Five years on - impacts of the WCD

20 January 2006

WWF has released a document which takes a look at how the World Commission on Dams report has impacted the dam community five years after its release. Carrieann Davies talked to the report’s author, Ute Collier, and discovered why WWF feels that some dams are failing to meet the WCD’s recommendations

‘Dams are continuing to cause excessive social and environmental damage despite recommendations made by the World Commission on Dams (WCD)’. This was the opening statement of a press release which accompanied a recent report by global conservation organisation WWF – ‘To dam or not to dam? Five years on from the World Commission on Dams’.

The 15 page report focuses on six dams which WWF claims fail to meet the WCD recommendations, but also highlights a number of positive developments from around the world. It aims to answer the following questions: what is the WCD’s legacy? Are fewer ‘bad dams’ being built? Are benefits being shared with affected communities and are more effective environmental protection measures being taken?

According to Ute Collier, author of the report, this is a pertinent time to ask these questions as dams, particularly hydro power projects, have recently risen back to the top of decision-maker’s agendas. Raising fossil fuel prices, growing energy needs, as well as ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change have all resulted in a renewed effort to develop the world’s hydro potential, while at the same time climate change is likely to increase demand for water storage.

‘While dams undoubtedly have a role to play in meeting energy and water needs, there is also much at stake as in the past too many projects have resulted in excessive environmental damage and negative social impacts, especially for local communities,’ said Collier.

History lesson

Although many of you no doubt know the history of the WCD report, it is worthwhile taking a brief look back at the process which led to the much debated publication. The report, ‘Dams and Development: a new framework for decision making’, was launched in London, UK on 16 November 2000. However, the WCD itself was established back in 1998 as an independent, international, multi-stakeholder process, bringing together opponents and proponents of the dams debate.

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, the WCD collected evidence with the ultimate goal of issuing guidelines for future implementation

Five core values ran throughout the report, which the WCD said provided the essential test that must be applied to decisions related to water and energy development: equity; efficiency; participatory decision making; and accountability. Seven strategic priorities were also listed for a rights and risks approach for identifying all legitimate stakeholders when negotiating development choices and agreements: gaining public acceptance; comprehensive options assessment; addressing existing dams; sustaining rivers and livelihoods; recognising entitlements and sharing benefits; ensuring compliance; sharing rivers for peace, development and security. These priorities were then supported by 26 guidelines to enable their application in the planning and project cycles.

Five years on

The WCD guidelines stirred up much debate, with the report receiving mixed reviews and attracting criticism within the industry. Over the past five years debate has still continued on how, and indeed if, the report’s findings should be utilised. WWF has recognised this fact, and decided to evaluate how the report is being put to use and what impact it had on the development of dams.

‘We decided to look at six specific dams to see how they have failed to meet the recommendations,’ said Collier. ‘We weren’t saying “let’s take the worst dams”, we wanted to use examples where we had experience in that specific country and had visited and researched the dam site.’

The dam projects highlighted in the report are Chalillo in Belize, Ermenek in Turkey, Karahnjukar in Iceland, Nam Theun 2 in Laos, Melonares in Spain, and Burnett in Australia. The WWF report says that the US$30M Chalillo dam, which was meant to reduce electricity imports and lower electricity prices, has actually resulted in average electricity price rises of 12% – although the operating company cites rising fuel costs as the cause. It also notes that 1000ha of rainforest was flooded during the dam construction. The report says the project fails to observe WCD strategic priorities 2 for comprehensive options assessment, 4 for sustaining rivers and livelihoods and 6 on sharing benefits.

In the case of Ermenek dam, WWF says it is concerned about the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The report states that a number of threatened plant species are not listed in the EIA, and it is also concerned that the EIA report has not been made freely available publicly due to a confidentiality agreement between the developers and the responsible government agency. The project, says WWF, falls short in terms of strategic priorities 1 on public acceptance, 2 for options assessment and 4 on sustaining rivers and livelihoods.

‘EIAs need to be available to the public,’ said Collier. ‘Yes, they need to be on the web, but they also need to be made available to local people who may not have access to the internet. They need to be located in public places, such as libraries. Developers need to take this into consideration.’

The report also highlights OECD findings that Iceland’s economic policy, for which the the Karahnujukar dam is a flagship project, could cause upward pressures on inflation and interest rates. For these reasons, WWF says the project fails to observe strategic priorities 2 for options assessment and 4 on sustaining rivers and livelihoods.

Elsewhere, WWF says that Spain’s Melonares dam has failed to take account of other viable and cheaper alternatives to supply drinking water to the city of Seville, suggesting it fails strategic priorities 2 for comprehensive options assessment and 4 on sustaining rivers and livelihood. Also, it claims Australia’s Burnett dam is struggling to be economically viable and threatens the endangered Queensland Lungfish, leading WWF to suggest it fails strategic priorities 1 for public acceptance, 2 on comprehensive options assessment and 4 for sustaining rivers and livelihoods.

With regards to Nam Theun 2, WWF is concerned with possible social and environmental impacts from the scheme, particularly the relocation of over 5000 villagers. The report does recognise however that an environmental and social impacts safeguards programme was put into place on the project, and that efforts to consult stakeholders were also stepped up and consultations with local communities were carried out. ‘A key issue that I hope comes out of this report is that cumulative impacts need to be considered. Nam Theun 2 has gone some way towards this,’ says Collier.

Despite this, the report says, the risks associated with the project are still considerable, and only time will tell whether the project benefits will materialise in full. WWF believes that the project fails to fully observe WCD strategic priority 2 for options assessment.

Signs of change

The WWF report, although highlighting negative aspects of some dams, does suggest that while formal and tangible responses to the WCD are few and far between, there are signs that approaches to dam building are changing. In China for example, the Yangtze Forum was established in April 2005 to bring together – for the first time – various central government departments and national and provincial governments to develop a common vision for the management and conservation of the Yangtze river. The forum is essential to build relationships with key stakeholders, such as NGOs and local communities, to improve the efficiency of river management. ‘The Yangtze forum is an important step forward,’ commented Collier, ‘such groups should work together to identify the areas that need development. It is hoped that the forum will provide a model for more sustainable river management in China through enhanced integration of the activities and expertise of national and provincial agencies.’

The report also suggests that, while the dam industry is still broadly critical of the WCD report, it has made efforts to improve practice. It uses the International Hydropower Association’s (iha) sustainability guidelines as a specific example. The guidelines, designed to promote good practice, were adopted in November 2003 and can be downloaded from IHA’s website ( While there is disagreement on some aspects relating to the WCD’s detailed recommendations, there is clear acceptance in the IHA guidelines of the Core Values listed in the Report and broad agreement on the objectives of the Strategic Priorities.

The report also points out that a number of financing institutions, notably HSBC holdings, now use the WCD recommendations as a global reference point for the assessment of dam projects.

A further point stressed by Collier is that existing dams are starting to receive more attention. ‘Refurbishment is a very important area that should be considered by developers,’ she said. ‘For example, a WWF study carried out in Brazil suggested that by upgrading the country’s ageing infrastructure, a further 8000MW could be made available!’ The next step, says Collier, is to ensure that developing countries have the opportunity and finance to refurbish projects, rather than solely building new large schemes.

Striking a balance

The WWF report concludes with the organisation urging decision makers to revisit the findings of the WCD and revise their policies in accordance with the WCD recommendations. ‘There is a need for dam decision-making to take place within the frameworks of Intergrated Water Resources Management and Integrated River Basin Management to ensure that a balance is struck between economic, social and environmental issues within the river basins,’ says Collier in the report.

‘We hope the report is received as something constructive. We’re not picking the worst dams, we’re just noting there are still problems. We have to think about what can be improved – that is the purpose of this report.’

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