Final curtain for the World Commission on Dams

5 December 2000

It was an unprecedented task in all respects. Proclaiming its independence and transparency along the way, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) brought together opponents and proponents of the dams debate. Gathering information over a two-year period, WCD used this unique knowledge base to illustrate the good and bad impacts of dams worldwide, with the ultimate goal of issuing guidelines for future implementation.

The Commission’s final report: Dams and development: a new framework for decision making, was launched in London, UK on 16 November. Over 300 individuals from governments, the private and civil sectors, non governmental organisations and the international media gathered at Cabot Hall in London’s Docklands. Guest speaker and former South African President, Nelson Mandela, summed up the difficulty that the Commission has faced in its independent review of large dams. ‘It is one thing to find fault with an existing system,’ he said. It is another thing, altogether a more difficult task, to replace it with an approach that is better.’

WCD chairman, and South African Minister of Education, Kader Asmal, described the Commission’s commitment to ‘human-centred development’ and its aim of creating a model of development fixed to meet the needs of the world.

Key findings

The Commission acknowledges that today’s perspective on development reflects the benefit of knowledge that may not have been available to past decision-makers. As the key findings of the report were revealed, Asmal was quick to point out that the Commission was not ‘in the business of passing moral or religious condemnation’. It wants to learn from past mistakes and successes to produce better development outcomes for the future. The WCD report states that:

oDams have delivered significant services in more than 140 countries, accounting for 19% of electricity generated and an estimated 12-16% of global food production. Twelve percent of dams supply domestic and industrial water, with more than 70 countries using dams for flood control.

oLarge dams display a high degree of variability in delivering predicted water and electricity services and related social benefits. A considerable portion fall short of physical and economic targets, while others continue to generate benefits after 30-40 years.

oLarge dams have demonstrated a tendency towards schedule delays and cost overruns.

oLarge dams have led to the loss of forests, wildlife habitat and the aquatic biodiversity upstream and downstream fisheries.

oThere has been a pervasive and systematic failure to assess and account for potential negative impacts on displaced and resettled people, as well as downstream communities. The WCD knowledge base includes evidence of uncompensated losses; non fulfilment of promised rehabilitation entitlements; and non compliance with contractual obligations and national and international laws.

‘This [report] is a tool to meet development needs,’ Asmal said. ‘It does not point to a single dam and say it is entirely good, nor does it single out an entirely bad dam. Dams as a whole have delivered considerable benefits. What we offer is a step-by-step pathway to making better decisions. We can all make better decisions. This is an incentive for action and in particular compliance.’

Better decision-making

WCD says that its report sets out a constructive and innovative ways for future decision-making. Seven strategic priorities have been listed as:

1) Gaining public acceptance

2) Comprehensive options assessment.

3)Addressing existing dams.

4) Sustaining rivers and livelihoods.

5) Recognising entitlements and sharing benefits.

6) Ensuring compliance.

7) Sharing rivers for peace, development and security.

The above priorities are then supported by 26 guidelines to enable their application in the planning and project cycles. These range from prior and informed consent; greenhouse gas emissions; improving reservoir operations; baseline ecosystem surveys; project benefit sharing mechanisms; compliance plans; and procedures for shared rivers. WCD says the guidelines are firmly anchored in examples of good practice sourced from the knowledge base.

The implications of this 400-page report are as unprecedented as the work the Commission has already carried out. And what follows now is the lengthy process of disseminating and then digesting the information and recommendations.


Dams and development does contain negative information about dams, some extreme groups are already calling for a moratorium on large dams until the report’s recommendations have been implemented. But Asmal stated very clearly that the report does not signal the end for large dam building. ‘If you say moratorium, you say no to all dams and this will be an absolute paralysis to development.’

What was clear at the presentation was that the dams debate sometimes overlooks what it is fighting for or fighting to protect. ‘The problem,’ Nelson Mandela said, ‘is not the dams. It is the hunger. It is the thirst. It is the darkness of a township. It is the time wasted gathering water by hand. There is a real pressing need for power in every sense of the word. Rather than single out dams for excessive blame, or credit, we must learn to wrestle with the difficult questions we face.’ He stressed the fact that although there needs to be greater accountability with respect to large dams it is too easy, and not too productive, to simply blame the industries that build, the governments that authorise, the agencies that fund, or the engineers who design large dams.

As 300 delegates began to mull over the full implications of Dam and Development, the WCD chairman offered his advice. ‘It is now time for contemplation and systematic reading of this 400-page report. We want all actors to respond and not to shoot from the hips. Take your time.

‘WCD urges governments, NGOs, businesses, professional associations, aid agencies, utilities and affected people to practice what we preach because we only preach what we have practised ourselves. We listened to both sides. We reviewed alternatives. We balanced ideal against possible and made our decision to sign this report with confidence. We excluded only one option: inaction. The cost of conflict is too high.’

What now?

The Commission’s mandate expired with the launch of the report on 16 November. However the WCD Forum will meet in February 2001 to determine further mechanisms for implementation. To obtain a copy of the report contact the World Commission on Dams Secretariat on tel: +27 21 426 4000, fax: +27 21 426 0036,

Industry feedback

As the report filters through the industry, Connectingpower asked for initial reactions to the publication and its implications.

Goran Lindahl, ABB, Switzerland and WCD commissioner:

‘When people read this report they will realise it is a tool in a tool kit. I think it will be like a bible over time. people will say "okay we used to build a dam that way, and now we will build them this way". Setting certain standards will mean that we will get more acceptance. People are asking today if we will see more or less dams built. I think it will be about the same, we will just them built a bit differently.’

CVJ Varma, president of ICOLD:

‘ICOLD will now follow the democratic method of consulting its 80 member countries. As a group of professionals and according to the future needs of many countries, ICOLD will judge the contents of this reply shortly.’

Geoff Sims from Brown & Root and ICOLD’s vice president, gave his own thoughts.

‘No sensible person would argue against the main thrust of the WCD report,’ he says. Acknowledging that dams are essential to human well-being and will continue to be so in the future, Sims was concerned that the report must not be used to stop urgently needed dam projects. But he added: ‘To avoid the waste involved with bitter arguments of the past, we have a duty to adapt our working methods to conform to the guidelines WCD has revealed. The Commission has given us a major task to achieve.’

Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association in the US, gave her response to the report.

‘The Commission’s report serves more as an indictment of the legal, political and institutional structures that control the decision-making that leads to the development of large dams, rather than the creation of the physical structures themselves.’

Speaking about the report’s call for greater collaboration, Church Ciocci added: ‘The US hydro industry has worked diligently over the past decade to reach out to water resource stakeholders, and to engage them in collaborative decision-making processes regarding the optimal use of water resources. We’ve demonstrated that collaboration helps facilitate sound planning for future energy production, while providing an effective means for early implementation of environmental protection, mitigation and enhancement.’

See the December issue of International Water Power & Dam Construction for an indepth look at Dams And Development: A New Framework For Decision-Making

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