource.) Also, the meeting examined the rise of civil society in Japan and its campaign to return to a more traditional and natural approach to river management.