Water under the bridge?

22 December 2010

Ten years have passed since publication of the World Commission on Dams’ final report. Suzanne Pritchard spoke to some of those involved in this revolutionary process in the big dams debate. But is WCD still topical now in 2010, or is it all just water under the bridge?

It is true. Time does pass more quickly as you get older. I’m finding it hard to grasp the fact that ten years have passed since I last wrote an article on the subject we’re covering now. On 16 November 2000, the final report of the World Commission on Dams was published. I travelled to London for the press launch where dam industry professionals gathered with dam opponents, WCD commissioners and everyone else with an interest in the much publicised big dams debate. Under the official patronage of Nelson Mandela, Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision Making was launched.

I can remember clearly the sense of expectation, maybe even nervous vibrations, emanating throughout the industry. Speculation was rife – as it had been since the establishment of the commission in 1998. What would the report do? And how seriously would it be taken – by the dam industry and dam opponents?

Described as an unprecedented task, and claiming its independence and transparency along the way, the WCD brought together opponents and proponents of the dams debate as never witnessed before. Its aim was to gather information over a two-year period to illustrate the good and bad impacts of dams, before listing seven strategic priorities which included gaining public acceptance, options assessment, addressing existing dams and sharing benefits. These were then supported by 26 guidelines to enable their application in the planning and project cycles.

As former WCD chairman Kader Asmal said, whatever it thinks of the report, the dam industry can no longer use the phrase ‘business as usual’. “We are not in the business of passing moral or religious condemnation,” he’d said in 2000. “This [report] is a tool to meet development needs. We should not just improve the old way of doing business. There must be new ways.”

Well, ten years have passed now. Has this been enough time for the development of a new business ethos? And are the WCD and its recommendations still relevant in today’s society? Previously development and improving standards of living were the main drivers behind dam projects. However, over the past decade under the glare of climate change, hydropower has been firmly placed back on the agenda as a source of renewable power. Has this changed the rules on the playing field? At the official signing off of the WCD report, secretary general Achim Steiner said: “We have told our story. What happens next is up to you.” So what exactly did happen?

First reactions

In a nutshell, the final report was not received well by all parties. There were contentious issues. Was compliance expected with all 26 guidelines? And had developing countries been represented adequately in the process? As one commentator explained: “WCD was a wake-up call to the industry but it was also an overly complex and unimplementable document, which failed to consult developing country governments where more than 80% of the techno-economically feasible hydropower potential lies.” [2]

“The report was considered anti-dam by the World Bank and a number of governments. Unjustly in my view,” says former WCD commissioner Jose Goldemberg. “The final part of the report was read out of context as requiring that all steps enumerated there would have to be strictly followed, which indeed could stop dam construction.”

Alessandro Palmieri is a lead dam specialist with the World Bank. Although he did not have any significant interaction with the WCD process, he was involved in the follow up Dams and Development Project (DDP). “The report was not well accepted by all stakeholders,” he agreed. “Responses ranged from full endorsement to full rejection. My hopes, at that time, resided with the attitude towards the report of developing countries with significant dam building programmes. Those attitudes were not very promising, largely due to the fact that the voices of those stakeholders were not adequately reflected in the report.”

John Briscoe is a former senior water adviser at the World Bank. He helped design the WCD process and acted as a liaison to the commission. “Several of the key guidelines were not, in the view of developing country governments, industry and the World Bank, remotely practical,” he said. “Taken as a whole they [the guidelines] had never been considered, let alone implemented in any country, and their demands were so extreme that it was unimaginable that even the most capable of countries could comply with them.”

Briscoe went on to add that although the World Bank thought there was much value in the report, “the heart of the matter – compliance with the 26 guidelines – would effectively make it impossible for the Bank (or anyone else) to ever finance a dam”. [1]

In its official position on the WCD report and guidelines the World Bank, as stated in its Water Resources Sector Strategy in 2003, said it was committed to supporting its borrowers in developing and managing projects in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner. However, the Bank would not comply with the 26 WCD guidelines. Instead it would work with its borrowers using the Bank’s current operational policies which the WCD had described as being ‘the most sophisticated set of policies, operational procedures and guidelines amongst the international donor community’.

Peter Bosshard from International Rivers shares his view. “The WCD’s rights and risk approach was welcomed and embraced by international organisations, government agencies, civil society groups and many financiers. Due to the resistance of the dam industry and important governments, we missed a chance to overcome the previous battles and try a new approach to water and energy sector development,” he says.

In 2001 the international-commission-on-large-dams (icold) issued its final comments on the WCD report. It stated that its own goals were not significantly different to those mentioned by WCD. However, ICOLD also believed that the report overlooked the huge benefits of dams to society and didn’t fully take into account the development phase of different countries. In ICOLD’s view, the WCD’s guidelines were too idealistic. “It was inappropriate to require all countries and all international banking organisations to follow the same guidelines,” says ICOLD president Jia Jingsheng.

“Perhaps an indication of the WCD’s success was that no one interest was completely happy with the final product,” former WCD commissioner Deborah Moore comments. “This means that it truly represented compromises amongst all interests. My hope had been that the report would have engendered fruitful, participatory dialogue at the national and local level that would have influenced national laws and policies. That did not happen as much as I would have liked. However, the WCD report has become the de facto international benchmark for dams against which all other policy proposals are compared, even if the guidelines and recommendations were not officially adopted.”

Ten years later

Former secretary general Steiner said that although some had hoped for a summary judgement or an end to the dams conflict, the WCD recognised that there was no magic formula. “Ten years is not much time to transform water and energy governance, and it is clear the issues which led to the establishment of the commission in 1998 are still current,” he says. “In addition new issues such as climate change have emerged to drive the demand for renewable energy. The debate on large water infrastructure continues.”[3]

Bosshard, from an International Rivers’ perspective, agrees: “The sensitivity of the environmental impacts of dams has grown. This year’s Global Biodiversity Outlook and IUCN’s Red List of Endangered Species have found that we continue to lose biodiversity at an alarming rate, and most particularly in freshwater ecosystems. Dams are one of the main factors of this trend,” he claims, “and their social and environmental problems have clearly not been resolved.”

Deborah Moore is amazed that the world is still discussing the WCD report ten years later. “This shows the report has not simply stood on the shelf gathering dust. It is a living document – it has been translated, disseminated and debated. The ideas are still clearly relevant – because the conflicts and controversies remain and because the damage caused by dams continues to grow,” she says. “Until we can ensure that dam-affected communities are project beneficiaries, and until we can ensure that aquatic ecosystems can be protected, the WCD recommendations will remain relevant.”

To monitor WCD’s influence on dam construction and operations ten years on, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) carried out a small snapshot survey of the global uptake, impact and perspectives on the commission’s recommendations. The web-based survey ran for 11 weeks until the end of July 2010.

The survey attracted responses from a wide range of countries and categories of stakeholders. The main conclusions indicated extensive knowledge of the WCD recommendations and widespread uptake of its principles in one form or another. However, there were significant weaknesses in implementation. The strategic priorities which received the most attention were gaining public acceptance, recognising entitlements and sharing benefits, with comprehensive options a close third. While some respondents believed that little attention appears to have been made to addressing existing dams, with few significant changes in practice. [2]

According to Peter Bosshard, awareness about the social impacts of dams and the rights of affected people has grown over the past ten years. “Yet we continue to see big gaps between rhetorical commitments and the realities on the ground in many countries,” he adds. “International development challenges are constantly evolving. Nobody expects the WCD framework to be implemented to the letter ten years after it was published. Yet the changing global environment has confirmed the relevance of the WCD’s key recommendations.”

Moore has seen developments taking place. “One of the most promising developments of the past decade,” she says, “is the further demonstration that true partnership amongst key stakeholders can produce transformative results. Successes on the ground include Guatemala, the Klamath basin in the US, the Pangani river in Tanzania and others. These demonstrate that many of the WCD recommendations around negotiated stakeholder agreements are working in practice to foster resource-sharing agreements amongst the affected stakeholders.” [4]

“Stakeholder involvement nowadays is widely considered an essential step in the decision making on dam development,” Palmieri comments. “This is certainly the case for multilateral development institutions and most bilateral ones. The private sector has also advanced this practice a lot. The next challenge is to make the process both inclusive and efficient, ie reaching decisions in a time compatible and relevant to the needs to be addressed. This is what I call the critical speed concept.”

Palmieri reiterated the point that dams not adequately planned, built and operated can cause unnecessary impacts, but the opposite is also true when the process is well done. “I believe practice has improved,” he said and gave the example of the Worldwide Wildlife Fund which has been working with the international-hydropower-association (iha) on a campaign on dams. “They have progressively and constructively worked with industry and other stakeholders to produce guidelines for good decision making processes,” he adds. “The WCD prompted a constructive dialogue which in turn led to the development of progressive guidelines by the hydro industry; I should venture to say that this is part of what WCD was trying to achieve.”

Moore still has her doubts. “Practices remain all over the map, in terms of effectiveness and accountability. There are isolated instances of policies being followed and improvements being made, and there are examples of some creative solutions arising. Yet in the last ten years there has been a resurgence of dam building and many more communities and rivers are at risk.”

Future developments

ICOLD prides itself over its 82-year history as being able to evolve with the requirements of mankind. It is confident that this will continue. Respecting the past, facing reality and looking to the future are to be this commission’s guiding principles to carry it forwards.

“Negative impacts should never be suppressed, overlooked or underestimated, when promoting future development,” ICOLD president Jia Jingsheng told IWP&DC. “One should remember that all members of society have the right to benefit from a project. Attention to the social and environmental aspects of dams and reservoirs must be a priority, at the forefront of our activities, in the same way as concern for safety is invariably a top priority. The construction and operation of a dam and reservoir can no longer be considered as a purely scientific and technical matter.”

Former WCD commissioner Jose Goldemberg believes that the WCD report has had a healthy impact on dam building and licensing practices. Some dams are very good and create few problems he said, giving Xingo in Brazil as one such example. Furthermore, Goldemberg also believes that stakeholder involvement has improved. “But not to the point desired by the NGOs in the WCD,” he says. “They were aiming at the consent of all stakeholders. The truth is that the balance between the interest of the ones that are hurt by dams (as well as unavoidable environmental damage), and the hundreds of thousands (or millions) that are benefitted thousands of kilometres away, has to be sought. Elected governments have to make these decisions considering a variety of factors.”

It is all a question of balance. John Briscoe describes this well. “While those concerned with single issues (the environment) and single groups (affected people) have merged into a powerful anti-dam lobby, those who have the responsibility for the well-being of all citizens in a developing country have a different more complex task. They have to look not only at all individual groups or particular issues, but make trade-offs and consider the relative weight of assets and liabilities.” [1]

Perhaps what speaks volumes is the fact that the WCD guidelines were not accepted by a single country which builds dams. The attention gradually shifted to the non-controversial strategic priorities instead. “The WCD strategic priorities hold firmly and should continue to guide dam development,” Palmieri states. “However the 26 guidelines, which the commissioners never considered to be compliance elements, remain controversial and largely unused. Insisting on such guidelines has done a lot of damage to the WCD report at an international level.”

As Briscoe points out, infrastructure has now returned to centre stage for most development agencies. The proportion of World Bank lending to infrastructure rose from 20% in 2000 to 40% by 2008. Investment in water infrastructure also increased by US$4.4B from FY03-FY09. “What has changed,” Briscoe adds, “is the belief that major water infrastructure, with reasonable attention to social and environmental issues, is vital for developing countries and is something that the Bank must support.” [1]

The situation has improved in relation to better practices, compliance and accountability, Goldemberg says: “And this is the reason why World Bank involvement in financing dams has increased.”

Meanwhile, in the UNEP survey carried out in July this year, only 18% gave positive views on the financing of dams. Fifty-seven percent of respondents believed that financial institutions and the financial sector had not taken up the WCD recommendations in any meaningful way. Furthermore, the report concludes that many stakeholders continue to experience a ‘business as usual’ scenario on the ground. [2].

Business as usual

“Business as usual – and the continued in-fighting over dams – is neither a feasible nor desirable option,” Moore says. “Ten years on there is evidence of both failures and successes in the dams sector. There are no shortcuts to equitable and sustainable development, it’s hard work.”

So what is the way forward? Improvements are being made in different areas but not always to the complete satisfaction of all involved parties. “The question is not adopt the WCD report or reject it,” Moore continues. “The question is: what are the ideas, criteria and principles from the WCD report that still make sense to implement as we move forward?” [5]

Alessandro Palmieri from the World Bank gives the example of the Dams and Development Project (DDP) which came to an end in 2007. The compendium Dams and Development: Relevant Practices for Improved Decision Making represents the DDP’s main output. Former WCD secretary general Achim Steiner stated that instead of focusing on shortcoming and failures, this publication ‘presents practices that, though not exempt from weaknesses, show a positive and progressive way of doing things’.

Palmieri finds that this is a remarkable statement which departs from the sharp critique of an alleged worldwide ‘business as usual approach’ portrayed in the WCD. Whether this was a WCD flaw, or if significant progress has occurred after the report, is not clear and no longer relevant. What is clear is that a positive message on improved decision making came out of the DDP exercise.

Another step forward is the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Forum (HSAF). This is a two-year project being undertaken by the IHA, governments of developing and developed countries, NGOs, the hydropower and finance sectors. At the end of 2010 it aims to have a measurement tool for assessing hydropower sustainability, to be endorsed by all members of the forum, which is practical, objective and implementable. The HSAF acknowledges that without the WCD process there might not be any HSAF today. It should not be seen to be in conflict with WCD or its recommendations as it takes many of these on board. However, by focusing on operational implications, HSAF provides an opportunity to resume and advance discussions about sustainable hydropower among both supporters and critics of the WCD recommendations. [6].

A difficult task

Following its official launch, there were both supporters and critics of the WCD’s final report. Nelson Mandela put it quite eloquently at the London meeting in November 2000: “It’s one thing to find fault with an existing system,” he said. “It’s another thing, altogether a more difficult task, to replace it with an approach that is better.”

Both opponents and proponents of what has been called the big dams debate, would agree that positive steps have been made over the past decade. However gaining consensus with all parties has, and will still prove to be, a difficult task. Just what will we be writing in ten years from now, no one really knows. Only time will tell.

Dams and Development Project

Hosted by UNEP, the DDP was a multi-stakeholder steering committee established in November 2001 as a neutral entity to take forward the considerations of the WCD recommendations. It was to promote inclusive multi-stakeholder dialogue and widely disseminate WCD materials.
The full DDP compendium is available online at:

Ten years from now

IWP&DC asked a few industry members what they would like to see happening in the dams debate ten years from now?

Kader Asmal, former chair of WCD:
A fresh view should be provided: one that is non-antagonistic.

Peter Bosshard, Policy Director, International Rivers, US:
Traditional and new dam builders should benefit from the experience of the WCD framework and adopt its key principles as they prepare and strengthen their own environmental policies. We also believe that government agencies, funders, the dam industry and NGOs would benefit from renewed dialogue processes at the national and international level.

Thomas Chiramba, Head of Freshwater Ecosysetms Unit, United Nations Environment Programme:
UNEP would recommend that there be established a non-partisan forum that can engage both the old and new players in a multi-stakeholder dialogue about dams, and generate the political will needed to transform the provision of water and energy services.

Deborah Moore, former WCD commissioner, Executive Director Green Schools Initiative, US:
1) Move the dams debate "pstream"™ in the options assessment process to reduce conflict over dams that have made it out of the planning process. All stakeholders need to be involved in the planning and evaluation process much earlier.
2) Focus on non-dam alternatives...with fewer costs and negative impacts.
3) Improve the performance of the world"™s existing large dams to squeeze out all the economic benefits from the investments already made

Alessandro Palmieri, Lead Dam Specialist at the World Bank:
1) More efforts should be made to listen to local stakeholders and promote local development, in addition to national development.
2) Build capacity in national consultants, planners and contractors, so that they become the real owners of the projects they need (the IHA Sustainability Protocol can be a very useful tool in that regard).
3) Address environmental aspects with priority on the main issues and with larger use of adaptive management. Include payment items, in construction contracts, for the implementation of the key provisions of environmental management plans.
4) The allocation of carbon funds to be used, during project operation, to address unforeseen negative impacts (both environmental and social).

Thayer Scudder, former WCD commissioner, Professor of Anthropology, California Institute of Technology, US:
Under environmental risks we must think about two kinds in particular. One concerns the global ecological implications of further reducing the number of free-flowing rivers. The other concerns the financial and development risks associated with the likely extreme drought, rainfall and storm risks expected as a result of global warming.

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