‘Last time I was at South Africa House in London I was outside, picketing,’ World Commission on Dams chairman Kader Asmal said when opening a WCD media symposium in London. Reflecting on his days as an anti-apartheid campaigner, Asmal explained that he was intrigued by the empty pavements outside the embassy. ‘I just had to ask the High Commissioner where all the picketers were,’ he added. ‘“They’re all inside the house now sir” was her reply.’ Describing his pleasure at being inside his country’s embassy, Asmal (pictured) used his own experience to talk about the resolution of conflicts — be it the anti-apartheid movement or the dams debate.

‘As a South African citizen who has just lived through the second democratic election in our country, and as chair of WCD, I am more convinced than ever that confrontation cannot resolve conflicts, despite the illusion of occasional short term victories.

‘The WCD process has been designed around the recognition that differing interests must be understood and respected before genuine agreements can be developed,’ said Asmal. ‘This is the very reason why we have opted for such an intense and ambitious process.’ Intense is the appropriate word to use when describing any aspect of the WCD debate, but little else can be expected when both opponents and proponents meet head to head at the same table. If this media symposium was a typical example, discussions do indeed become very heated, but Asmal demonstrated admirably his skills as chairman. Refusing to be drawn into any discussion about individual dam projects, Asmal was adamant that the Commission’s role is not to sit in judgement of any particular dam. ‘We’re doing a thematic review of numerous dams with all stakeholders involved,’ he said. ‘Our job is to work out the rules and principles of good projects. I am very concerned that we do not put any project in the dock, effectively putting it on trial.’ Speaking about the formation of WCD, its chairman said the worldwide media was one of many motivating forces. ‘Any dam, no matter what its faults or merits are, can always make an impact on the headlines,’ he said. ‘Indeed, we now realise that the media is very frustrated about the contradictory information which exists about dams. I believe that true facts are not always self-evident and this is why we set up the Commission.’ Initially taking over 12 months to set up, WCD has been described as a unique and unusual opportunity. Maurice Strong, a member of the board of the United Nations Foundation, said that WCD was one of the most promising ventures of its kind: ‘We will learn an awful lot not only in respect of dams but also how ventures such as WCD are carried out.’ But as Achim Steiner, Secretary General of WCD, said any international commission, no matter what it is investigating, is not always welcomed at the beginning. ‘We were aware of this,’ says Asmal, ‘but were also aware that this Commission was to be very different from any other which has so far been established. We had a very careful selection process for the 11 commissioners, who are active on both sides of the dams debate. We looked for a balance of interest, people who can command respect and trust, as well as people who can work together regardless of their differences. We also designed the Commission as a bottom-up and not a top-down process. It is a consultative process where actors in the debate have shaped the reference terms of the study.’ Asmal was very keen to emphasise that all essential parties to the dams debate are taking part and are being reassured that they will receive a fair hearing. Indeed the chairman was quick to condemn a member of the press who suggested that some interests are represented more in the Commission than others. ‘This is a slanderous statement,’ Asmal said angrily, ‘it simply is not true. No one in the Commission has yet said to anyone on the other side that the debate is heavily loaded in their favour.’

Independent and transparent

Members of WCD are keen to demonstrate its independent nature and transparent structure. ‘Independent Commissions are always desirable in theory,’ Asmal commented, ‘but in practice they are uncomfortable for lobby groups and their opposing side of the debate.’ Steiner spoke about other problems which independence can bring: ‘The problem of independent reviews of projects is that in many countries where we are working the front line is so hardened. But we do not seek permission to assess projects there,’ he said, ‘this would be surrendering our independence.’ Instead, WCD works in such a transparent manner that it manages to gain trust and improve communication with governments and other agencies.

Transparency is a key element of WCD, a characteristic which was applied to its funding. To demonstrate its multi-stakeholder support the Commission obtained funding from public, private and civil society contributions. Thirty-five different entities have so far financed the work and 75% of the necessary total funding has been raised. Asmal is confident that the remainder will be secured by September.

Moving away from the practicalities of establishing the Commission, Asmal went on to speak about the enormous task which it faces. ‘Many dams have become monuments to dreams and aspirations and are one of the largest investments smaller countries will make. One of the most intensely contested issues in sustainable development is the question of whether such dams are good or bad. This is an extraordinary, and sometimes painful, debate,’ Asmal admitted. ‘We are caught between the imperative to supply water, power and irrigation, as well as the desire to ensure environmental considerations and human rights are not ignored in the process. This is the complex picture which we have encountered.’ ‘We do appreciate the sense of challenge we face in the mandate the Commission has undertaken,’ Steiner said. ‘Our greatest success so far has been in the attempt to bring people around the table who lost hope of talking to one another a long time ago. But how on earth do we begin to understand a population of 45,000 large dams in 125 countries? How can we define development effectively?’ Commissioner Don Blackmore said that building a competent and credible knowledge base on the performance of large dams would help provide answers to these questions. ‘Based on this experience we can review and refine the criteria for future investment. Without it the work of the Commission would be hollow,’ he said.

Asmal spoke in depth about the importance of WCD’s task and the desire for it to have a long-lasting effect. ‘The Commission, a diverse group of people, has to really craft a remarkable agreement which will become the standard text for government ministers, engineers and NGOs. We have to ensure that this becomes the framework and groundrules for constructing dams.’ The chairman outlined his aim of having a check-list for everyone to follow. He was, however, aware of the problem of ensuring that WCD’s findings do not sink without trace. Although a solution to this problem has not yet been found, it will be discussed in great depth to ascertain how WCD can effectively legislate for immortality. Commissioner Medha Patkar believes that the final recommendations of WCD will be more useful if both sides of the debate stay in continuous dialogue and remain committed to the cause. ‘It is up to us to make this a high quality, usable document,’ she said. Asmal also emphasised the fact that the final report and recommendations will not be legally binding, but it is hoped that they will have moral authority. ‘Our greatest challenge is not to become prescriptive and to make decisions on behalf of others,’ Asmal said. ‘The heart of our work is to make sure that both sides of the debate can make informed choices and successful decision making.’ With less than 11 months left in the life of the Commission, Asmal admits that the clock is ticking away fast and the commissioners still have the hardest task ahead of them — writing the final report and guidelines. In WCD’s last three months it will need to craft agreements where they currently do not exist. But, Asmal added wryly, it will certainly be something to look forward to in 2000.

‘Six months ago,’ Steiner said, ‘people on both sides of the dams debate thought that if they ignored WCD it would go away. But we are gaining momentum and support, and those who first shunned us are now interested. We are certain that WCD will have an effect on future decisions.’ Paul Mylrea from the Reuters news agency, which co-organised the media symposium with the World Conservation Union (IUCN), said that WCD’s defining characteristics were accuracy and a lack of bias. Such qualities should be reassurance for the water power and dams industry as it waits for the Commission’s findings in June 2000. ‘We want a report that will withstand scrutiny from all parties — such as peers and academics alike. We are gradually but systematically moving in the right direction,’ Asmal said. ‘We are on the way.’ The following is a summary of the main concerns which were highlighted by WCD members; the media; the hydro power and dams industry; and representatives from environmental groups.


Perhaps one of the biggest questions to arise from WCD’s work will be that of compensation. If WCD guidelines are established for constructing new dams, what will happen to the projects which have already been constructed but did not follow these recommendations? Will affected local people be able to claim for compensation? How will this be handled? And what will be the implications for the dams industry? WCD acknowledged this problem, and is investigating it, but is not able to give any more information at the present time.

Maurice Strong spoke about his own experience with Ontario Hydro’s 82 hydro power projects in Canada, and compensation and apologies he has had to give to affected local people. ‘Controversies do not go away when a dam has been built,’ he said. ‘New conflicts arise with local people years after the dam has been finished. We have to acknowledge any sins of omission about the cost and benefits of dams and hydro power. Our retrospective experience at Ontario Hydro has taught us how to avoid such mistakes. It is no longer excusable, or necessary, to ignore local people.’ •Consultation

The importance of consultation, and the benefits to both opponents and proponents of dams, was emphasised. ‘Due to the long gestation period of large dam projects it is futile for environmental groups to weigh in at a late stage and bring up issues,’ Maurice Strong said. ‘We all need to act at the beginning of projects.’ Achim Steiner agreed: ‘My advice to any developer is to do it at the beginning. Let all actors in the debate shape the reference terms for your study.’


BG Verghese from the Centre for Policy Research in India was very keen to demonstrate the importance of dams for development and food security. Taking the example of India he explained that the provision of clean water has been a health and social asset for the country. Dams are essential as not all freshwater is utilisable, and monsoon rain has to be harnessed and stored somewhere. ‘You still need large dams,’ he said. ‘Some who oppose dams wish to recapture the past: a supposedly idyllic, arcadian world, where small alone is beautiful, where energy intensity is low. That’s not nostalgia. To live in the past is to ignore the challenge and opportunities of the future.’ Verghese went on to explain how dams and irrigated water had given India enormous opportunities. Indian agriculture used to be described as a gamble in the monsoon, alternating between famine and floods. The country used to import millions of tonnes of food from other countries but through dams, hydro power and irrigation, it has emerged as an agricultural superpower. India is now the largest irrigator in the world, with two-thirds of the country’s food being grown on its own irrigated land. Without dams and irrigated water India would not be able to feed itself.

‘It is a total myth,’ Verghese said, ‘that big dams only benefit big people. Opponents forget that smaller people do benefit. They receive clean water supplies and eat food grown on irrigated land.’

•River basin studies

WCD Commissioner Joji Carino spoke about the need for concrete research about what has happened before and the great task the Commission has in gathering information in areas where it does not exist. ‘We were very surprised when we started our work that there was not a study about the accumulative effect of dams on river basins, ’ she said. Carino’s colleague, Thayer Scudder, agreed. He says that in the past the adverse impacts of many dam projects have been underestimated. Indeed, too many of the better dam projects have also failed to realise what potential they have. Thayer hopes that WCD’s final report will show the advantages of integrating dams into an overall basin and interbasin strategy to achieve greater benefits at lower cost.